The story behind Gardner’s Basin in Atlantic City. A hidden jewel ignored for decades.
John James Gardner was born in Atlantic City on October 17, 1845. He went to Atlantic City local schools and attended the University of Michigan Law School 1866 and 1867.
Gardner’s Basin was named for John H. Gardner a half century ago when the area was well known for Hackney’s and Starn’s Seafood Restaurants, old turn of the century homes, and a few lingering businesses from Atlantic City’s heyday.
This gentleman probably knew nothing about the maritime history of Clam Creek or any Atlantic or Ocean County waters. The naming of the protected basin inside the Absecon Inlet was strictly an honor for a man who had been dead more than 50 years.
Might it have been more appropriate to name the basin of water after an old mariner who had connections to Atlantic City? Or maybe even a swashbuckling pirate or rum runner?
During the Civil War he was part of the 6th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry. By 1867 he was an alderman in Atlantic City. He served as mayor from 1867 – 1872, and again in 1874 and 1875.
John Gardner was elected to the New Jersey Senate in 1876, and held this position from 1878 to 1893. He was president of the Senate in 1883. In 1884 he was a delegate to the Republican National Convention. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New Jersey’s 2nd District from March 1893 to March 1913.
Aside from politics, John Gardner was in the real estate, insurance, and pursued agricultural interests. His 17 year old son Albert was killed by the “Nellie Bly” train while attempting to cross train tracks in Egg Harbor City in 1899.
During the Revolutionary War swashbuckling privateers hid in the reeds from the British, darting into what is now known as Gardner’s Basin from the Atlantic Ocean or Great Bay/Mullica River area. Dr. Pitney’s resort of Atlantic City (1854) started at the Gardner’s Basin area with a few hotels and boarding houses.
Large sailboats first clammed and fished, procuring seafood of all types depending on the season, for local hotels, boarding houses and restaurants. By the beginning of the 19th century sailboat captains found the two-legged catch was more lucrative and the sailboat tourist business was born in the area.
Gardner’s Basin area was a secure spot for rumrunners who were outrunning or hiding from the Coast Guard during Prohibition. Always dancing to its own drummer with a group of sometimes-unsavory characters in its past, Atlantic City was known for “luxury hotels, superb restaurants and freely-flowing Prohibition-era booze (which) became unbeatable” according to Atlantic City, America’s Playground by Kent, Ruffalo and Dobbins.
Much of the area was sand and marsh, which was filled in to make a park. At first it seemed to be a lost cause. Entering or exiting the Atlantic City Inlet was scary; boaters watched druggies hanging around and drug deals made along the bulkhead. Cars continually came and went. The few marinas were known as “stop at your own riskers.” Crime was high in the area as Atlantic City was in a downward spiral.
Across Clam Creek from Gardner’s Basin was not any better. The Farley State Marina lay in ruins, planking for docks loose or missing, night lighting almost non-existent. Boaters anchored in the Clam Creek/Inlet Area never getting off their boats. It was known as a respite from bad weather or quick overnights before going back into the Atlantic Ocean or the ICW.
In 1974 Gardner’s Basin tried to come to life once more under the leadership of James L. Cooper. It slowly became an area for local events attracting a number of visitors.
It was an up and down work of progress for a while with a number of attractions and ideas, some of which did not work and a focal point old ship even sank. Now the area is well landscaped and the hosts events such as concerts and festivals.
Thanks to the Casino Redevelopment Authority attractive townhouses have replaced boarded up shells. Security at Gardner’s Basin is no longer a concern either by boat or car.
Situated in an unusual three-leveled cedar building at Gardner’s Basin is the Ocean Life Center “offers a fun and educational look into more than 100 varieties of fish and marine animals.”
Built in 1999 at a cost of $4.5 million (funded by the CRDA), the mission is to “educate, inform and create a bond for children of all ages with the oceans that surround our planet.”
While school groups gather here mainly in the spring, the Ocean Life Center is for anyone who cares about the waters around us.
A touch tank greets visitors along with exhibits of Fish of the New Jersey Coast Aquarium. Eleven tanks overall with about 50,000 gallons of ocean water are well-lit for easy viewing. Sea sights and sounds are intriguing.
A Moth Sailboat (raced locally in NJ by kids during the 1950’s – 1970’s) hangs from the ceiling. From a wind tunnel, children can learn the rudiments of wind and its affect on sailing. A ship’s bridge conjures up thought of old schooners plying the coastal trade or sailing the ocean of the world.
An exhibit of the work of the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve shows the Mullica River and the estuary where salt and fresh water mix, a rich environment of microorganisms and nutrients.
Coast Guard paintings and boat models are spread throughout the Ocean Life Center.
Views are spectacular from the top deck of the Ocean Life Center. On a clear day it is possible to see from north of Brigantine to ships out in the ocean.
The Ocean Life Center is located at 800 New Hampshire Ave. in Atlantic City, 609-348-2880, www.oceanlifecenter.com.
John Gardner died at his Indian Mills farm in Shamong Township on February 21, 1921. He is buried in the Atlantic City Cemetery in Pleasantville along with sea captains, boat builders, and others from the Atlantic City area.
Gardner’s Basin is still in flux. Ocean clam dredges, commercials fishing boats, restored boathouses, condos, and townhouses are as much a part of daily life as casinos and an extremely modernized Farley State Marina.