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Bizarre History of Cape May -- Cape May County had its own little ‘civil war’ over site of new court house

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 They did not fire bullets and there were no casualties, other than political, but the developments during the first half of the 19th century in Cape May County may have been a harbinger of bigger things to come in the nation during the 1800s.

This was civil war mini-style. The issues were which part of the county, the north or the south, was to dominate in government and where the county seat should be located – the middle or more toward the north of Cape May County. Sometimes it grew real nasty and war-like during the process.

Cape Island, still a relatively new kid on the block compared to some of the other communities, was drawn right into the middle of the controversy as it sought equal representation from what it considered the prejudiced upper, northerly section of the county.

The battles are said to have begun in 1833 when it was decided that the county needed a new court house. The decision spawned a controversy that lasted for almost 15 years and was delayed by made and unmade deals, promises and broken promises about roads and bridges and accusations that did not embellish reputations.

The original court house, the one in need of replacement, was situated in the middle of the peninsula, along what was referred to as the seashore road, a location its critics claimed was out of touch and out of sight from much of the county, especially the active Dennis Creek, which had broken away from Upper Township to go on its own. The freeholders from Dennis Creek joined with another faction on the board to form a majority to move the county seat to Dennis Creek, to be renamed Dennisville.

This did not set well with the people of Cape Island, especially after they learned 80 percent of public works projects between 1815 and 1848 were awarded to Dennis Creek, including a new bridge.

Apparently to assuage their constituents in the lower part of the county, the freeholders promised them a new bridge over Cape Island Creek, but that never came to fruition and the south grew unhappy about the north through 1844 and 1845.

The wounds of rejection worsened even more when the six northern freeholders voted to build a new Dennis Creek bridge. Absent from the initial deliberation was the freeholder representing Lower Township, which was closely associated with but did not include Cape Island in its domain. Cape Island was not to be incorporated as an official municipality until 1848.

Feeling the sting from the opposition, the freeholders relented and in May of 1845 they drew up a plan for the Lower Township bridge. But there was a hitch. The county could only pay for half of the project, they said. “Whoa!” said the southerners. “You paid for the whole job in your back yard. Isn’t this discrimination?” On Dec. 7, 1847, a date that was to live in infamy for the United States 106 years later, the freeholders scuttled their plans for a Lower Township bridge.

Enter the story a doctor from Salem whose name lives on in Cape May County until this day.

John Wiley migrated to what was to become known as Cape May Court House. He set up a medical practice in a house he bought on Rt. 9, which also known locally as Main Street. Today that house, looking diagonally across the street at a complex of county government buildings, stands as an upscale bed and breakfast establishment which is cleverly titled “The Doctor’s Inn” in Wiley’s honor.

Wiley, who later was to volunteer as a doctor in the Civil War, earned his civilian credits as a crusader to preserve a section of Court House as the site of the new courthouse building and the county seat.

One of his big arguments against moving county government to Dennis Creek was the cost. In a handbill circulated in Cape May he asked, “Now, shall we voluntarily assume an additional debt of $20,000, and increase our taxes three fold which are sufficiently heavy already for the sole purpose of destroying one place and increasing the importance of another?”

Them he added, “Let s leave Cape May Court House and Dennis Creek villages to take care of themselves while we take care of the county, and look to her interests rather than to individuals, and this can best be done by keeping out of debts and exercising economy.”

The doctor’s campaign led to a referendum on April 25, 1848 on the issue. Percentage wise, it proved to be the largest turnout of voters in the county’s history, then and now. Of the 1,005 registered voters, 1,003 cast ballots. Four years earlier only 129 county voters showed up in an election to decide whether to accept a new state constitution.

In the 1848 election to determine the county seat, Court House won by a margin of 89 votes. The section of Goshen down the road from Dennis Creek was also an election contestant, but only garnered 44 votes, hardly enough to match its opponents.

The big margin for Court House came from the offended people of Lower Township who considered themselves something of stepsisters to those at the other end of the county.

Two years later in 1850 the new court house was dedicated. It still stands today, although only used for ceremonial and meeting purposes. It has been replaced by a newer facility as part of a complex of county buildings off the Garden State Parkway.

For Cape Island, good things happened during the process. On May 2, 1848 its movers and shakers met at a school and organized as an incorporated borough. Three years later in 1851 they made it an incorporated city. (It would not become Cape May City until 1869.)

They drew up laws that were meant “to suppress riotous conduct,” “prohibit the explosion of fireworks,” ban swimming “without suitable bathing attire” and, something akin to today’s time of automobiles in Cape May, they passed a law that prohibited horses and carriages from parking illegally and blocking traffic.

Equally important was the fact that Cape Island received freeholder representation and formed a coalition with its friends from Lower Township. They finally won their long sought bridge. On June 10, 1851, the freeholders voted for the improvement and enlargement of a wing of the Cape Island Bridge.

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

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