Long before Atlantic City was initially founded in 1854, even prior to the carving out of Atlantic County from Gloucester County in February of 1837, what would become the city of Somers Point was first populated in the 1690s. In 1694 the first ferry was established between Beesley’s Point in Cape May County, which had been settled even earlier, and what would become Somers Point, while the next year Quaker John Somers purchased 3,000 acres of property from the same English speculator whose lands were later bought by the founders of Scullville in Egg Harbor Township and Conovertown in Galloway. In 1720 Somers’ son Richard began work on the Somers Mansion, Atlantic County’s first building, which in the nineteenth century had additions made which gave it more of an eclectic Victorian style, complete with wraparound porches. The building was restored to its original Flemish Bond brick form by the WPA in the 1940s and is now being supported by the new non-profit group ‘Patriots for the Somers Mansion.’
In 1737 Judith Somers, Richard’s wife, gave birth to a son named for his father who would serve as a Colonel in charge of the Third Battalion of the Gloucester County Militia in the American Revolution. The Colonel is buried along with his wife Sophia at one of multiple Somers Family plots throughout the community, this one located on the highest point in town, which today sits next to the New York Avenue School building that was constructed in 1914 (and incidentally is where I went to school for Grades 1-6). Colonel Richard Somers’ son, likely the town’s most famous resident, is also honored with a monument on the grounds, though he was buried half a world away. U.S. Navy Commandant Richard Somers was born in 1778 at site of the tavern his father had founded eight years earlier on the corner of Shore Road and Bethel Road, and attended school in Philadelphia before sailing to the Mediterranean with his friend Stephen Decatur in 1804. Although he engaged in numerous naval actions, including the rescue of three hundred sailors that had been captured by Barbary Pirates, Somers is most recalled for the way he died.
Commanding the U.S.S. Intrepid, a captured pirate ship that some sources say was rechristened again as the U.S.S. Inferno before battle, Somers perished while en-route to Tripoli harbor after having converted his vessel into a fire ship rigged to explode adjacent to enemy boats. Somers and twelve of his crew were buried at a Protestant Cemetery in Libya, though efforts are ongoing to find a diplomatic way to bring their bodies back to the United States. Somers himself is widely remembered throughout the nation with at least six naval warships named in his honor dating back to the 1840s and a marker at the Naval Academy in Annapolis founded that same decade, while in the town that was named for his great-grandfather he now has a bust dedicated in 2013 sitting next to a mural describing his life (and death) painted just two years later. This mural sits on the wall of an addition created after an old City Hall, built in 1906 in an Italianate style, was converted into the town library, which allowed the old church built in 1886 that had been serving as the community’s library to become the Somers Point Historical Museum, only a few blocks away from the Atlantic County Historical Society ‘s museum that was founded in 1913.
The old City Hall site and the two museums sit just across Shore Road from the Bayfront Historic District, which was established in 1989 on the National Register of Historic Places following community frustration at the destruction of one of the town’s iconic houses the year before to create a parking lot. This area of town is home to numerous homes and businesses constructed from the 1880s through the 1920s, making it one of the most coherent such historic districts in the country, and is home to a range of once popular architectural styles from bungalows to Queen Anne Victorians as well as a monument to locals who defended the community in the War of 1812, which was constructed in 1923. Having grown up in one such home, built by Captain Charles Steelman and his wife Elvira in 1892, I was glad to become Secretary of the Somers Point Historical Preservation Commission, which was created a century later to protect as much of the historical architecture in the neighborhood as possible as we move into a future where my community is now known for, among other things, the country’s largest crabbing tournament.