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Bizarre History of Cape May --Inaugural trip of Cape May-Lewes Ferry was not so smooth

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They love to hold parties in Cape May and in early July 1964 they held two of them, one to mark Independence Day and the other to celebrate a grand opening.

The non-traditional celebration was for the fist official trips of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry on the first day of July, 1964. Ordinarily such an event would not have provided that much historical significance because there had been other ferry crossings to precede it, formally and informally. Several years earlier, for instance, the movers and shakers of vacation land had arranged for tours from Baltimore to Lewes by train and then to Cape May via ferries.

But on this hot sticky day of July during the tumultuous 1960s it was to be different because for the first rime here the ferries were to carry automobiles and, more importantly, the Cape May region could no longer be called the dead end of New Jersey, with no place to advance to unless you were a swimmer or had a boat attached to your automobile.

Not everyone was happy with the addition of the ferry service which was to have its New Jersey landing in Lower Township, although its title said Cape May. Why, it was asked, wasn’t it called the Lower-Lewes Ferry?

The main criticism, though, was that motorists would now bypass Cape May and go directly to the docking area without giving Cape May a look. Others argued that the addition of the ferries would make Cape May more accessible and would bring new tourists to the area.

The ferry celebration actually began on the near 100 degree temperature day of June 30 and everything didn’t go smoothly, like when New Jersey passengers on the ceremonial trip were stranded in Delaware.

Everything went fine at the ceremony on the Cape May side, however, and then at $10 a trip hundreds boarded the appropriately named SS Cape May for a voyage to Lewes. Ironically, no automobiles were allowed on the ferry. The waters were calm but when the boat reached the Lewes slip at 4 p.m. things went awry.

As the captain maneuvered the vessel around dredge lines and came closer to a large oil drum, the ferry’s propeller hooked a steel cable holding the drum and the cable wrapped around the propeller shaft. The captain managed to guide the disabled ferry into the slip but it was in no shape to return to Cape May. Neither were its passengers, who found themselves on the other side of the Delaware Bay without a paddle.

A call for help was sent to the shipyard in Norfolk and authorities there flew an emergency diver and his equipment to Lewes. Three hours after the mishap he was deep in the waters of Lewes cutting off the steel cable and finding no damage to the ferry. At 9 p.m. the stranded passengers boarded the SS Cape Henlopen, which had returned its Lewes passengers to Delaware from the New Jersey ceremony and was about to make another journey to Cape May.

The next day, the first official one, was uneventful and unspectacular. The first ferry left Lewes at 6:47 a.m., seven minutes later than its scheduled departure, and carried eight vehicles and 15 passengers. On the other side of the bay more passengers were anxious to get out of Cape May than into it. Its load included 26 passengers, six cars, a truck and a mobile trailer. By the end of the first month, however, the numbers totaled 27,250 vehicles and 100,700 passengers, amounting to $170,000 in revenues, not grandiose but encouraging enough to indicate that better signs were to come.

For a while, though, there were not better times. In August the crews went on strike and the ferry service was grounded for 17days. Some Democrats were unhappy too, suspecting a Republican plot behind it all. They had been displeased to start off with about conditions at Atlantic City, where the National Democratic Convention was held to nominate Lyndon Johnson for President. They had heard of the new Cape May-Lewes Ferry while at the convention, so some decided to try it out after the convention on the way past Cape May.

But when they arrived at the docks in Lower Township and were told there was no ferry service because of the strike, and had to reroute themselves to the Delaware Bridge, their protests were so loud they could almost be heard in the White House they coveted.

History has recorded that the first formal ferry system in the United States opened in New Jersey in 1824, some 180 miles or so from Cape May, then known as Cape Island. It made its way from Hoboken across the Hudson River to Manhattan. It was to be followed by a series of other ferries that crossed the Hudson, until they were outdated by the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels and the George Washington Bridge.

More than a century later in 1955, when talks were heating up about a possible ferry system at the “dead end” of New Jersey, the Hudson River figured in the local scenario when its day line company offered to operate a service between Cape May and Lewes in cooperation with the New Jersey Highway Commission. But like other plans in those days this one was soon scuttled.

After Hoboken broke ground, or better said broke water, other formal ferry systems began to appear along the Delaware River, most notably between Camden and Philadelphia until they were grounded by bridges bearing the famous names of Walt Whitman and Ben Franklin.

Meanwhile, a bit closer to Cape May, a ferry system between New Castle, Del. and Pennsville was in trouble in the 1940s, unable to meet increasing traffic demands caused by automobiles on the way south or north. Like others before and after them, the problem was solved by building a bridge. This one was to be called the Delaware Memorial Bridge and was to open on August 16, 1951, the same day that the ferries made their last rites voyages beneath it.

In Cape May, however, they were talking not about closing a ferry system, but starting one. Although the two states were not always in agreement, they eventually came up with a compact that established a governing body of the traffic facilities, called for the construction of a second bridge to augment the Delaware Memorial and, most significantly for Cape May, recommended an update of an earlier feasibility study that focused on the possibility of a ferry system.

Eventually there was conviviality on the issue between the two states, some of it apparently enhanced by good food served at a discussion session at a New Jersey restaurant. On the way home a Delaware legislator cautioned the governor not to make a hasty decision on the issue.

What’s the problem?” asked Delaware Governor Caleb Boggs.

“Oh, there’s no problem,” the legislator responded, “but I enjoy these parties so much, perhaps we can encourage them to have one or two more before we vote.”

(Some of the information in this article was researched in the book, “A Ferry Tale” by William J. Miller Jr. and at the reference department of the Cape May County Library.)

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