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History’s stories have long enriched Cape Island/Cape May in its more than three centuries, but it is doubtful that as many can be credited in successes and failures as those that emerged in the three years between 1853 and 1856.

It was during that period, as the nation struggled with the issue of slavery, that Cape Island hosted the first of several American presidents, that telegram service was started between Philadelphia and Cape Island, that a church building to become a theater today was constructed and that the county’s first newspaper was started.

Most of all, though, it was the time when the world’s biggest hotel was built on the island, only to be destroyed three years later by a fire that took the lives of five occupants.

The president who came to the cape for a ten-day visit to escape the heat of the nation’s capital was Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States. He and his wife, the former Jane Mears Appleton, stayed at the Congress Hall Hotel and on the weekend of the Fourth of July of 1855, Pierce delivered a patriotic address on its lawn.

A year before Pierce showed up, the county’s first newspaper, The Ocean Wave, came off the press. It was started by a man identified as Colonel Johnson and its first edition consisted of four pages that were 12 by 18 inches in size. Three months later it was to be bought by Joseph Smallridge Leach, a school teacher and minister who had moved to the cape from Massachusetts. He made his history making the publication more than an edition of local news, adding to it information from Philadelphia and New York as well as from the region that is now called Upper Township.

Leach, who claimed his family had Mayflower and Revolutionary War connections, hired as his reporter Samuel Magonagle, whose journalism background came from Philadelphia. He eventually sold the paper to Magonagle who continued as editor until his death in 1869. Magonagle was an organizer of the Cape May County Temperance Association and supported a campaign to eliminate the sale of liquor in New Jersey.

Leach’s goal to expand his news coverage and content may have been based on the fact that Cape Island could communicate with Philadelphia by way of the Philadelphia and Cape Island Telegraph Company which functioned until the Civil War broke out and then closed down.

Leach was a man for all seasons and then some. He was not only a newspaperman, but he was a licensed teacher in the Lower Township school system, preached as a deacon at the cape’s Baptist church, served as a recorder and councilman of Cape Island as well as postmaster and was elected to the Board of Freeholders.

One of the new buildings that rose from the sands in 1853 was Cape May’s Presbyterian Church at Lafayette and Bank Streets. It has an interesting history all by itself in that it once housed an Episcopal church and a community center and is now the home of the Robert Shackleton Playhouse of the Cape May Theater. Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Church is permanently situated at Hughes and Decatur Streets where the East Lynne Theater holds forth. Soon, as the theater season opens here and as a reminder of the past, there will likely be playing and praying at both sites.

Other significant events were taking shape during this period. There was discussion, sometimes heated, about bringing a railroad to Cape May, something that did not come to fruition until August 23, 1863 when its last rail was laid.

Transportation was very much on the minds of the leaders then as they formed the Cape Island and Cape May Court House Turnpike Company in 1854. Work on the toll highway began three years later and was completed in 1858, its route from Court House to Cape Island to cover generally today’s Route 9. Money also was very much on their minds too with investors coming from as far north as Jersey City and New York. Among the new banks were the American Exchange, the Atlantic and the Second City banks, all incorporated in 1851, the Farmers Bank in 1852 and the Bank of Cape May County in 1853. Unfortunately for their investors and apparently some of the depositors, the banks did not last very long.

Doomed too during that period was what its builders claimed was the largest hotel in the world, which was built for $125,000 in 1853 with no insurance to cover possible losses. It was called the Mount Vernon and when they saw the final product at Broadway and Beach Avenue in 1853, its enthusiasts including the Illustrated London News used such words as “magnificent,” “elegant,” “exquisite” and “gorgeous.”

“The style is palatial, the dimensions far exceed those of any hotel in England,” wrote the publication

Indeed they did. The front of the building was four stories high and 300 feet long. One wing was three stories tall and 500 feet long. The hotel contained 482 rooms and, highly unusual for those times, a bath for each room with hot and cold running water. The dining room seated 3,000.

Among the rooms was the traditional honeymoon suite which produces “a chasteness of effect combined with the very perfection of ornamentation,” according to the newspaper.

The Mount Vernon was something of a precedent to follow in that summer of 1856, when room accommodations on the island totaled 6,000. The Mount Vernon led the pack with 2,100, followed by the Columbia with 600, Congress Hall 500 and The Mansion House, Atlantic Hotel and United States Hotel with 300 each.

So it was that in early September of 1856, soon after most of the summer tourists had gone home, there was satisfaction at the Mount Vernon and the other hotels that this had been a good summer. A few of the proprietor’s family stayed there to enjoy the September climate, usually the best of the year’s 12 months.

On the night of September 5, at around 11 o’clock, Philip H.Cain, described in newspaper accounts as hotel co-proprietor with Col. Frank T. Foster, had retired when fire of unknown origin swept the hotel and quickly consumed him. His son Philip Jr., listed at about 18 years of age, escaped with serious burns after he jumped from a second floor window.

Other fatalities included a son, Andrew, 20, daughters Martha, 17, and Sarah,13, and a 35-year-old housekeeper identified only as Mrs. Albertson. Foster was said to be out of town when the fire broke out. And Cain’s wife and other children were at the family home in Vincentown.

The cause of the fire was not determined although authorities suspected it was the result of arson.


(Some of the information for this article was researched in a New York Times article of September 6, 1856 and in The Illustrated London News of September 17, 1853 at the research department of the Cape May County Library in Court House.)

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