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Bizarre History of Cape May --Cape May Canal’s history runs deep

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 Given the many issues that arose from the birth of the nation, one would not expect that the subject of boat canals would be one of early America’s priorities.

It probably never would have made the top 10 most needed projects of that time, but President George Washington thought enough of it to speak out for posterity when he said he wished Americans had “the wisdom to improve” the nation’s system of waterways.

There was precedence in Europe, with its great system of canals in England and Holland but this was the United States, the new kid in the world, and it still had a lot of learning to do. Centuries, in fact, before a canal was to be built during another historic war in another historic place called Cape May.

Some people back in the 1790s began to take up Washington’s challenge of “no wisdom” and tried to build small canals in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Their lack of knowledge and experience did not make the results the engineering masterpieces of all time, or even of that time. However, American ingenuity and perseverance prevailed with the help of English engineer William Weston and a portage canal on the lower Susquehanna River was completed in 1797 and became the first working canal in Pennsylvania.

Some other canals were to emerge, although not in full fruition. Work took place on the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, intended to connect the two bays, from 1803 to1805 before the project ran out of money.

Probably the biggest catalyst for canal construction was the Erie Canal in New York State, which when completed in 1825 turned out to be the model for other canals in the U.S. That canal now extends 363 miles from the Hudson River at Albany to Buffalo at Lake Erie.

It was to be about 15 years later in the 1840’s that the prospect of a canal in Cape May County began to get attention. One of the early promoters was Nathaniel Holmes, a Dennis Township merchant who served as freeholder director from 1834 to1841 and 1847 to 1851.

Two Stone Harbor brothers, the Risleys, had prepared blueprints for a canal from Stone Harbor to Bidwell’s Creek and had undertaken some dredging. The Army’s Engineer Corps surveyed possible sites and in 1933 it came up with a controversial route from Cedar Swamp Creek to Dennis Creek that could have started a local war because, as some writers claimed, it “would have cut all the resorts of the island off.”

Two years later in 1935, during the heart of the Great Depression, encouraged by possible funding from the New Deal’s public works program, a meeting was held to discuss more canal route possibilities. One of them was from Hereford Inlet to Dias Creek and another from Cape May Harbor, also known as Cold Spring Inlet, to any of three possible sites on Lower Township’s bayside.

One of the initial selling points was that a canal would be safer for vessels, allowing them to avoid the dangerous ocean rips made rough by opposing tides, currents or winds. Another argument was that it would provide a shortcut for fishermen to lucrative fishing waters. Perhaps the biggest argument, and the one that finalized the approval and funding for the construction, was the contention during World War II that the canal would be a safe haven from German submarines lurking in ocean waters with their deadly torpedoes.

Cape May’s I. Grant Scott, who held the prestigious position of president of the New Jersey State Senate, delivered a colorful talk in support of the canal before the Wildwood Kiwanis Club in March of 1941, just nine months before the Japanese were to drop their destruction on Pearl Harbor. He described the combination of the canal and the Cape May-Lewes ferry as a “dream” that would come true.

“This county,” he pointed out, “is one of the few resort sections in the United States which constitutes the definite end of the trail and cannot be traversed to reach some other sections. It’s up to us to make Cape May County as easy to get out of or through as it is to get into…Every improvement that makes travel easier and more convenient is bound to reflect increased revenue to Cape May County business.”

The canal was not always an easy sell, however, despite efforts by congressmen to convince President Franklin Roosevelt to give it the green light. Early attempts, although succeeding in Congress, were rejected by Roosevelt on the grounds they did not have military significance, a position he was later to reverse when there indeed was military significance after ships were sunk by the enemy in the ocean off the shores of Cape May.

But the campaign went on through 1941 and high level meetings and circumstances intensified the efforts and brought the canal closer to reality. One of the big convincers was the Navy’s 1941 request to use the canal as protection for its naval base in the harbor, as protection for the proposed Coast Guard artillery base at Cape Henlopen, for speedy access between New Jersey and Delaware and for use by small, high speed destroyers that were then under construction.

Even more convincing were the frequent stories of loss of life at sea, either by the hand of nature during peace or by the enemy during war. In May of 1941, the lives of three men were lost when their 26-foot cabin cruiser was caught in a rip tide during stormy weather. The tragedy gave Senator Scott cause to urge authorities to hurry up and build the canal. Once war was declared in December of that year the torpedoing of tankers off the coast strengthened the argument for a canal.

Finally, the canal was to arrive, some say hastily, others claiming dictatorially, but still completed in March of 1943. The freeholders complained neither the state nor the federal governments consulted them. At least 100 owners whose property was in the path of the canal said they weren’t aware of the pending property seizure via condemnation until they saw dredging equipment at work. Some were not paid for their property until a year later.

A Philadelphia man led a group calling for a change of route, this one from Bordentown on the Delaware River to Sayreville on the banks of the Raritan River. It was all for naught. Once the funding ($1.1 million) was approved by the federal government, construction began on the Cape May canal in August of 1942 and was completed the following March.

The canal was to stretch a little more than three-and-a-half miles, with a water depth of 12 feet and a width at the bottom of about 100 feet.

The completion of the canal in 1943, the Garden Stare Parkway in 1954 and the Cape May-Lewes ferry in 1964 marked a triple play that was to open new doors for tourism, not only in Cape May but at other seashore resorts here.

No longer was the county, as Senator Scott once described, “the definite end of the trail.”

(Some of the information in this article was researched at the Cape May County Library in a comprehensive paper written by Mark Blesko when he was a graduate student at Trenton State College in November of 1975.)

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