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History of Cape May

17th Century

The earliest inhabitants of the peninsula we call Cape May were the Kechemeche Indians of the Lenni-Lenape tribe who mainly hunted these grounds. Following sighting by Sir Henry Hudson in 1609, and exploration by Cornelius Jacobsen Mey in 1621, the first residents purchased land from the Indians in the 1630s and developed a prosperous fishing and whaling industry. English colonists from Connecticut and Massachusetts, by the late 17th century, had further developed whaling and introduced farming to this area now known as Cape Island.

18th Century

It was more than 200 years ago, in 1766, that Cape Island’s development as a place where many resort for their health and pleasure began. The visitors came first from Philadelphia, by horse-drawn wagons, stagecoaches, sloops and schooners. They were housed in very rustic public houses, taverns, and resident homes. At the turn of the century, advertisement in the Philadelphia papers described the beautiful situation of Cape May, the sea-bathing, and the fish, oysters and crabs to eat and enjoy! 

Early 19th Century

By 1834, there were six boarding houses and Cape Island began to attract the elite of New York, Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia. Hotel size increased in ensuing years - the New Atlantic, built in 1842, could accommodate 300 guests. Music pavilions and ballrooms blossomed. A two week stay by Henry Clay, in 1847, reinforced Cape Island’s position as the major seaside retreat in the country, and so began its reign as the Queen of the Seaside Resorts.

Mid 19th Century

Confidence in Cape Island’s future spurred every larger groups of investors, including the group who began building the largest hotel in the world, the Mt. Vernon Hotel, on the west end of the oceanfront in 1852. Intended to serve 3500 patrons, it was consumed by fire in 1856, while it was accommodating 2100 guests, but still unfinished.

The 1850s included grand renovations of Congress Hall, visits from Presidents Franklin Pierce and Benjamin Harrison, another hotel fire, the Mansion House in 1857, and the construction of a new lighthouse in 1859, that still exists today. The Civil War and Cape Island’s pledge of support for the Union in December 1860, caused the southern patrons to disappear overnight. It was the completion of the railroad from Philadelphia to Cape Island, in 1863, that signaled the next development of the resort island - the Cottage Era - the parceling of land into lots for Philadelphia families to build their own summer homes.

Late 19th Century

The most devastating fire of all, in 1878, destroyed 35 acres of the city from Congress Hall over to Ocean Street. Cape May decided to rebuild itself as a smaller scaled-down version of its pre-fire era - homes and businesses were built in Queen Anne, Gothic and American bracketed styles. The decision not to compete with modern popular resorts preserved the town’s character so many find attractive today.

The century came to a close with Cape May struggling to compete with Newport, RI and Atlantic City, NJ, sometimes promoting itself as the wholesome alternative.

Early 20th Century

The early 1900s were marked by the start-up and eventual collapse of several grand ventures that were expected to bring growth and prosperity again to this once-famed resort. The first was the development of 3600 acres of east Cape May with the Newport-like Hotel Cape May as the centerpiece, and the creation of a harbor by coal, steel and oil millionaires from Pittsburgh, known as the Cape May Real Estate Co. The hotel opened in 1908, but closed six months later when Corporation President Peter Shields resigned and the venture collapsed. The second owner filed bankruptcy a few years later.

During World War I, the hotel was used as a hospital and the eastern one-third of this tract of land was acquired by the Navy for a base. This base was taken over by the Coast Guard, in 1925. The hotel reopened in 1920, was sold and operated as the Admiral Hotel in 1931, until the city bought it at Sheriff’s sale nine years later for $900.

The next land boom was fueled by plans for a ferry across the Delaware Bay. Unfortunately, the WWI concrete ship, purchased to form part of a dock, sunk in a violent storm in 1926, crushing the hopes for another economic recovery. The remains of the ship are visible today, at Sunset Beach.

Happenings of note in the 40s include: continued growth of the Coast Guard base with more dredging; the re-commissioning of the air station by the Navy and the use of the Hotel Cape May as a Naval Annex; the construction of the Cape May Canal, 1942/43; and the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 that demolished the boardwalk and brought an end to the borough of South Cape May. At the end of the war, the Navy relinquished the base to the Coast Guard who established their Training Center in Cape May in 1948.

Mid 20th Century

Cape May changed little in the early part of the century. The opening of the Garden State Parkway, in 1954, remedied the city’s former isolation as automobile travel increased dramatically. In 1959, the city’s celebration of the 30th Anniversary of Henry Hudson’s journey generated in some minds the idea that the city might serve itself well to emphasize its historical background. Preservation visionaries, headed by Dr. Irving Tenenbaum, worked hard to promote their cause, their earliest success being the replacement of current street lighting with gaslights.

In the 60s, two powerful forces blew into Cape May that helped shape the city’s future. The first was the March Nor’easter (Ash Wednesday Storm), March 7, 1962, that destroyed the boardwalk, beachfront, Convention Hall and severely damaged many properties. The second was the Reverend Carl McIntire, fundamentalist minister, who also changed the city’s landscape by purchasing many Victorian era properties and moving some of them in order to save them from destruction. The Admiral Hotel (formerly Hotel Cape May) was renamed the Christian Admiral and became the Bible Conference Center for Rev. McIntire’s Reformation Movement.

In 1963, encouraged by Dr. Tenenbaum and Bill Murtagh, head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the city applied for and received a 3.5 million dollar grant - the first Urban Renewal Grant given to a small city specifically for preservation. With the construction of the seawall/promenade to replace the boardwalk and the opening of the ferry service to Delaware in 1964, Cape May was poised and ready to shine once more. 

Late 20th Century

Efforts by the city to undo the historic designation, and refuse Federal and State grants for restoration of the Physick Estate failed. Their effort rallied preservationists who gained control of the government in the next election choosing MAC’s leader, Bruce Minnix as Mayor. 

The End of the 20th Century Reclaiming the Past for a New Beginning

Cape May’s renaissance began at last, fueled by the energy and enthusiasm of preservationists with income-generating business ideas needed to make restoration affordable. Entrepreneurs, leaving behind previous professions and jobs, restored many of the Victorian homes to their original beauty and splendor for use as Bed and Breakfast inns, guest houses, restaurants and shops. The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts was given a trolley and began tours of Cape May bringing its history to life and providing income for the restoration of the Physick Estate and eventually the lighthouse. Louisa’s Restaurant, opening in the early 80s was one of the first alternative eating establishments.

The success of these early ventures gave impetus to others to invest. Other factors contributing to Cape May’s return to a popular seaside resort destination included: the creation of the pedestrian Washington Street Mall in 1971; ongoing beach restoration projects beginning in the 80s; the extension of the season into fall, spring, and Christmas with the offering of many cultural, historical, music, arts, nature and water-related activities and events.

Contributors: Bruce Minnix, Tom Carroll, and information gathered from "Summer City by the Sea". Emil R. Salvini, and "Gems of NJ" by Gordon Bishop

Urban renewal meant different things to a city government interested in ratables, and the citizens favoring preservation. The ratables group saw an opportunity to tear down the old and build modern motels with air-conditioning and parking lots. They were winning for awhile - until the cataloging of the historic buildings, as required by the Urban Renewal Grant, was accomplished by a Historic American Buildings Survey Team headed by Carolyn Pitts. In 1970, Pitts and Cape May Cottagers Association member, Edwin C. Bramble managed to get the entire town listed on the federal government’s National Register of Historic Places. In the same year, the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC) was formed to help save the Emlen Physick Mansion on Washington Street, slated for demolition.     The year 1869 was momentous for the opening of the new Stockton Hotel, and the fire that reduced to ashes two blocks of the oldest section of the resort including the renowned United States Hotel. Despite the fire, the early 70s depression, and Atlantic City’s rise to prominence, Cape May chugged along because of heavy promotion and investment by the railroad companies. It was during the 70s also, that the Chalfonte Hotel and the Emlen Physick Estate were built.     By 1816, the first wood-burning, side-wheel steamboats came from Philadelphia via New Castle, DE where passengers from Baltimore and points south joined them for the trip to the Cape. In this same year, the first Congress Hall Hotel was built by Thomas H. Hughes. It was a barn-like building called, at first, the Large House and accommodating 100 guests. The original lighthouse began operation in 1823.