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Bizarre History of Cape May --The story of Cape Island’s first walking mayor

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The first mayor of Cape Island, so history has told us, enjoyed walking so much that when he was 20 years old he trekked 400 miles or so from Lancaster, Ohio to his birthplace in Philadelphia.

His name was Isaac Miller Church Jr. and seldom was there a more appropriate name for what life designated him to do. From 1848 to 1852 Church served as pastor of the Cape Island Baptist Church, causing parishioners to quip, “We go to two churches every Sunday morning.”

The minister was 37 years old when he doubled as the clergyman and the first mayor of Cape Island in 1851. His term of office, then designated as only one year, was even shorter than that, when he resigned to move north to another church and to eventually become a Civil War chaplain and prisoner.

That was not to become the end of the Church family in Cape Island, however. Along came Isaac’s brother, John Kake Church, who served as the third mayor of Cape Island. (The second mayor was James Clark, a former postmaster there.)

The patriarch of the Church family was Isaac Church Sr., a blind man, who set the pattern for his son as pastor from May 17, 1844 to October 7, 1848.

Originally the family was from Philadelphia, but the father took them to Lancaster, Ohio in 1818. In 1834, when Isaac Jr. was 20 he decided to hike all the way back to his birthplace. His father and other family members soon followed, settling near the steamboat landing of Lower Township in what is now Cape May Point.

Isaac Jr., meanwhile, pursued a missionary career while becoming active in the politics of the government. He was ordained on April 4, 1841 as a licentiate of the Cape May Baptist Church and accepted a call to be its pastor in 1848, three years before he became Cape Island mayor.

The younger brother, John Kake Church, did not enter the ministry, but was still active in church affairs and especially in local government. He was born at Lancaster, came east with his family when he was 16 years old and learned the carpentry trade in Cape Island.

John was elected city clerk at a time when city clerks were not appointed and he was elected mayor three times in the 1850s and councilman once in 1856. He was to die suddenly on the Saturday afternoon of July 30, 1859 in his boat at Schellenger’s Landing on his way home from a fishing trip with friends. Doctors diagnosed the cause of death as apoplexy.

His brother, Isaac, took part in the Civil War and gained fame in it for his role as a chaplain and a prisoner captured in an early and famous battle. After he gave up the mayoralty in 1851, Isaac moved to South Kingston, RI, where he became pastor of the Baptist Church. He showed his versatility by also working as a house painter, photographer, teacher and counselor for the municipality.

He also became active in government in South Kingston, serving as president of the town council and chairman of the school committee.

And with war clouds hovering over a divided nation, Isaac Jr. joined Company E of the Second Rhode Island Infantry, first as a second lieutenant on June 6, 1861, then to become a first lieutenant and finally a captain.

He was soon to be drawn into the first Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861 and was captured by the Confederates. He spent nearly a year as a prisoner of war at the infamous Libby Prison in Richmond, Va. where he gave spiritual guidance to fellow prisoners. It was the same prison in which Henry Sawyer, still a resident of Cape Island, was confined two years later and almost lost his life in a death lottery after he was captured in the Battle of Brandy Station in 1863.

For a community so small, Cape Island had offered its share of sacrifices, some fatal, in the war. One of them was Sgt Richard T. Tindall, who died of typhoid fever while guarding the entrances to Washington. He was the son of Rev. Napoleon Tindall, a school teacher and acting pastor of the Cape Island Baptist Church for a few months in 1844 before Isaac M. Church Sr. assumed full status as pastor.

Isaac Jr. survived the war and died on October 28, 1874 in Davisville, RI at the age of 60. He is buried at Riverside Cemetery in Wakefield, RI. Surviving him was his widow, the former Judith Swayne Thompson of Cape May, whom he married on October 16, 1834. She lived until August 19, 1887 when she died in Millville.

Between the two Churches – the earthly ones – arrived Cape Island’s second mayor unrelated to his predecessor and successor. James Clark was born on June 7, 1798 in Cedarville in Cumberland County, then moved to Philadelphia before he discovered Cape Island where he lived most of his live. An ardent Democrat, Clark was a supporter of James Polk, the 11th President of the United States whom some historians rate as one of the nation’s most underrated presidents.

Clark’s support of Polk apparently won his appointment by the president as the first postmaster in Cape Island from July 7, 1845 to May 9, 1849

His selection as the second mayor did not come easily. The opportunity arose when Isaac Church Jr. resigned during his one-year term and the position opened for the governing council to fill. The names of three candidates were up for consideration, Clark opposed by Dr. Samuel S. Marcy and John K. F. Sites. It took five ballots before the council selected Clark for the unexpired term.

The voters apparently agreed with the council because they elected him later to a full term until 1853 when he was succeeded by John Kake Church.

Clark was soon to be back in his old job as postmaster, appointed by another Democratic president, James Buchanan, whom historians have ranked one of the worst American presidents. Buchanan is one of several presidents who are said to have vacationed at Cape Island, later to be renamed Cape May after the Civil War.

Clark served as postmaster until December 5, 1859. Five days later he died at the age of 61.


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