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Bizarre History of Cape May -- Turn of the century was a time of change for Cape May

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 Cape May and the nation were enjoying a respite from war when the calendar turned to the 20th century. There was to be an 18-year interlude of peace from the time the four month Spanish-American War ended in 1898 and the United States’ entrance into the already raging World War I in 1916.

During that period of silenced guns the Progressive Era gained prominence, abetted by Teddy Roosevelt whose famous charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War led him to the notoriety of becoming the 26th President of the United States from Sept. 14, 1901 to March 4, 1909.

As it is today, tourism was big on Cape May’s agenda, even before the 19th century bowed out. In 1897, a year before Americans were asked to “Remember the Maine,” a Board of Trade was incorporated to push tourism in Cape May in the coming years. The board was akin to the tourism commissions that now exist in the municipalities of the Wildwoods.

Its members included Mayor Thomas Millet, owner of a coal and ice business; Luther C. Ogden, president of the trade board and later to become a freeholder; William Porter, a drug store owner and businessman John Halpin.

By the time the planners got their act together at the dawn of the new century. Cape May was perking along. In hopes of reviving tourism from the South, the Queen Anne’s Railroad connected Baltimore with Lewes, Del., and in a familiar development for the future there was ferry service between Lewes and the Cape area. There were also plans for a 1,000 foot iron pier to accommodate the tourism vessels.

All of the new developments and attractions were exciting but didn’t mean much beyond the shores of Cape May if the public didn’t know about them. So the city, recognizing the benefits of a public relations campaign, costly though it was, advertised about the virtues of the resort in some 400 newspapers. One publication called the resort “The New Cape May.”

On New Year’s Day of 1901 the city was in a celebratory mood, perhaps anticipating a big year ahead. Despite the cold weather people danced on the streets of Cape May. They shot off fireworks, blew horns and whistles and hundreds masqueraded at a ball held at the Auditorium on Washington Street. The Cape May Star claimed it was the largest New Year’s Eve celebration in Cape May’s history.

It was not all fun and games, however, during those early days of the 20th century. Pushed by the clergy and an organization that called itself The Law and Order League, police raided the Congress Hall Hotel and other establishments for having slot machines and for liquor violations. No problems, though. The owners paid their $25 fines and returned to business as usual.

Meanwhile, still years away from establishing their own equal rights, women were nevertheless making early inroads by participating in women’s tournaments at the Cape May Golf Club on Washington Street and (oh my goodness!) playing in mixed foursomes with men in competitions that were characterized as “a fad.”

Replacing the city’s street gaslights with electric lights was a hot issue at that time as hundreds gathered to be illuminated on the subject and to discuss its pros and cons.

Legend has it that while President Benjamin Harrison was vacationing in Cape May electricity was installed at the White House. When the president returned, fearful of the dangers of this new invention, he had his servants turn it on and off instead of doing it himself.

Lewis Stevens, a historian who reported the later challenged story that Abraham Lincoln had visited Cape May on July 31, 1849, led a campaign in the early 1900s to remove the sewage and waste that flowed in Cape Island Creek. Education took a big step higher when a $35,000 two-story brick building was built for use as a high school. It is now used as City Hall on Washington Street.

As the First World War neared, Cape May found itself facing an interior enemy – the omnipotent mosquito. A mosquito commission was organized in 1915 and it put the bite on the Board of Freeholders to come up with some money for the war against the bugs.

Today, the Cape May County Department of Mosquito Control operates a large facility on Rt. 47 in the Dias Creek section of Middle Township as its battle headquarters against an army of 45 species of mosquitoes that invade the 277 square miles of the peninsula. Appropriately, during World War II that same property was used as a prisoner of war camp for captured German soldiers.

With the arrival of the new century came a new form of entertainment called movies. Some said it would not last long, this showing of flickering pictures on screens, usually white sheets. They were wrong, of course, and Cape May was part of the advancements.

George Pollard was one of the local catalysts. He started a movie house at the corner of Washington and Perry Streets. Others emerged, one with the famous name of The Palace, a symbol of the great show business theaters of the past.

History has recorded, although not in great depth, the name of the Jackson Street Opera House, which in those dim days of segregation was a movie house for blacks only. It also housed boxing matches, concerts and plays and other attractions.

During World War II, when segregation still prevailed, the opera house served as a USO for African-American servicemen only and singer Paul Robeson entertained there. 

Of more recognition for long-time residents here is the Liberty Theatre on Washington Street, which was built in 1919 and was to be a centerpiece for tourists and residents for many years until the arrival of the Washington Street Mall. Recent events, of course, have told of the demise of the Beach Theatre, started in the 1950s by movie house impresario Bill Hunt.

Ironically while movie houses were once a big attraction in Cape May, they are no more in that city, gone the way of home videos and other competition. It is perhaps a symbol of the present today that on one side of Beach Avenue stood an old movie house waiting for the wrecking crew while across the street the brand new Convention Hall waits to record new history.

(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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