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The Bizarre History of Cape May >> All roads lead to Cape May

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 Long ago, before there were parking meters or bumper to bumper traffic on rainy summer Sundays, it was not easy to get from point A to point B in Cape May, or anywhere else in the county for that matter. Some in today’s colloquialism might say if you didn’t have a boat to get around you’d really be up the creek or the ocean without a paddle.

The Indians, who may or may not have been permanent residents here depending upon which version you want to believe, had a pretty good handle on how to get around in their boats and on their horses. It wasn’t exactly the Garden State Parkway or the Cape May-Lewes Ferry but they made it happen without benefit of toll booths.

Back in the 17th century, when nobody had a clue about beach tag fees or bed and breakfast houses, an English adventurer named Robert Evelyn met some Indians on this soil and found an “elaborate and sophisticated network of paths, trails and creek crossings” that helped him get around the cape without necessarily getting his feet wet.

Later in that century, as the population grew, approval was given to build an official Cape Road through the Cedar Swamp. It took 10 years to complete with all kinds of problems en route, not the least of which was that the path through what is now the Belleplain State Forest was impassable.

A grand jury, then apparently more powerful than it is today, ordered another road to be built, this one going north to south not far from today’s Rt. 9 and ending near Town Bank. Road building, modest that it was, perked along and another was built in 1710 from ocean to bay in the southern area of the slowly growing territory. In time, the county had a network of roads from north to south, east to west.

These new roads benefited many. Farmers were now able to drive their cattle quicker and more frequently to markets beyond the local shores. The number of “public houses of entertainment” increased and so did the licensed inns and taverns. More preachers showed up for a revival that was labeled “The Great Awakening.”

In the absence of the telegraph and today’s modern communications, residents were still able to get more recent news of the outside world from visitors who traveled the more accessible new roads. The first stagecoach arrived following a route from Cumberland County along the current Rt. 47 into today’s Cape May County. It was a major travel event here, opening the doors along the route for new businesses and settlements, as well as schools and churches.

Meanwhile, there was progress on the government front too. Perhaps an indication of the future, the first woman in the county’s history to hold a county position took office in 1791.

Elizabeth Holmes served as acting county clerk and tax collector. She was to be the first of 26 county clerks in this county, the past two having been women. Rita Fulginiti, the current county clerk, has held the position since 2005. Her predecessor, Angela Pulvino, served from 1972 to 2005. No other women have held that position in Cape May County.

The lower part of the county, for awhile playing second fiddle to the upper section, caught up with the road building boom between 1780 and 1800. Signs that Cape Island was to become a major seashore resort began to appear before the turn of the century and a new road emerged between Cold Spring and Cape May. One unlicensed house appeared along the route and the busy grand jury indicted Memucan Hughes for causing a public nuisance. It was also indicting others, some freed African-Americans, for larceny and assault and battery.

But roads were still on the minds of developers and, much like today, they weren’t all free roads either. In 1854, as the nation struggled over whether to free the slaves, the Cape May Turnpike Company was formed to build a toll road along the path of the present Rt. 9 from Court House to Cape May (a forerunner of the present Garden State Parkway?). Financial interest was not all that great and steamboat owner Wilmon Whildin argued that the way of the future was on the waterway not the roadway.

Property owners and farmers didn’t like the idea either. Land owners wanted more money for seizure of their land and farmers and merchants protested that they would have to pay tolls while delivering their merchandise to hotels and other businesses on the way to Cape May.

The turnpike company persevered, however, not with much financial success. In 1857 the movers and shakers purchased a toll house from the Cape Island Turnpike, today possessing the Hollywood-like name of Sunset Boulevard, which had served as a route from a steamboat landing in the Cape May Point-Lower Township area to Cape May. The purchased toll house was said to have been installed near Cold Spring and another close to Court House.

One of the catalysts for the new route was Dr. John Wiley, who was to be a Civil War hero, who fought to keep the county seat at Court House. He was also the organizer and first president of the Cape May County Medical Society.

Wiley is said to have played a major role in the acquisition of land for the roadway. Optimistically, he said in April 1858, three years before the Civil War broke out, “I now have every reason to hope that the two sections or ends of the turnpike will be joined together in less than three weeks, making a continuous road from Cape Island to Cape May Court House.”

Others were not as pleased or optimistic as the good doctor. Sometimes referred to as “freeloaders” these objectors used a wagon track nearby upon which to travel with their goods and avoid the toll booths. It was not unlike some of today’s travelers who prefer Rt. 9 to the toll route of the adjacent Garden State Parkway.

Physical problems emerged with the arrival of the Cape Island Turnpike. Given the heavy storms that often attacked the seashore, the roadbed was frequently washed away and in need of repairs. And more and more there was talk of the railroad coming to Cape May County. Who needs a toll route, the investors asked, when the iron horse would be quicker and better? (The first train was not to arrive in Cape island until August 22, 1863.)

But free or not, they went on building roads in Cape Island and the rest of the county and given the water surrounding it there came bridges too, many of them with tolls. One of the biggest, induced by the popularity of the seashore and certainly the arrival of the automobile, was the Camden Bridge in 1926. Today it is better known as the Ben Franklin Bridge that connects Philadelphia with New Jersey and is only a few miles from the New Jersey Turnpike.

Like the days of old, both the bridge and the turnpike are toll takers. Some things never change, no matter how old.

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

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