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Bizarre History of Cape May: Summer of 1869 started Cape May’s tourism rebound

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 After the Civil War ended with the surrender by General Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865 at Virginia’s Appomattox Court House, the county governed at New Jersey’s Cape May Court House began to make its tourism comeback, especially in what was then still known as Cape Island.

It was not until the summer of 1869, however, its war wounds beginning to heal, that Cape Island returned to some of its glory tourism days. Shattered by the war and still antagonistic toward the North, many southerners avoided the seashore resort to which they had brought their dollars before the Civil War broke out.

Unlike the bloody history of places like Gettysburg and Bull Run, Cape Island was not in the thick of the war, its lands virtually untouched by the violence of combat. But it did have bittersweet and not so sweet stories to tell of men and boys who went off to war.

The most famous, of course, is that of captured horseman Henry Sawyer was scheduled to be executed by the South as a result of a death lottery until his wife asked President Abraham Lincoln to intervene. Sawyer was spared in a prisoner exchange for General Lee’s son who was being held by the Union.

This drama of love and near tragedy was not to be played for others, unfortunately, as they left their bodies on the battlegrounds of other American soil.

So it was that southern tourism remained hampered by the post-war economy, by controversies over how to reconstruct the South and handle the freed slaves, and while it was still recalling grim memories of the war, Cape Island faced for four years with the local issue of how to reconstruct tourism.

It was in 1869 that things seemed to be turning around, but not conclusively.

One writer spoke glowingly of the resort: “All the rest of Jersey is dull, stale and unprofitable,” he wrote, “but there is enough poetry in Cape May to compensate for the whole state.”

The year began auspiciously on March 9 when Waters B. Miller, said to be the wealthiest man in the county, was mayor (annual salary $500) and the city of Cape Island was renamed Cape May. Some of the streets were renamed too and their routes were altered. Front Street became Wood Street, later Windsor Avenue, and possibly in anticipation of an upcoming visit by the President of the United States, Second Street was renamed Grant Street.

The alignment of Lafayette Street, named after the French general who helped George Washington during the Revolutionary War, was straightened and Washington Street was widened. The locals boasted Lafayette Street as “the prettiest street in the resort.”

For the summer season an increase in the number of boat and train journeys was reported and the Ocean Wave described the scene upon the arrival of a train in Cold Spring as a place of “medicinal waters and hacks full of visitors.”

“Then the smell of salt and mud is stronger and the train moves slowly over the marsh and the whistle toots twice, and the brakes go down twice and Mulliner cries out ‘Cape May’ and everybody rises up and shakes his or her quota of sand cinders over everybody else, and rushes out on the platform to meet everybody’s friend,” the article describes.

It was a big summer for generals. Ulysses S. Grant, in his first year as a president, arrived with his family early on Saturday, July 17, aboard the revenue cutter Tallapoosa which had been commissioned on Sept. 13, 1864. After a hearty breakfast aboard ship they went ashore at Steamboat Landing and were transported in carriages to Cape May.

A month later, General George Gordon Meade of Gettysburg battle fame, no stranger to Cape May, returned with his family.

The two days at Cape May were busy ones for the 18th President of the United States. First, barely off the ship, he inspected reserve troops camped at Cape May, then off to the United States Hotel where he changed into swimming attire for some time in the ocean.

That evening he went from the United States Hotel to the newly opened and highly touted Stockton Hotel from which he watched fireworks and danced a set or two at a ball held later in the evening. Grant finished the weekend with more troop inspections on Sunday before returning to the Tallapoosa. The locals gave him a big farewell by sending rockets of fireworks into the sky as the ship sailed away.

Grant and Meade were fortunate that they left before Aug. 31 because on that date a devastating fire broke out and destroyed a two block area in the heart of the city. One of the hotels that burned down was the United States which was built in 1851 and which Grant had visited with his family earlier that summer.

The president was to return five years later by train on June 13 and 14, 1874 , this time with an all male contingent of cabinet members and other government representatives. It was at a time when gambling and female entertainment supplemented the attractions of the ocean and the promenade on the island.

Before the fire broke out, the Boardwalk was extended and it became known as Flirtation Walk. More horses and carriages rode on the beach as the trains and boats conveyed more people to the island. Entertainment flourished at the hotels in the form of band concerts and performances by Susan Gallon and her English Comic Opera Troupe.

Population in the county grew by 1,090 during the period from the end of the war to 1870, much of it attributable to the number of freed slaves from Maryland and Virginia, and to German-Americans who first came to Pennsylvania and Atlantic County before they were lured to Cape May. The first Italian-American family to settle there was said to be that of Caramille Mirabella, who migrated from Naples and operated a small inn on the cape.

So it was that Cape May flourished in 1869, only to be set back by one of many fires that were to take their toll. But it showed its resiliency in the 1870s as the economy picked up, and while it wasn’t like the “good, old days” it was an indicator that better times, if not happier times, were here again.

 (Some of the information in this article was researched in the June 1969 edition of the Cape May County Magazine of History and Genealogy and in Jeffery M. Dorwart’s book “Cape May County, New Jersey, The Making of an American Resort Community.”)

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