Westville Wildlife Refuge Part 2~ The “Real” Boardwalk Empire~ Billy “The Duke” Thompson

Westville/Wheelabrator Wildlife Refuge Part II

Crown Point Rd. (Route 130 Southbound)
Westville, NJ

In my last visit here, I could only go so far with the bambino and a stroller. I knew there was a lot more to see. So I went back for another visit. This time, I walked there from my house!

I LOVE to hike and travel long distances on foot. It was about a total of eight miles and a blast!

I brought the dog along with me this time. Dogs are more than welcome to join you on your adventure. Just make sure they are on a leash.

I will start off where I left off from my last visit…………

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Take the dirt road

I stopped at the dirt road last time. This is where I will begin….

There’s a NJ wildlife and bird site where I get some ideas of places to check out. I’ve found it to be inaccurate at times. The one time it got me lost in the Pineys. Concerning this refuge, they say that there are several lookouts. There are actually at least a dozen here
The viewing platforms were constructed for bird-watchers.

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One of the many lookouts

Most of the lookouts offer information about the local plants and wildlife of the Delaware estuary. Schoolchildren from the West Deptford school district provided the information.

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Each lookout offers different information. Pretty swell

The refuge resides on a former amusement park. It was called Washington Park. Named after George Washington (who rested on this land 100 years prior on what was called, “Fancy Hill.”) People were shipped to the amusement park on daily excursions via the esteemed steamship beauty called “The Columbia.”

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The Columbia was part of the three musketeers as they were called along The Delaware River. (I will briefly mention this in my upcoming Sea Breeze article.)

The amusement park was considered the fanciest in the country at the time. Opening on memorial day of 1895.

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Beauty right down the street from me

There was once a very expansive boardwalk in this area. Also beaches, casinos, hotels, racetracks, saloons, hot air balloon rides, burlesques, rides, and tons of other activities on the Delaware River.

All spanning about 900 acres from this area in Westville (the refuge) to Gloucester City. It was referred to as “The Greatest Pleasure Resort In The World.”

It held a 100 foot high ferris wheel and was the tallest in the world.

The Philadelphia Athletics played here every Sunday. (Due to by-laws in Philly)

Oh and let’s not forget the multitude of beer gardens…

It also housed luxury hotels/inns and renowned cafes.

Thousands traveled here from Philadelphia and New York daily.

Basically, it was Atlantic City BEFORE Atlantic City.

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More Wetlands

This all came to light by a man named William Thompson, also called, “The Duke of Gloucester.”
He was considered a shrewd businessman to most. “The Duke” had the most political power ever in South Jersey history. He was a democratic powerhouse. Passing law after law to legalize gambling in Gloucester City.

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Cool Ravine

Thompson served on city council, the county freeholders, and the state legislature. You may have heard the “urban legend” of Gloucester City being in the Guiness Book of Records of having the most bars per population density. Well, it isn’t a myth.

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Fancy Hill back in the day

In Gloucester City’s heyday, It had a total of 98 bars. No myth folks. All brought to you by William “The Duke” Thompson, himself.

His goal was to make it the largest attraction in the world.

AND IT WAS.

During the almost 20 years that the park was open, it was the grandest amusement park on the East Coast.

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The beach at the refuge

The Duke once sold his 5 acre estate in Gloucester City to raise funds for Philadelphia’s own Ellis Island. There were thousands of immigrants coming into America at this time. Ellis Island was overloaded.

Since the Delaware River was an easy access point and thoroughfare, the government thought this would’ve been an ideal place to ship immigrants to this area. Also, a lot of immigrants traveled to Philadelphia via New York anyway.

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Lookout onto the water

Thompson was an immigrant himself. Honing from Ireland. Since the government was short on cash, he helped to divvy up the remaining funds.

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Shot of downtown Philly

The Duke’s “Philly Ellis Island” never came to fruition. The project was put on the back burner and once the war started it was forgotten.

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Really beautiful

Starting in 1904, his political power was overturned by another power in NJ. Thompson lost all gambling rights/licenses due to this change. His amusement park later burned to the ground in 1909.

“The Duke” became virtually bankrupt.

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Trail that lines the River

Thompson’s health was on the decline by 1911. His friends thought it would liven his spirits if he returned back to his native country of Ireland. They raised funds for him to go on the voyage.

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Shot of the Whitman Bridge

After just a few weeks in Ireland, The Duke of Gloucester, died. His wife was able to bring him back home. Thompson is buried in St. Mary’s cemetery. He left ten children (yup, definitely Irish) hahaha.

Thompson may have been shrewd, but he saw Gloucester City as his crown jewel. It’s sad because this was Gloucester City’s heyday. It has declined since. It is no longer a resort town.

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Rustic

The Jersey Shore and Delaware Bay area shortly replaced Gloucester City. Industrialization came into fruition with the factories in the city that were built. Rapid development enveloped in the area.

However, you can still come and see the beautiful land that once held the most elaborate amusement park of an era. Plus, a very powerful man of an empire at the Westville Wildlife Refuge.

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Heaven

I was able to find some old brick ruins off the trail here. There have also been reports that Indian arrowheads and artifacts have been discovered.

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Old Trees

This land has a lot of history and is quite peaceful. No one is around to disturb you. I saw white-tailed deer and red-tailed hawks flying high in the wetland area.

It’s definitely a place I will most likely explore some more. I was quite surprised when I discovered its history.

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Another trailway

Hopefully, it will remain a beauty and undeveloped (which is rare in our area) for years to come.

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The Delaware River. Nice private fishing beach as well

Until our next adventure my friends! ~ the Yummygal