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Bizarre History: Tourists weren't fooled by cold snap on April 1, 1923

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It’s common during Easter time that tourism officials sit back and take a look at what has been, at what is now and at what they hope will be.

Easter, of course, is not the official opening of the tourism season. Some designate the grand opening as Memorial Day and others say it is the Fourth of July. There are still others who contend there is no such thing because Cape May County is open for tourism much of the year; well, maybe not in January when many locals evacuate to Florida.

Still, with schools closed during the follow-up week and with some adults having longer weekends, the number of visitors begins to increase during the holiday season. Some come to make summer reservations, to check out their second homes or, as the case might be this year, to get away from the harsh snowbound winters that they have suffered and which Cape May, comparatively speaking, has not.

So, it is not a wild guess, given all the circumstances of the weather, the economy and the competition, that the local leaders of the county’s biggest industry will be using the week of Easter as something of a crystal ball for the future.

Certainly they were doing just that in Cape May during the Easter week of 1896. Tourism had not done all that well in Cape May in the 15 years before that and there was a yearning for the return of the good old days when “southern men and belles” came to the city.

For five years the sale of real estate was virtually non-existent and that, according to The New York Times, showed “the pulse of prosperity to be low.” Some of this was triggered by the Panic of 1873 which had a long lasting effect on the economy and was known as “The Great Depression” until a greater one came along in the 1930s.

The signs were optimistic, though, as the weather turned warm on April 4, 1896. James Henry Edmunds, publisher of the Cape May Wave since 1887, was mayor in 1896, serving his comeback second term after he was defeated in 1893 by James E. Hildreth. They were to play ping pong with the mayor’s position as Hildreth regained it in 1897.

The President of the United States in that year was William McKinley, who was to be assassinated four years later.

But the tourists from Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington started to come back on that sunny weekend in April and the hotels gladly threw open their doors to welcome them. It was a younger group with younger and fresher ideas that sparked the comeback. A Board of Trade was named to promote the resort and, much like today, the word went out to distant points to encourage people to come to the seashore.

“There are improvements on every hand,” wrote The New York Times. “Property is changing hands, and cottages have been taken up very rapidly for spring and summer occupancy. All of this is because the municipal authorities are attempting to provide some artificial amusements to entice visitors to come and stay.”

Tourism officials indeed were happy that the old days were beginning to return, if not with “southern men and belles,” at least with end-of-the-century men and women with money in their wallets and pocketbooks.

But Easter weather, usually coming in the unpredictable month of April, was not always conducive to tourist promotion. The movers and shakers were to learn that in the Aprils of 1923 and 1924 when it was more like January than spring.

It was so cold on that April Fools’ Day of 1923 that the steam heating equipment of the trains’ passenger coaches was frozen before the train left Camden. The hardy passengers were dressed more like they were heading for Alaska than Cape May. As if they didn’t know already, they got a clue of what the climate was like when en route they saw people ice skating on ponds, a rare sight then in the county.

Cape May met the challenge, though, in an early forerunner of what is happening today. To entertain the shivering visitors, the then Polar Bear Club jumped into the ocean, apparently in an attempt to show that in cold or warm weather the ocean can be appreciated. The leaders of the ocean dive were identified in the media as Albert Smith and “Professor Bard of the Cape May High School.”

A few weeks earlier they practiced for the big event by crawling over piles of ice before jumping into the ocean. The mayor was Frederick G. Melvin, who opted to stay on land.

The weather wasn’t much better the next year when Frank McCray was mayor, even though Easter occurred on April 20. The crowds “flocked to the shore,” according to The New York Times, which reported that the roads leading into the city “were clogged with motorists from all over the eastern part of the country.”

The ocean, the usual attraction at Cape May, provided a bonus this time. It had been violent along the New Jersey coast for some time and tourists came by automobile and train to see what all the publicity was about.

Also arriving were the fishing boats, 50 of them from the Gloucester mackerel fleet, whose crews braved the rough waters along the coast to fish for profit.

So it was through Cape May’s long history that in addition to its Christian import Easter Sunday  and the days surrounding it served hopefully as an indicator of things to come. On Christmas Day the city is quiet. Most restaurants and stores are closed as families come together in their homes. But on Easter people parade in their Sunday best, many restaurants open after a winter hiatus and the city starts to come alive again.

Maybe this year, even if it snows (oh no!), somebody will jump in the ocean to make it official.

(Some of the information in this article was researched at the reference department of the county library on Mechanic Street in Cape May Court House.)

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