Cape May

by R. Cohen | Oct 15, 2007
Cape May The entire city of Cape May was designated a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior in 1976. Rightly so, its Victorian architecture, tenderly restored and preserved, accents Cape May's reputation as the nation's oldest and "queen" of seashore resorts. And her history is a vibrant and timely one, echoing the nation centuries ago — and its tomorrow.

Located at the southern-most tip of New Jersey, with the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Delaware Bay to the west, Cape May — or Cape Island, as it was first called — has catered to visitors since the early 1600s when Native American tribes summered on her beaches, garnering the ocean's vast bounty of sea life.

Henry Hudson, sailing the small yacht Half Moon, documented the small peninsula for the first time in his captain's logs in August of 1609 after encountering strong tides, dangerous sandbars and shoals near the Delaware Bay.

Various history books state William Penn erected a large manor house on a piece of Cape Island bayshore property and left a land agent behind to develop a town years before Penn himself established the city of Philadelphia. Others claim Penn visited Cape Island as early as 1687 to create a whaling fishery with the intent of settling the area commercially.

Regardless of which version is correct, it was indeed the Quakers and the whaling industry that formed the community. Between 1685 and 1688, the first government was formed by Quaker justices and early laws showed the domination of strict Quaker piety and moral order.

At the same time, a migration of families originating from the British Isles settled the area as well as others immigrating from New York and New England, including a few original Mayflower families from Plymouth, Massachusetts. Most worked as whalers, or yeomen — a vocation at times lucrative, and at other times not, yet consistently dangerous.

The colossal creatures, hunted by fishermen in small rowboats, presented a formidable task. The job itself coupled with ever-changing, and mostly adverse sea conditions, left many families without sons, brothers and fathers. The whaling industry withered.

The tourism industry, however, flourished in the ensuing centuries when desperately-needed roads were laid in the 1700s and during the late 1800s, two railroads, the Reading and West Jersey, provided service onto Cape Island.

Philadelphia has always been Cape May's closest ally — numerous advertisements in city newspapers proclaimed Cape Island as "the destination of choice" during the mid-1800s. The steamboat Republic brought thousands of visitors each summer from a Camden shipyard.

Interestingly, it was also during the 1800s a different type of "railroad" is said to have run through Cape Island, the Underground Railroad, though most history books are remiss to mention it, and perhaps for good reason.

Across the bay from Cape May lies the state of Delaware. On a clear day, its shores are clearly defined. Today, the Cape May-Lewes Ferry operates daily transporting cars, bicycles and pedestrians between the two states. But during the Civil War, the states were at odds — Delaware was a slave-holding state, and New Jersey was not.

When Harriet Tubman, known as the "Moses of her people," escaped from Dorchester County, Maryland in 1849, it is documented she went to Philadelphia and worked in the city's hotels. Yet an official Cape Island census collected a year later in 1850 finds her living and working in a Cape Island hotel.

When Tubman began her mission in 1861, did she remember Cape Island's strategic location and secretly shuttle runaway slaves across the bay? Did the bay provide the necessary shortcut from slave-holding Delaware? Was Cape May a "promised land" — and the first sight of freedom? Many area historians believe so. Though actual proof has never officially been documented, most local history books make mention of Tubman and her Cape Island connection.

Rumor on the island tells of various homes with secret rooms and long tunnels dating back to the Civil War. It is a "given" among local folks the railroad did indeed run through the island, with many of those "riding its rails" remaining in the area — and there are families today still hesitant to speak of their origins.

Hotels, like the one Tubman worked in, were the mainstay of the town before the turn-of-the-century and well into the 1900s. Despite several setbacks such as the devastating 35-acre fire of 1878 and national economic difficulties including the 1898 depression, Cape May survived into the 20th century as an upscale vacation resort. Numerous hotels were built in the early 1900s to accommodate the masses.

Home twice to the world's largest hotels — the Mount Vernon and the Christian Admiral — Cape May's beachfront offered visitors a cool sea breeze, quite a luxury in the days before air-conditioning. Wide porches bedecked these hotels where visitors strolled with parasols in hand and top hats perched. Photographs scattered in businesses throughout the town illustrate those thriving times early in the century.

Currently, Cape May stands as the nation's only entire city designated a National Historic Landmark. Twenty years of sustaining this prestigious distinction has brought pride to its 5,000 year-round residents — and an influx of over 80,000 visitors on any given summer weekend.

Cape May's streets are lined with buildings ornamented in gingerbread trim, most with airy porches, and garnished in pastel paint. Tours are given daily, some on foot and many by trolley, offering visitors a peek at the past. Yet Cape May is not simply a seashore playground — the town's heart and soul are its residents, families which have lived here for generation after generation, some Mayflower descendants, who live day-to-day cherishing the town's rich past and looking forward to the future.

For more information about Cape May, visit the following websites:
www.capemaychamber.com
www.beachcomber.com/Capemay/capemay.html
www.capemaymac.org

Cape May historic information from http://www.capemay.to/.

For more South Jersey History, visit our History page.

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