History of Cape May
The peninsula situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay, now known as Cape May, was once hunting grounds of the Lenni-Lenape Indians. In 1609, Henry Hudson was sailing his yacht when he came upon the land. A couple years later, Dutch Captain Cornelius Jacobsen Mey explored and chartered the land, establishing a claim for the province of New Netherland.
He named the peninsula Cape Mey after himself, but the spelling was later changed to “May”, as we know it today. For some time, the area was known as Cape Island. In the late 1680s, English colonists from New England came to the area to work in the whaling industry and farm the land. By the 1690s, a whaling village had been established.
Roads were created in the late 1700’s, and two railroads provided service to the Cape. In 1761, Cape Island officially became the first seashore resort in America. Visitors would come from Philadelphia came by way of horse-drawn wagons, stagecoaches, sloops and schooners – and later by train and steam-powered boats – to vacation by the sea.
At first, visitors found overnight lodging in public houses, taverns, and resident homes. By the early 1800s, several boarding houses existed. Word spread about Cape May’s allure and soon visitors came from other states along the eastern seaboard.
Congress Hall, built in 1816, originally served as a boarding house during the early nineteenth century. Its owner, Thomas H. Hughes, called it “The Big House”, but locals thought the building was never going to be a success so they nicknamed it “Tommy’s Folly.” In 1828 Hughes was elected to Congress and the hotel was renamed Congress Hall. The original hotel structure was destroyed by a fire in 1878 but it was rebuilt with bricks and continued to be bigger and better, housing such famous guests as Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. It was the “summer White House” for President Benjamin Harrison who conducted his Presidential affairs from the hotel.
For this reason, Cape May was known as the “Presidents Playground” during this era. Its hotels were known for featuring fancy dinners and lavish parties. Vacationers enjoyed playing croquet and lawn tennis on the sprawling beachfront hotel lawns. Water activities, such as yachting and fishing, were also favorite pastimes. Composer John Philip Sousa often conducted concerts on the Congress Hall lawn with the Marine Corps band. In 1882, he composed “Congress Hall March” in honor of the hotel.
Sadly, the hotel fell into disrepair and remained closed for several years in the early twentieth century until it was reopened in the 1920s. From the mid- to late-twentieth century, it operated as part of a bible conference until it was renovated to serve as a hotel again.
In 2001, during renovations, original china, creamers and sugar bowls were discovered – their designs were reproduced and are used today in the Blue Pig restaurant located off the hotel lobby. The hotel now has a coffee and gift shop called “Tommy’s Folly” – ironically mocking the historic disbelief that this hotel would ever become the popular mainstay that it is.
In 1859, construction on the Cape May Lighthouse was completed – today, it still stands today in Cape May Point where visitors are welcome to climb to the top and learn about the history of the lighthouse, as well as the natural habitats and species that exist on the lighthouse grounds.
In the mid-nineteenth century, a developer bought up parcels of land on the coast, stretching from Patterson Avenue almost to Cape May Point, with the intention of developing it into a new community. The newly formed borough was called “South Cape May” and by the end of the century the community consisted of the grand Mount Vernon Hotel, several cottages and a bathhouse. However, this community was built upon marshland that was filled in, but nonetheless susceptible to the forces of weather. By 1910, the community was forced to move a block back towards the mainland due to coastal erosion. Between 1936 and 1950, three major storms destroyed the community and it took all the buildings and land that comprised South Cape May. In 2010, a team of federal, state and local agencies were awarded a prestigious environmental award from the Obama Administration for replenishing the 350 acres of wetlands in this area and restoring it to its natural habitat. Today, the land is protected and is the home of permanent and migrating wildlife.
Cape May’s allegiance to the Union during the Civil War allegedly caused a reduction in visits by southern vacationers, but families from Philadelphia continued to patronize the Cape. For many families, visiting for a day or a weekend wasn’t enough – they wanted to own a piece of America’s Oldest Resort. The “Cottage Era” began in 1863 when visitors came here specifically to purchase land and build their own summer homes. During the Civil War, the Underground Railroad ran through the area, transporting slaves from Confederate Delaware to Union New Jersey. Some homes in Cape May were discovered to have long tunnels and secret rooms dating back to this time in history.
A horrific fire swept through Cape May in 1878, wiping out thirty blocks of the town, including some of the major hotels. In order to replenish the town, new buildings were constructed in the “modern” Victorian style. These homes, built in the Queen Anne, Gothic and American bracketed styles, feature gables, gingerbread trim, turrets and stained-glass windows. Preservation efforts throughout the years have allowed Cape May to retain much of the architecture constructed in this era, which lends to its present-day charm. Today, many of the Victorian homes have been restored as bed and breakfast inns, and a fascinating horse and carriage tour is offered that discusses Victorian architecture and its impact on Cape May’s nineteenth century society.
The beachfront Hotel Cape May located at the 1400 block of Beach Avenue opened in 1908, but closed months later due to the resignation and bankruptcy of the owners of the company financing the project. The hotel was used as a hospital during World War I and the Navy acquired a portion of the hotel’s land for the creation of a naval base, which the Coast Guard took over in 1925. The building was thereafter sold and reopened as the Admiral Hotel in 1931. For many years it was a bustling, popular hotel and hang out for locals, until later when the hotel fell into disrepair. The historic building was demolished in 1995.
In the 1920s, plans had been made for a ferry to run across the bay to Delaware, but the 1926 sinking of a concrete ship that was being sailed into the bay to create a dock thwarted the initial efforts at ferrying people across the bay. The hull of the sunken ship, the S.S. Atlantus, is still visible from Sunset Beach.
In 1942, a canal was constructed to connect the bay to Cape May Harbor, which was dredged in the earlier part of the century. The canal was built to provide protection to ships from the German U-boats operating off Cape May Point during World War II and to provide entrance to ships coming in from the bay to the Intercoastal Waterway that separates South Jersey’s barrier islands from the mainland. Southern New Jersey was an area important to the country’s national defenses during the war because the Delaware Bay was at the entrance to the port city of Philadelphia.
Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Fire Protection Tower #23 was constructed in Cape May Point at Fort Miles, one of several towers that dotted the coast to provide protection against further attack. It used to search for submarines off the coast and spot for the guns lined up on the beach. The tower is the last relic that remains of the massive coastal defense system that guarded the waterways, beach and town. The tower has been restored and today visitors are able to climb to the top and learn more about Cape May’s part in the war.
The extension of the Garden State Parkway down to Cape May in 1959 allowed more visitors to arrive by automobile. It was the beginning of a period of impressive growth and preservation. After the 1962 Nor’Easter destroyed Cape May’s wooden boardwalk – which had been rebuilt after damage from the 1944 storm – a new macadam promenade was constructed on top of a pile of rocks that serve as a seawall. The Convention Center, also destroyed, was replaced as well. A year later Cape May received a $3.5 million urban renewal grant for its preservation efforts, the first of its kind given to a small city specifically for this purpose. In 1964 a ferry service finally opened connecting Cape May to Lewes Delaware.
Cape May continued to experience change throughout the remainder of the twentieth century. Many of the Victorian homes became bed and breakfast inns. The Washington Street Mall, a popular pedestrian shopping district, was created in 1971. In 1976, the entire city of Cape May was designated a National Historic Landmark, the only city in the country with such a designation.
The keystone of Cape May’s success can be found in the power of community and preservation, and one such story illustrates that fact. In 1879, Emlen Physick Jr., his mother and aunt had a house built at 1048 Washington Street. He was the son of a prominent surgeon, and while he graduated from medical school, Emlen never practiced medicine. Instead, he was a gentleman farmer who owned two farms in Cape May. When he died in 1916, the estate passed through many hands and eventually fell into a state of disrepair. Developers acquired the land in the 1960s and planned to tear it down to build modern housing. Several concerned citizens banned together to form the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC) in order to save the property. They obtained grants that allowed the City of Cape May to take over the land and save the home. Today, tours and special events are held at the estate. MAC is also credited with hosting numerous events throughout the year which has turned Cape May from a summer-only vacation destination to a year-round resort.
Despite today’s advances in technology and communications, coming in to Cape May is like stepping back in time. With gas lit streets, horse and carriage tours, and beautiful Victorian architecture, it is easy to forget that Cape May is also a beach town – that just beyond the fascinating tours and impressive history, is a beautiful beach, a pristine lighthouse and unique opportunity to watch a sunset over the bay.
Whether you are a historian, a surfer, a shopper or a foodie, everything that Cape May has to offer is due to the careful planning, preservation and orchestration of community efforts that has allowed Cape May to flourish as the country’s premier Victorian-themed – and seaside – resort.
Do you, or your family or business, have a history in Cape May? If so, we’re interested in hearing from people whose families were original or early settlers, or who own or owned a business, or who have other historical information to share such as living or working here in past summers, meeting your significant other, getting engaged or married here or any other human interest story. If you would like to share your story, please contact us by clicking here. The information you provide us is through this link is confidential and we will contact you to gain more information, as well as your full permission, before we disclose any information you provide. Thank you, and please don’t hesitate to contact us! (Note: for your privacy, do not include your information in the Leave A Reply box below unless you wish others to see your information).
Note: The information contained within this historical account has been gleaned from various resources. If you notice any inaccuracies, please do not hesitate to reach out to us so that we may correct the information.
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