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Bizarre History of Cape May --Town Bank was once touted as a whaling town

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 It can be said with levity that the early settlers who came to the Cape Island/Cape May area had a whale of a time here. Many historical accounts have recorded that these arrivals from Long Island and Connecticut migrated in the 17th and 18th centuries to profit from whaling, and not so incidentally to make an impact on the future of the territory.

The most popular place to catch a whale then appeared to be the waters of what is now the Town Bank section of Lower Township. So popular, in fact, that Town Bank, also known as New England Town, Portsmouth Town and Falmouth, was being touted in the 17th century as one of the most successful whaling communities in the New World.

Today, local old-timers consider Town Bank the birthplace of South Jersey, perhaps with justification. Although often upstaged by its neighbor in Cape May, Town Bank and its parent Township of Lower are deeper in history than the once named Cape Island.

Lower Township was incorporated as a municipality in 1798, Cape Island was not to reach that stage until 1851 as a city and as a name change to Cape May until 1869.

The whalers were excited about their fishing possibilities then between 1680 and 1700 in the Delaware Bay. Interest was created even earlier in the 1600s when whales were sighted close to land and some entrepreneurs decided that they could provide an economic advantage for the area.

At one point even William Penn, the founder of the city of Philadelphia, who is said to have had another residence somewhere along the river, got into the act and extolled the virtues of whaling in those waters. Many of the whales were about 60 feet long, 40 feet in circumference and each weighing about 250 pounds. They were attacked, usually in February, by six men crews with 11 foot harpoons in whaling boats that were 28 feet in length and six feet wide at the center.

Coming from Puritan stock, the whalers never did their killings on Sunday. It was a day of rest and prayer.

Although prime time for whaling occurred here between 1680 and 1700, initial interest appeared to have been created as far back as the early 1600s when whales were sighted not far from the beach. That’s when local entrepreneurs decided that the whales’ capture and conversion into marketable products would provide an economic bonus. They even came up with plans for a Delaware Bay whale factory and a whaling station.

The hands of Dr. Daniel Coxe, an English court physician who never came to the New World, were still evident in the whaling story. From a distance in London he involved others here in a whaling enterprise.

One of his many long distance projects was to send French Hugenots in 1688 to what was to become Cape May almost two centuries later. Their mission was to develop salt making, whale fishing and wine industries.

Fishing for whales was not always to be the area’s major industry. In those early days it was more of a supplemental income for most. Many were farmers and they harvested cedar logs cut from forests and exported tens of thousands of them as three foot long shingles.

Optimistic as they were, the whaling business never fully emerged into the promise that was expected. Sometimes the boats went out and they couldn’t find a whale. But there is still a reminder of the past here as whales have become part of Cape May’s tourist attractions. Tour boats often go out to sea with passengers who consider it a vacation experience to watch a whale. The difference between now and then, however, is that people are required to leave their harpoons at the door.

Whether the early whale hunting can be marked as the first time settlers established full-time residence in Cape May is a matter of conjecture. There are some who claim that the Lenni Lenape Indians were here first, and they offer archaeological evidence to support their argument. But others rebut that they were only summer tourists and could not have spent the whole year in the area because of a lack of potable water.

Supposedly, so the story goes, while some of the Indians were on the warpath with the intruders on their land out west, the Lenape, naïve to the ways of the outer war, were generally on friendly terms with the European explorers and settlers. Not always though.

Foreigners brought rum and disease and the Indians were to suffer from that. Apparently in the early part of the 18th century the Lenape saw the folly of their relationships and held a powwow in the woods in the area of Gravelly Run between Mayville and Whitesboro in Middle Township. They decided to get out of the area while the getting was good.

Another claim is that the first settlers were the whalers from Long Island and Connecticut who allegedly came here in 1638. But that too was only to be part-time residencies and did not qualify as full-timers. That was not to happen until 1685 when written documentation says that the county’s first settlement was on the banks of the Delaware River in the area of today’s Town Bank, which also was referred to as Cape May Town.


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