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Bizarre History of Cape May -- Parkway

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 When Horace Greeley led a delegation from New York City to Cape Island, later to be renamed Cape May, in August 1847 to interview Henry Clay, it required an overnight voyage aboard a ship. The same journey by stage coach would have consumed two days and nights.

That, of course, was long before Wilbur and Orville Wright had made an impact on air transportation, and certainly before Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet appeared in Cape May with their land vehicles. The railroads didn’t begin to show up until the Civil War, sometimes so inefficiently that the passengers had to get out and push when the trains were mired in the mud.

Today, depending upon the high profile tourism weekends and the flow of traffic on the Garden State Parkway, the route can be traveled within three to six hours, providing the speedometer doesn’t stir up the noisy sirens of the police cars.

Getting in and out of Cape May was not an easy task in the late 1700s, when justice was not always served promptly because the rainy season made it virtually impossible to get to the courthouse, or whatever served as the hall of justice in Burlington.

Finally in 1697, the courts ordered the construction of a road from Cape May to Burlington, 100 miles up the Delaware River, which in 1691 had been named the administrative and judicial center for what was then called West Jersey. The next year, 1698, the court mandated a road that was to run one half mile south of today’s South Seaville and to run northwest to the Cumberland County border.

More road construction was ordered and by the end of 1710 the county had a network of roads that linked Cape May and other lower areas with the upper sections and the seashore with the bayside.

The ensuing years brought a surge of road and bridge building to the upper sections of the cape. During the period between 1780 and 1800, after the nation had gained its independence, some said the boom was synonymous with the birth of Cape Island as a seashore resort.

In 1785, for instance, a new road between Cold Spring and Cape Island opened, considered a major development for the area at that time, connecting three licensed houses and an unlicensed one whose owner Memucan Hughes was indicted in 1799 for causing a public nuisance.

Not everyone, especially Hughes, was happy with this turn of events. Farmers were displeased because the roads ran through their property or near it. Even angrier were the people whose property was seized through condemnation to make room for the roads.

As the automobile arrived on the scene, the demands for more and better roads increased. To meet the challenge during the early 20th century, county freeholders embarked upon a massive road and bridge building program covering 100 miles.

It was not without controversy and accusations of bidding improprieties. During the passage of years, amidst outcries that its membership was much too large, the Board of Chosen Freeholders was reduced from 16 members to 12 and, finally, to its current five.

Despite new and improved roads and bridges, access to Cape May and the rest of the county was still slow as cars were becoming faster. A trip from North Jersey on a hot summer day when cars were not air conditioned was often long and uncomfortable, delayed along Rt. 9 on occasion as cops stepped out into the middle of the roadway and stopped traffic to allow east-west bound cars to cross the roadway lined with automobiles heading north or south.

The problem was recognized the county’s leaders. They discussed the possibility of constructing a four lane “super road” between Beesleys Point and Cape May City. That was in 1941 and it was not to happen to Cape May County until the summer of 1953. The “super road” was to be called the Garden State Parkway.

Like many ideas of statewide significance, this one for a 164-mile long toll road between the border of New York State and the fringes of Lower Township was born in North Jersey. In 1945, as World War II came to an end, the New Jersey legislature enacted legislation designed to end traffic congestion on the way to the seashore on US Routes 1 and 9 and NJ 35

It was originally called NJ 4, but was to be given the more home-like title of Garden State Parkway in the years to come.

For a while it was slow going until the parkway reached Cape May, the last 27 miles not completed there until 1954. The route was supposed to avoid farmlands but one pig farmer complained it was disturbing his oinking pigs by going right through the center of his farm. Others were assured they would get a fair price for their property and their negotiations delayed the opening of the last section between Wildwood and Cape May until September of 1954.

The crowds arrived in huge numbers, some from New York and North Jersey, for the first time into Cape May and bypassing other popular resorts to the north along the way. On the Independence Day weekend of 1955, when the Parkway opened in all its glory, record crowds were reported throughout the county’s seashore resorts.

But in a scenario not unfamiliar with that of today, at the end of the Parkway there was gridlock as automobiles struggled to advance to Cape May and find parking spaces there. The city, as it has done often since then, opened school property to accommodate the overflow motorists.

Today the Garden State Parkway is in full force in all of its modernity. But there are still traces of the past.

Instead of policemen stopping traffic in the middle of the road, there are traffic lights doing the job in Cape May County, an irony if there ever was one for a highway that was supposed to give motorists quick transportation. That is all supposed to be given another fix, if not a quick one, in the not too distant future with the construction of overpasses that will eliminate the red and green policemen.

And just like the past on Rt. 9, there can be traffic jams on the Parkway on a Sunday morning or afternoon when the motels discharge their visitors and send them home. Some things never change, just the dates, the names and, of course, the roads.

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


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