ADMIRAL WILSON BOULEVARD, on most road maps is simply referred to as US Route 30. Of course no one who has ever lived here would even think of the thoroughfare as anything but Admiral Wilson Boulevard. The stretch of highway, which runs from the foot of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge to the Airport Circle has been at different times one of the most famous and alternately the most infamous roads in South Jersey. The road is named for Admiral Henry Braid Wilson Jr., a Camden native and World War I naval hero. His father was also a noted figure in Camden, the H.B. Wilson school at 7th and Florence Street being named in his honor.
The thoroughfare was originally known as Bridge Boulevard, as it connected with Bridge Avenue, one of Camden’s older streets, which has disappeared from the map over the years. The change in name was announced on November 11, 1929 during Camden’s Armistice Day ceremonies. The change in name was a popular move, and travelers soon commonly called the highway the Admiral Wilson Boulevard. What they didn’t know was that name change had not been made official.
During Mayor Winfield Price’s administration, Camden’s City Commission tried to correct the problem by adopting a resolution to make the name change official, but an ordinance was needed before the change could take effect. The ordinance was finally drafted in 1937 and Bridge Boulevard officially became Admiral Wilson Boulevard.
The south side of the boulevard runs parallel to the Cooper River between Memorial Avenue and the Airport Circle. When the road was originally conceived, this side of the boulevard was meant to be parkland, providing the motorist a view of the river and on its far bank, Camden High School and city- and county-owned parks. This idea was abandoned very quickly. Anticipating the change in shopping patterns that would come with the affordability of automobiles in the 1920s, the Sears-Roebuck Company insisted on locating on the boulevard instead of in downtown Camden. During the administration of Mayor Victor S. King (1923-1927) a deal was consummated, and Sears came to Camden, building a then ultra-modern building at Admiral Wilson Boulevard and Mount Ephraim Avenue, which opened on July 1, 1927.
Up until the late 1930s there was very little development along the Boulevard until one reached Pennsauken. The original plan, filed in 1921, for instance, called for residences on the north side of the Boulevard east of Baird Boulevard. In the mid-1930s Commissioner Frank J. Hartmann Jr. began a push that resulted in the re-zoning of the Boulevard in Camden. Commercial development started before the end of the decade. Notable among the new businesses were the Merlin Motors car dealership and the White Tower restaurants, both near Baird Boulevard. At the Airport Circle end, in Pennsauken Township, development came much quicker. Mostly rural Pennsauken was happy to see commercial properties along the new route.
Within a very few years after World War II the boulevard was home to many businesses besides Sears, including gas stations, car dealerships, bars, motels, and various other commercial enterprises. There was a lot of traffic on the boulevard which terminated at the Airport Circle. To alleviate traffic jams various improvements were made over the years. The road was widened, bridges was built over the road at Baird Boulevard, Federal Street, and Memorial Avenue, and ramps were built so that traffic could enter and exit the Boulevard smoothly. Even with all the construction, the Admiral Wilson Boulevard was famous for traffic jams.
By the 1970s the Admiral Wilson Boulevard became known for a few things thought even less well of than traffic jams. The bars and motels had come after 1960. Despite all the propaganda promoted in the press, there never were any more than three bars on the boulevard, likewise there never were more than three motels, and NEVER were there more than two adult bookstores at one time. In fact, from the early 1980s on, there was only one adult establishment, and that was in Pennsauken. However, no thanks at all to the Philadelphia newspapers and with less help from the Courier-Post, the Boulevard and by inference Camden was portrayed as having “countless by-the-hour motels, strip joints, and seedy bars.”
Still, in fact, the motels, no longer fueled by regular commercial activity in the city, became magnets for prostitutes who solicited on the boulevard. By the mid 1970s, all three bars featured scantily clad dancers, and a former car dealership, just over the city line in Pennsauken, served no alcohol, but featured nude female dancers. Oddly enough, although this establishment attracted much of the negative press that focused on the Boulevard, there was far less illegal activity there than at the bars and especially the motels.
In anticipation of the 2000 Republican Convention held in Philadelphia, then New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman spent a great amount of taxpayer dollars in acquiring all the commercial properties on the south side of the boulevard east of the Cooper River to the Airport Circle. Every building was razed, grass and trees were planted, and a park, which no one can park at or really use, was created. Camden, which was already short on tax generating commercial properties, lost a few more- but the lame-duck Governor did get a cabinet-level job in Washington after the election.
The traffic jams have not been alleviated, as the south side of the boulevard floods during heavy rains and occasionally at high tide. The Cooper River had been dredged and the channel deepened around 1930. Over the years the river has silted back up, causing the flooding. No plans have been made public concerning a solution to this problem, which will only get worse as time goes by.
The north side of the boulevard still has many of the commercial buildings built prior to 1960. There were many large car dealerships prior to 1980, which are no longer there, but the buildings are still being utilized.