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History > Vacationers have been coming to Cape May since the Revolution

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How times have changed at Cape Island that was to be renamed Cape May.

Looking back at its early history one would not find parking meters on its streets or automobiles clogging its narrow roads or the skimpiest of bikinis decorating its beaches.

Instead of Fords and Chevrolets, there were stage coaches and buggies. Free parking was abundant and horrors that anyone should exhibit any part of the body below the head except maybe the big toe.

A good starting point to compare then and now is probably the period that followed the Revolutionary War. Certainly there were inhabitants before then, the Lenni Lenape Indians initially, the Dutch and the English later, but it was after the war that tourism began to take shape.

Whether the Indians were permanent residents of the cape has been a matter of historical controversy for years, one side claiming they could not have lived there year-round because of the lack of potable water, the other citing archaeological evidence they claim support the permanent residence argument. Whatever the case, it is acknowledged by census figures that the population of the county grew from 2,571 in the first postwar census to 3,066 at the turn of the century in 1800.

Boarding houses, hardly matching the eloquence of the hotels to follow, began to appear at the seashore. Among them was one built by an enterprising owner with marketing skills named Ellis Hughes, later to serve as postmaster. He was one of two owners of guest houses in those early days, his named the “Atlantic.” The second, owned by ship pilot Ephraim Mills and his wife Mary, was called the “Mills.”

Hughes, seeing the value of the area as a vacation resort, needed no advisory commission or public relations firm to sell Cape Island, which was not to be officially incorporated as a municipality until 1851 before it was renamed Cape May in 1869. He went out and sold it himself in an 1801 advertisement in the Philadelphia Aurora and General Advertiser.

Under the headline, “Seashore Entertainment at Cape May,” Hughes boosted his own accommodations and promised the best care for his guest’s horses and carriages, let alone for the guests themselves.

“The situation is beautiful just on the confluence of Delaware Bay with the ocean in sight of the lighthouse, and affords a view of the shipping which enters and leaves the Delaware,” Hughes enthused. “Carriages may be driven along the margin of the ocean for miles; and the wheels will scarcely make any impression upon the sand, the slope of the shore is so regular that persons may wade out a great distance. It is the most delightful spot the citizens can retire to in the hot season.”

To get there from Philadelphia and elsewhere was something of a problem, however, especially if you were prone to seasickness and preferred land travel instead the waterways. Stagecoach travel during that postwar period did improve gradually but it still took one overnight trip of 90 miles from Cooper’s Ferry, later to become Camden, to get to Cape Island and another overnight to get back. The few roads that existed were not all that comfortable for stage coaches to travel on.

The steamships came to the rescue as early as 1802 and by the time 1878 arrived steamship service was outdoing the stagecoach. One of the highly touted and historical luxury side-wheel steamers was the three-deck iron Republic which could accommodate as many as 3,000 passengers. The boat would travel for $1 round trip from the wharf at Race Street in Philadelphia to a wharf at the Delaware Bay at Cape May Point. It was a stylish trip, certainly more comfortable than the stage coach and even train, which in its earlier days occasionally broke down and passengers had to get out and help get it back on track again.

The Republic, traveling at a speed of 15 knots, offered music to sail by as a band entertained the passengers en route to their destination.

Once his passengers arrived at the waters of Cape May Point, steamship owner Jonathan Cone faced the problem of getting them to Cape May, a few miles away. He solved it quickly by creating the Delaware Bay and Cape May Railroad, which ran along the beach from the Point to what was to become a historic resort. It took about ten minutes for his passengers to reach the terminus at Grant Street.

Later in 1884 the short train trip was no longer necessary with the opening of the so-called “Iron Pier” at the foot of Decatur Street. The boats came directly to that spot for their passengers to disembark.

That pier, its name coming from the builder’s Phoenix Iron Company, was basically an entertainment facility and included an 8,000 square foot dance floor. It originally had an outdoor pavilion which later was enclosed for band concerts, dances (they were called “hops” then), and theater and opera productions.

The pier extended 1,000 feet into the ocean, enabling boats to use it as a point of debarkation for their passengers.

Cape May had the tourist trade much to itself during the second half of the 19th century. Then the nearby Wildwoods got into the act, Holly Beach and Anglesea forming in 1885, followed by Wildwood in 1895, North Wildwood in 1906, Wildwood Crest 1910 and West Wildwood in 1920.They too started wooing tourists and the competition for the tourist dollar grew intense.

That was not so on May 2, 1848 when local Cape Island leaders, encouraged by earlier tourism responses, met at a school and organized the new borough. Three years later it was officially incorporated by the state.

At that first meeting three men whose names are familiar in the cape’s long history were named as members of a common council. James L. Kennedy, Richard L. Ludlam and Joseph Leach passed ordinances to “suppress riotous conduct,” prohibit the explosion of fireworks and prevent swimming without “suitable bathing apparel.”

One wonders, of course, what they would have done about bathing attire in today’s society, especially if their government domain had included Higbee Beach.

Another ordinance may have been the precursor for today’s Cape May parking laws. It restricted the parking of carriages in places where they blocked the streets.

But there were no parking meters, an innovation that came much later in a different time but the same place.


(Information for this article was researched in the book, “Cape May County, New Jersey,” by Jefffey M.Dorwart, and the publication, “The Cape May County New Jersey Magazine of History and Genealogy,” published by the Cape May County Historical and Genealogical Society.

 


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