By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Tour guide Duane Sonneborn looked at the 30 people who were riding with him on a trolley and mentioned a name not normally associated with Ocean City’s history as a “dry” town founded by four Methodist ministers in 1879.
With a smile, Sonneborn described how the notorious Chicago mob boss had come to Ocean City during Prohibition in the early 1930s for a conference with other gangsters in the “catacombs” of the Flanders Hotel.
The maze-like catacombs in the basement of the posh hotel provided the perfect secret meeting place for Capone and his cohorts to conspire about their bootlegging operations.
“Capone came here to discuss business because Ocean City was considered a neutral location,” Sonneborn explained.
The somewhat obscure tidbit about Capone and the resort’s rum-running past seemed to please the trolley riders who were listening to Sonneborn. They were eager to learn more about Ocean City’s history.
Throughout the summer, the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce organizes weekly historic tours every Thursday, giving tourists and residents alike a glimpse of the town’s past. The last trolley tour of the season is scheduled for Aug. 22.
Stops include some of the city’s most historic treasures. As the trolley makes its way through town, Sonneborn entertains the tour-goers with colorful stories about Al Capone and other fascinating chapters of the city’s past.
“We had quite a few bootleggers in Ocean City. But that’s not really well-known,” Sonneborn said.
Yes, “dry” Ocean City was very much like the rest of the country during Prohibition. There were bootleggers, speakeasies and even the occasional gangster.
In a promotional pamphlet, the Chamber of Commerce says the historic tours also share the “unique charm and personality of Ocean City’s finest historic points of interest.”
One recent tour included stops at the U.S. Life-Saving Station, the Bayside Center and a quaint Victorian home that is the oldest surviving house in Ocean City.
The Life-Saving Station, a throwback to the U.S. Life-Saving Service, a precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard, is now a museum that chronicles the heroics of the “surf men” who rescued passengers and crew members from numerous shipwrecks off Ocean City in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“Over 100 ships a day would pass Ocean City. This station alone serviced around four wrecks a month,” John Loeper, a local historian and chairman of the Life-Saving Station, told the tour-goers of the busy shipping traffic more than a century ago.
Brimming with artifacts from the U.S. Life-Saving Service days, the museum also features old black-and-white photographs of some of the surf men. The photos show wiry, mustachioed men in dark clothing.
Underscoring the bravery of the surf men, the motto of the Life-Saving Station was, “You had to go out, but you didn’t have to come back,” Loeper noted.
Ocean City’s station was occupied by the Life-Saving Service from 1872 to 1915. The Coast Guard took over in 1915 and continued to use it for life-saving operations until the 1940s.
The building, located at Fourth Street and Atlantic Avenue, was later sold to private owners and became a residence. A succession of owners used it as their private home for decades before the city acquired it in 2010, beginning the process for the building’s conversion into a museum.
Another stop on the historic tour was the Bayside Center, a one-time private mansion built in 1910 by Ocean City Mayor Lewis Cresse as his summer home. The stately building occupies a prime waterfront site along Bay Avenue at Fifth Street.
Cape May County bought the mansion in 1995 from the family of F.H. Wheaton Jr., the Millville glass manufacturing magnate. In its current iteration as the Bayside Center, it serves as a public museum, community center and environmental center.
Another highlight of the trolley tour was a stop at Ocean City’s oldest surviving home, a Folk Victorian house built in 1879 by Simon Wesley Lake, one of the town’s four founding Methodist ministers.
Folk Victorians are described as less elaborate than traditional Victorian-style homes. They were built around the 1880s through 1910. They often featured gables and porches, but were simpler in floor design than a typical Victorian.
The Victorian house built by Simon Wesley Lake is now owned by David and Bernice Losinno. The married couple bought it for $314,000 in 2017 and spent an additional $240,000 to restore it.
“We tried to stay true to the Folk Victorian period,” David Losinno told tour-goers as they savored the house’s historic features.
Bernice Losinno said the house sat on the market for three years before she and her husband bought it and began its restoration.
“It was really rundown. It was horrible,” she recalled. “I said that it needed somebody to love it.”
Now painted pink, the quaint three-story home is located at 411 Fifth Street. The pine floors, plaster and stairway are all original parts of the house.
Peeking inside the home’s master bedroom, tour-goer Denise Oponik marveled at the historic furniture.
Oponik, whose full-time residence is in Mullica Hill, N.J., has a summer home in Ocean City on First Street.
Although she has owned her Ocean City vacation home for 12 years, Oponik is still learning about the town’s history. She took the trolley tour to find out even more about the historic sites, including the oldest home.
“I knew it was an old town. But I didn’t realize there was this much history,” she said.
(The last historic tour of this summer is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 22, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets are $14 per person. Tour-goers can catch the trolley at the ticket booth located at the 7th Street and Central Avenue parking lot. Tickets are available at the Ocean City Welcome Center on the Route 52 Causeway and at the ticket booth).