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Bizarre History of Cape May -- Cape has seen its share of panics, recessions and Depression

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  When historians write about the grim times when the national economy turned bad, the inevitable major reference goes to the period that has been called The Great Depression.

There was nothing great about the 1930s, when the distraught were jumping out of skyscraper windows to wipe out the poverty that faced them, or when men were selling apples on street corners to try to earn a pittance for their hungry children, or when hobos hopped on and off box cars in their rail travels from one town to another in fruitless searches for employment or food handouts.

So the story goes that in Wildwood in those hard times a kindhearted sheriff was so upset by the plight of a shivering hobo that he put him up for the night in a warm cell and then took him out for breakfast at a local restaurant the next morning. It has not been recorded, however, whether the hobo asked if he could stay over for another night.

While historical attention is often focused on “The Ungreat Depression,” there have been other depressions that brought despair and ruin to the banks and the people who trusted them with their money.

Such as the Panic of 1893 and what it did to Cape May.

Benjamin Harrison, who had made Cape May and Cape May Point his summer residence and Congress Hall his summer White House, was in the waning months of his only term as president when the financial disaster struck. The biggest signal that all was not well was the bankruptcy of the Cape May and Sewell’s Point Railroad, which was sold at a sheriff’s sale.

The dearth of employment, always a problem during the off season at the seashore, was worse than ever in the last decade of the 19th century. The Cape May Daily Wave predicted that the city stood on the brink of “complete bankruptcy” and was in need of a soup kitchen.

As city employees went on half pay, Dr. Emlen Physick, after whom MAC’s current Physick Estate is named, donated land for use as a clothing factory with the hope that it would ease the unemployment problem. It didn’t. The developer lost his money when his bank failed, and so did others.

The Cape May analysts, some of them the supposedly all knowing newspaper editors, came up with all kinds of reasons for the depression. One blamed it on the “evils of ignorant alien born citizenship.” Others attributed it to a political group called the Populists formed in 1892 to press for more regulations on businesses and railroads.

“The Populist mouth can create a panic in short order,” wrote one editor.

Life was changing in the nation and so it was in Cape May City and the county with the same name. America, once a predominantly rural agrarian nation, was becoming an industrial, urban one and sometimes the chemistry did not mix.

In addition to the railroad, the bicycle, of all things, was contributing to the changes. By 1894 more and more cyclists were on the still limited roadways on the way to Cape May, bringing people from remote areas closer and introducing outside influences to the resort, which had preferred its own sort of private lifestyle until that point.

Then there were those, the real natives who had lived in Cape May most of their lives, and who did not like the intruders. They called them “carpet baggers,” an unflattering description that emerged from the post-Civil War Reconstruction days when northerners moved south to make profits and then returned north with their money. The traditionalists, looking down at the “carpetbaggers,” insisted that no one with less than 50 years of permanent residence on the peninsula should be considered a “Cape Mayman.”

But Alfred Cooper, a “carpetbagger” by the old-timers’ standards, who came to the area in 1880 and started the Cape May County Gazette, took issue with the distinction between the so-called old and the new.

“The present generation neither knows nor cares whether their neighbors are to the manor born, or who their forbears were,” he wrote.

Cooper pointed out too how “intermarriage” had dominated Cape May County families and politics for two centuries. In something akin to a Biblical “begat” family quotation, he reported that Walter S. Leanng, president of the city council, was a brother-in-law of city solicitor J. Spicer Leamig, who was a brother-in-law of Councilmen F. Sidney Townsend, who was a brother of Councilman Edward F. Townsend, who was…and so on with the “who was-es.”

The sale of liquor persisted as a hot issue in the 1890s and the Women’s Temperance Union posted booths at polling places, served coffee there and preached against the evils of the hard stuff. The Cape May Daily Star claimed that while Wildwood was a temperance town, just across the line Holly Beach provided “all the wet goods which are required.”

Today, ironically, Wildwood is a wet town while Holly Beach is long gone and just across its line is the replacement of a very dry Wildwood Crest.

The economy finally showed signs of recovery by late 1896 and early the next year with the discovery of gold – in Alaska, not Cape May; although there have been long unconfirmed rumors that Captain Kidd buried his loot of gold on the Cape May beaches.

In July 1897, the Cape May Star predicted that the gold discovery and the new tariff legislation would “assist in setting the wheels of business into active motion.”

Whatever the trigger, the encouraging signs became visible throughout the county, especially in Cape May where in 1897 the Delaware and Atlantic Telephone Exchange opened an office on Washington Street. It was to be the first long distance telephone service in the county.

Consolidation, not always an attractive word in the Wildwoods, succeeded in Cape May when entrepreneur John J. Burleigh consolidated five street railway and narrow gauge railroad companies and provided electric trolley serviced from the bay to Sewell’s Point and to Schellenger’s Landing.

It was said too that Burleigh’s efforts of combining the railroads helped stimulate a struggling Cape May Point. The Burleigh section of Middle Township was named in his honor in1883.

Unemployment in 1894 reached 18.4 percent, but then gradually fell to five percent by the turn of the century. During the bigger depression of the 1930s, after the stock market crash of 1929, unemployment soared to 25 percent. That may not sound like all that much unless you’re one of the unemployed.

So it was that when the 19th century grew into the 20th there was optimism in Cape May that better times were to come. Little did the optimists realize, however, that a big war was to come and a terrible depression to follow that before the biggest war in the history of mankind was to top it all.

(Some of the information in this article was researched in the book, “Cape May County, New Jersey,” by Jeffery M. Dorwart.)


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