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Bizarre History of Cape May > West Cape May is younger than its neighbor, but still has storied history

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 Cape May was long established in 1884 when it officially was joined by West Cape May as its neighboring incorporated municipality. Its other island neighbor, Cape May Point, got there twice, first in 1878 and then in an encore incorporation when it restructured in 1908. Cape May, however, claiming to be the nation’s oldest seashore resort, holds the longevity record among the three because it became Cape Island in 1851 and changed to Cape May in 1869.

Still, a year after Cape May hosted Chester Arthur, the fourth sitting president to visit the resort (Pierce, Buchanan and Grant first with Harrison to come later as the fifth), there were big doings in West Cape May as it assumed its own identity.

The catalyst for its ultimate success may have been a black pirate named John Batteast who, it was said, was born in the Cold Spring area in 1761 and later settled in what was to become West Cape May after he escaped hanging when he testified in Gloucester County as a prosecution witness against other pirates. According to history, and perhaps some legend, Batteast had buried some of his loot and dug it up to finance the building of a church for black families, one of the factors that may have saved him from a date with the noose.

Pirate stories have persisted here ever since those early days, mainly focusing on Captain Kidd who some historians say was not a pirate but a victim of piracy. Legend has it that he buried some of his loot on the beaches of Wildwood and Cape May before the tourists got there. If that were true, the latter day tourists found it all a long time ago.

Each year Wildwood and Cape May hold Captain Kidd days and the only original loot the kids find in their diggings is what other tourists have thrown away or lost.

The tourism promoters’ claim that the seashore is good for your health probably worked for Batteast. Not only did he escape a violent death, but he lived to the age of 105 and Batt’s Lane in Lower Township is named after him.

Aside from Batteast’s alleged adventures and generosity, West Cape May’s history is also known for the art of goldbeating, not to be confused with the army word of goldbricking. On the contrary, goldbeating was hard work in which blocks of 23 carat gold were beaten into fine sheets of gold leaf and used for decorative arts. The men did the beating by hand and the women placed the sheets into huge books with tissue paper between each sheet.

For almost a century there was a goldbeating business, first in Philadelphia and then in West Cape May, from 1864 to 1961. Goldbeaten Alley, a narrow one way street off the more famous name of Broadway, is still a reminder of its past.

His health failing and heeding the advice that the seashore is a good place to restore it, George Reeves returned to his family’s home on the Cape Island Turnpike and established a branch of the Hastings Goldbeating Company of Philadelphia in 1879. He started a factory at 102 Goldbeaten Alley in 1881 and in its heyday it employed almost 70 workers, 40 of them to be discharged during the grim days of the Great Depression.

Reeves’ son, Theodore, carried on after his father’s death and the wife of James Glase succeeded him. George Reeves was to serve as mayor of West Cape May during the 1890s.

There were others, of course, who contributed to the birth of West Cape May and its maturation. Among them were developers Theodore Reger and James Henry Edmunds, partners in the Mount Vernon Land Company who organized the West Cape May Improvement Company in 1884, the year the borough was officially incorporated.

Two years later Edumnds, then a major political force in West Cape May and Cape May, purchased the Cape May Wave, the county’s oldest newspaper.

Edmunds, a Democrat, tried to sell Cape May’s waterworks to his own syndicate of investors but Republicans on the city council blocked the move.

Always the entrepreneur, Edmunds opened a race track at the southern end of the island in late July of 1888. He boasted that opening event as “the most important ever held in the state.”

Indeed about 3,000 fans of the horses showed up and some 100 thoroughbreds competed in four races. But, alas, there was no rail connection to West Cape May and attendance dropped to only 300. The horses apparently broke away from the gate fast, but slowed down in the home stretch and finished last among the tourist attractions as they and the races were put to pasture. .

The track was built on what is today known as Sunset Boulevard, then as Cape Island Turnpike, and it covered some 80 acres of leased farmland. It consisted of a one-mile track and a half-mile track, fields for baseball and cricket, stables, a clubhouse for jockeys and a grandstand.

As stories circulated about the possibility of a new ferry line from Delaware, this county’s freeholders gave the toll turnpike a substantial improvement in 1926 and gave it the Hollywood-like name of Sunset Boulevard. Years later, movie actor Robert Prosky was to live on that street, giving it in name if nothing else a movie land touch.

Although Cape May’s history has overshadowed West Cape May because of its antiquity, West Cape May’s background still stands bright in the spotlight. Harriet Tubman, who is said to have worked at the Congress Hall Hotel, has been reported to have been a major contributor to the Underground Railroad, which occasionally reached the shores of the island.

William J. Moore was an African-American who lived up to the tourism promo that the seashore had a Ponce De Leon influence on people’s health. Before he moved to these shores, Moore was the first black to graduate from West Chester High School in Pennsylvania. He then went on to West Chester Normal School and Howard University before teaching in West Cape May near the end of the 19th century.

When he retired from academic teaching, Moore turned to teaching tennis at the Cape May Tennis Club at the age of 85. Five years later, he was showing how to play the game on the Today Show.

When he was 91, Moore was honored as “the outstanding New Jersey Negro of 1963.” He lived until 100 and the tennis club complex on Washington Street next to the Physick estate has been named in his honor. But as of now, no fountain of youth has been found on its premises.

West Cape May has had its share of famous and unusual visitors. Eugene Ormandy, the director of the Philadelphia Orchestra for 42 years, is said to have vacationed there. A modest but conspicuous building at the triangular site where Perry and West Perry Streets join Myrtle Avenue is said to have been used as a car repair shop by Henry Ford, as well as a blacksmith facility, a livery stable, a roller skating rink and a plumbing store.

There was a time not too many years ago when West Cape May was a place visitors rode through on the way to Cape May. Now, its rich agricultural history duly recorded, West Cape May stands on its own as a tourist destination. In fact the Mid-Atlantic Center for The Arts and Humanites includes the borough among its trolley tours. When that happens it means that the borough really has arrived.

(Some of the information for this article came from the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities and from the book, “Cape May County, New Jersey,” by Jeffery M. Dorwart.)

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