Cape May History Lesson
On the southernmost tip of New Jersey is an isolated, peninsular land mass commonly known as Cape Island and including the Victorian town of Cape May. Hundreds of years before the white man ever vacationed on Cape Island, the Indians had discovered the beauty of its temperate climate, fertile land and abundant seas. In the 1600’s a Dutch explorer, Cornelius Jacobson Mey, sailed into the harbor and because it reminded him of his native Holland, he named it Cape Mey. There is some question, however, about whether he ever set foot on land.
Cape May is separated from the rest of the county by the narrow Cape May Canal, and enjoys the combined aspects of a summer shore resort, a historic landmark, fertile farmland and a marine-oriented cape town.
Cape May City is the oldest seaside resort in the United States, and was popular as a summertime getaway as early as the 1700s. By the early 1800’s, in cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, people began to read in their newspapers about the Cape as a summer watering hole. They came by stagecoach or by steamboat, but they came to see and be seen. The ocean was the main attraction then as it is now.
During the Victorian period, Cape May experienced its Hey Day. Large frame hotels dotting the beachfront were the scene of lavish balls and elaborate dinners of many courses, attended by hundreds of people. Popular pleasures (other than sea bathing and fanny-dipping) were lawn tennis, croquet, yachting, fishing from the Iron Pier, band concerts and promenading along the beachfront. It was a grand and gracious time.
But in 1878 a devastating fire burned for five days throughout the center of Cape May. Firefighters from Philadelphia came by train to help fight the blaze. By the time the fire was finally out, over 30 acres of Cape May’s historic area had been destroyed.
In the reconstruction of the town, families began to build summer cottages, replacing some of the former oversized and impractical hotels. Businessmen would bring their families for “the season” while they came back and forth from the cities on weekends by railroad. These “cottages” (most of which were much larger than our modern definition of a cottage) were being built during the Victorian era, reflecting the elaborate styling of the time and over-embellished with an abundance of “gingerbread” trim. It was the custom in those times to decorate your home as elaborately as you could afford so as to boast of your financial standing. The cottages generally enjoyed the addition of a porch or two (or three) since the residents took great pleasure in sitting outside and socializing with passersby. On many streets you can still see that these porches are in a line, readily enabling such socialization.
However, by the turn of the century, that same rail service had established a route to a newer seaside Queen, Atlantic City, that was a lot more glamorous than Cape May and a lot closer to those residing in the Philadelphia and Camden areas. Thus began the decline of Cape May’s popularity as a summer resort. Those who continued to vacation here came because their parents and grandparents had come. But pleasure seekers without a Cape May connection went to Atlantic City, Ocean City or even Wildwood.
In an attempt to keep pace, by the mid-1900’s many of the former Cape May hotels and large beachfront cottages had been replaced with modern motels and many of the remaining cottages were “re-muddled” - covered with asbestos shingles and chopped up into small pine-paneled rooms and apartments.
In the 1960’s, urban renewal plans changed the Washington Street shopping area into a three-block pedestrian mall, resulting in the loss of numerous significant Victorian structures. Fortunately, about this time, a combination of architectural experts and a handful of Cape May residents with vision arranged for a complete cataloging of the town’s buildings. It was discovered that within an area of a couple of miles in all directions, there still remained over 600 Victorian frame buildings in all sizes, shapes and styles - a virtual treasure-trove of the period. And so the rebuilding and preservation of the town began.
The streets are still alive with the older flavors of American life. In 1976 Cape May was officially awarded the status of being a National Historic Landmark, sharing that distinction with places like Williamsburg, Virginia; Newport, Rhode Island; and the Alamo in Texas. Of course, this title makes the city a stickler for preservation, but these efforts have paid off. The shore community has doubled its tourism revenue by showcasing this authentic approach, and as a result, the world sets Cape May apart from any other summer town in South Jersey. In fact, the historic maintenance has been so successful, it would be unfair to continue categorizing Cape May as a summer resort, since the season for visitors has been extended throughout the year.
Resting between the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay, today Cape May is noted for its beaches and nature preserves, and supports one of the grandest hotspots for bird and butterfly migration on the east coast. The town has now become a resort for all seasons.
Today for the visitor there are year-round tours and festivals, Equity Theater and other forms of theatrical entertainment, nature centers and bird sanctuaries, wonderful shops and antiques, and a wealth of exceptional restaurants. In fact, Cape May may be the best spot in New Jersey for restaurants. There is a long list of quality establishments within the old city, and restaurant critics have been raving about them for many years.
Cape May is also known as the bed and breakfast capitol of the state, with hundreds of small, privately owned Victorian homes welcoming travelers and vacationers throughout the year. A strong alliance between organizations promoting culture and the arts helps to keep every season interesting.
Although Cape May is an unfriendly place to car drivers (traffic jams and parking are huge issues in the city,) this is more than compensated for by friendly southern-minded people, and wondrous walks through streets that have been frozen in time. Festive, downtown shopping, like the Washington Street Mall, is a noteworthy attraction for pedestrians.
If none of that floats your boat, keep in mind... Cape May, as the name suggests, is a cape town; which means there are plenty of marinas available to cater to the seafaring enthusiast. Cape May is known throughout the state for its excellent fishing and boating activities. There are also plenty of beautiful beaches for your bathing pleasure - the Cape May beachside has been ranked among the best in the country.
The town is a subject of pride for not only South Jersey, but for all of New Jersey as well. It is still a great place to stroll along the beachfront or to rock on a porch throughout a lazy afternoon, recapturing the graciousness of that bygone era.