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SOURCE: SOUTH JERSEY, A History, 1664-1923; Alfred M. Heston, editor-in-chief.
Volume I, 1924, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., New York and Chicago.
THE GOLDEN CHAIN OF MEMORY
The old enemies of the Deerslayer, the Lenni-Lenapes of the Algonquins came down from Ottawa, and in their wanderings reached the shore of the Delaware Bay at the point that is now Cape May. Here they rested, for, unlike the refugees from the flood, they had no ark, and before them stretched too wide “a river to cross.” The Lenni-Lenapes, or Delawares as they were often called, were hunters, and were attracted to this region by the great variety of game and birds. Wilson, the ornithologist, says: “If birds are good judges of excellent in climate, Cape May must have the finest climate in the United States, for it has the greatest variety of birds. “ Living At Cape May were the Kechemeches, a subdivision of the tribe who gave to New Jersey the name Schaakbee, or Scheyichbi, and to the river Delaware that of Whittuck. With noiseless tread they roamed , two hundred years ago, over a spicy carpet of pine needles, through a wilderness of dense forest destined to echo in future years with the hum of the saw mill.
One of the few Indian deeds in existence is or was in the possession of Charles Ludlam, Esq., of Dennisville, New Jersey. It is dated January 1, 1687, and was given to John Dennis for some land near Cape Island, as the town of Cape May was called. The mark of Panktoe, the Indian giver of the deed, resembles a Chinese character. The witnesses were John Carman and Abiad Edwards. New Jersey boasts that none of its soil was ever taken from its original owners or their successors either by force or fraud. The Dutch, Swedes, and English acquired the land in turn by purchase.
In 1623 Captain Cornelius Jacobsen Mey in the ship “Blyde Broodschap (Glad Tidings), was sent to this country, accompanied by two other vessels carrying a party of settlers, by the States General of Holland. He explored the coast, where he had been preceded by Henrick Hudson, and arriving at Cape May, to which he gave his name, found there a lookout which had been left Four years previously by Cornelius Hendricksen, of the ship “Onrest. “ O the names given various points visited by Captain Mey, only one, that of Cape May, has been retained.
Crossing from Cape Henlopen, called Cape Cornelius by Mey, to Cape May, Pieter Heysen, skipper of the ‘Walrus,” bought four miles along the bay and four miles inland. The deed, dated June 3, 1631, is preserved among the colonial archives. Here among the marshes, where : the inland waters were found to abound in oysters, clams, crabs, and other shell fish,” Pieter Heysen settled down to the life of a whaler. Later a plan was organized to colonize the Delaware shores, to raise grain and tobacco, and establish seal and whale fisheries. These proving unsuccessful, the colonists lost heart and returned to Holland, thus ending the Dutch occupation of New Jersey.
English colonists came from New Haven in 1638, to engage in whaling, and some of the descendents are among the present inhabitants of the county. The increase in the importance of this industry in 1691 induced the building of a town as a haven for the whalers who did come from further north. This, the first town in the county, had among its earliest dwellers Christopher Leaming, Thomas Caesar Hoskins, Samuel Hand, Jonathan Osborne, Cornelius Shellinks (Schellinger), Thomas Hewes, and john Richardson. That they carried on the pursuit of whaling for many years is shown by the following extracts: The “Boston News-Letter, “ from March 17 to 24, 1718. Says: “Philadephia, March 13, --We are told that the whale men catch’s six whales at Cape May and twelve at Egg Harbor. “ The “Pennsylvania Gazette.” of March 13 to 19, 1729-30, says: “On the 5th of this Instant March, a whale came ashore dead about 20 miles to Eastward of Cape May. She is a cow, about 50 feet long, and appears to have been killed by Whalemen; but who they are is unknown. Those who think they have Property in her, are advised to make their Claim in Time.”
The Swedes purchased the island for the second time about 1641. According to Campanius, a Swedish minister who lived from 1642 to 1648 on the banks of the Delaware, “Cape May lies in latitude 38 degrees 31 minutes. To the south of it are three sand banks parallel to each other, and it is not safe to sail between them. The best course is to steer between them and Cape May, between Cape May and Cape Henlopen.“
Under the pen name of “Beuchamp Plantagenet, “ Sir Edward Plowden wrote in 1648 “A Description of New Albion, “ that contained an account of a visit to Cape May. He gives a copy of a letter from Lieutenant Robert Evelyn, whop left England in 1643 to explore Delaware. Evelyn discovered that he had been preceded during the years between 1609 and 1632 by no less than eight explorers. The Egg Bay spoken of by Evelyn is now Egg Harbor Bay. Dr. Maurice Beesley says: “Master Evelyn must certainly be credited of being the first white man that explored the interior as far as the seaboard, and his name should be perpetuated as the king of pioneers. Evelyn describes the abundance of fish and fowl, making special mention of a wild turkey that weighted forty-six pounds, and of “Deere that bring forth three young at a time.” The denizens the magnificent virgin forest s include bison, black bear, wolf. Panther, catamount, and deer, and among the smaller animals were opossum, raccoon, fox, mink, otter, and beaver. For the skins of the latter the red men receive a goodly amount of “sewan,” the currency in use, from their English neighbors.
The English took final control in 1664 and called the province “New Jersey” as a compliment to one of the owners, Sir George Carteret, who had been Governor of the Isle of Jersey. The date of the first settlement by the English has always been in question. Dr. Maurice Beesley claims that Caleb Carmon was appointed Justice of the Peace and Jonaathan Pine a Constable by a Legislature in session in 1685. Other authorities declare the Townsends and Spicers to have come from Long Island in 1680, and to have been the oldest English settlers and land owners. Richard, a son of John Townsend, was the first white child born in the county.
It was the beginning of the eighteenth century when the settlers first devoted attention to agriculture and cultivated more than a door-patch. There is a long way between husbandry and piracy, but perhaps it was the domestic aspect of Captain Kidd, the noted pirate, to take advantage of the unsuspicious character of the settlement to bury some of his treasure in the shifting sands. Years and the action of the ocean have so changed to the locality that if the particular spot chosen for the hiding place was ever known, it is lost for now, and the treasure has become a tradition, if is not actually a myth.
The distinction of obtaining the first license to practice “Chirurgury and “Phisiq” in this locality belongs to an Esculapian named Richard smith, who lived at Cape May, or Egg Harbor, and in 1705 received this coveted honor.
The awakening of a religious spirit in the community was due to the Baptists, who in 1712 built a place of worship. Following close upon them csame the Presbyterians in 1714, and in 1716 the Quakers, who were under the care of the Salem Meeting, and whose meeting house at Seaville is known as “Old Cedar Meeting House.”
The epicureans of today have cause to be thankful for the aspiring palates of their grandfathers. To them are to be credited the care and protection of the beds where grow that delicious oyster so popular in summertime, the Cape May salt, as of March 27, 1719, the first measures were take to protect the oyster beds.
The spirit of patriotism burned with ardent flames amongst the men of the district. They played a notable part in the Revolutionary War. Henry Hand was a lieutenant-colonel; John Hand a major; Eli Eldridge, a first major; Thomas Leaming as adjutant, and James Willets, Jr., a captain. Many other names memorable in the history of the county appear on the registers of officers and men of the ranks. The Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania paid Abraham Bennett on august 1, 1777, seven pounds ten shillings for “riding express from Cape May to this city” (Philadelphia), to report the movements of the British fleet.
In the autumn of 1786 Jesse Hand was elected to the State Convention,” He created,” says Dr. Beesley, “great astonishment with people when he presented to their wondering eyes the first top-carriage (an old fashioned-chair) that was ever brought into this county. The horse cart was the favorite vehicle in those times, whether visiting family, or going to meeting purpose, and an innovation upon these usages or those of their ancestors, was looked upon with jealousy and distrust.”
Most complaints about that ever fruitful source of complaints, the delivery of the mail, must have registered, for prior to 1804 there was no regular service, the mails being carried by private individuals. On January 30th of that year the post office was opened with Ellis Hughes as postmaster. The “Daily Aurora” of Philadelphia, published June 30, 1801,contained the following advertisement of the hotel kept by Hughes, “The Atlantic,” which later gave way to the “New Atlantic” situated at the foot of Jackson Street: “The public are respectfully informed that the subscriber has prepared himself for entertaining company who use sea bathing, and he is accommodated with extensive houseroom, with fish, oysters, crabs, and good liquor. Care will be taken of gentlemen’s horses.
“The situation is beautiful, just at the confluence of the Delaware Bay and the Ocean, and in sight of the Light House, and affords a view of the shipping which enters and leaves the Delaware. Carriages may be driven along the margin of the ocean for miles, and the wheels will scarcely make an impression upon the sand. The slope of the shore is so regular that persons may wade a great distance. It is the most delightful spot citizens may retire to in the hot season.
“A stage starts from Cooper’s Ferry on Thursday in every week, and arrives at Cape Island on Friday; it starts from Cape Island on Friday and Tuesday in each week, and arrives in Philadelphia the following day.
“Gentlemen who travel in the area in their own carriages will observe the following directions: Philadelphia to Woodbury is 9 miles, thence to Glasshouse 10, Malaga Hill 10, Lehman’s Mill 12, Port Elizabeth 7, Dennis Creek 12, Cape May 9, the pitch of the Cape 15, is 84; and the last 18 is open to the sea shore. Those who choose water conveyance can find vessels almost any time.
”The Old Atlantic was then the only hotel , and was the stopping place of the prominent and wealthy, among whom was commodore Decatur, a frequent visitor. A large boarding house called Congress Hall was built in 1816 by Thomas H. Hughes, where Mecray’s pharmacy now stands. When destroyed by fire two years later, it had grown to the proportions of two hundred by three hundred feet. It was not, however, until after the War of 1812 that Cape Island made much progress as a summer resort. Heretofore visitors had arrived by carriage or stage, but in 1815 a sloop sailed to and from Philadelphia. The pioneer in steamboat navigation on the Delaware was Captain Wilmon Whilldin, Sr., who was born in 1774, on land bought by his ancestors at the time of the settlement of the county. Captain Whilldin made a study of navigation, and in 1816 built the steamer “Delaware,” and was owner of several steamers on the Delaware and the Chesapeake. He was for a time a partner of the elder Commodore Vanderbilt. Early in his life he went to Philadelphia, where he lived until death in 1852. His son succeeded him and continued the steamboat business until the Civil War, when the boats were impressed into the Government service. Ephraim Hildreth had a packet running between Philadelphia and Cape May, and in his diary are records of the quick trips made, leaving Philadelphia one day and reaching Cape Island the next. The steamboat “Pennsylvania” was added in July of 1824 to those running between Philadelphia and Cape Island, and a year or so later the line included the “Delaware” also. Until a few years ago steamboats plied between the two points every summer. They used to touch at New Castle for the Southerners who came on the first railroad run inthis country, the Frenchtown & New Castle Railroad. Carriages brought the passengers from Baltimore to Frenchtown on the “Susquehanna,” near Harve De Grace, Maryland. Weekly trips were made by steamboat “Portsmouth” in 1834 between Cape Island, Lewistown, and Philadelphia.
Many wrecks occurred off Cape May, and there are accounts of them to be found in the “Boston News-Letter” of September 17-24, 1724; the “New York Gazette” of July 30, 1733, and other periodicals of the time. In February of 1809 the British ship “Guatamoozin,” with a cargo of silks and tea from China to New York, came ashore off Townsend’s Inlet. This was probably the most disastrous, save one which happened some years later when the Perseverence” was wrecked, that ever occurred on this shore.
The ship builders, Jacob Swain, and his sons, Henry and Joshua, of Seaville, Cape May county, gained fame for themselves and for the county by the invention of the centerboard, which was the crown of the victory to America in many international yacht races. The Letters Patent dated 181, may still be seen. They are signed by James Madison, President of the United States; James Monroe, Secretary of State, and C. A. Rodney, Attorney General of the United States.
The dawn of education broke in fitful gleams, the duties of the itinerant teachers carrying them from north of Cape Island through the sparsely settled region as far as Gloucester, now Atlantic County. When a school system was devised the “rule of three” was not taught in ”the little red school house” of fond memories, but under the most primitive conditions, sometimes with no books at all. These intellectual struggles began about 1765. From 1810 to 1820 Jacob Spicer (3rd) and Constantine and Joseph Foster were entrusted with the difficult task of blazing a trail for the educational institutions in the future. Englebert Sternhuyson, who arrived in this county in 1659, was the first to wield the rod in New Jersey, but the first schoolhouse in the State was at Mullica Hill, and was known as Spicer’s school house. It was built of cedar logs, and the windows were closed with oiled paper panes. The master was in all probability the grandfather of Jacob Spicer (3rd).
The white flash from Cape May light was first to shed its beams over the Atlantic to guide the passing mariner. The Light House built in 1823 was rebuilt in 1859. Romantic tales that appeal strongly to the imagination have been written about these necessary and so often solitary habitations, but it is to the exact sciences that we must turn to determine the twelve and one-half nautical miles distance from Cape Henlopen, and the eighteen and three-quarters from Five Fathom Bank Light Ship. The latitude is 38 degrees 55min. and 59 sec., and the longitude 40 degrees 57 min. 39 sec. The tower, one hundred and forty five feet in height, pierces the sky like a Cleopatra’s needle with the sharp end in the sand. The light, one hundred and fifty-two feet above sea level, is the needle’s eye from which the first class lens throws it light at intervals of thirty seconds over eighteen miles of the sea’s mysterious depths.
Among a population numbering 4936 in 1830, there were but two hundred and twenty-eight colored persons, three of whom were slaves. The census shows that the county had many acres under cultivation and that numerous mills were in operation. Grain was shipped, as well as large quantities of cordwood. A writer in 1830 says of Cape May: “Cape May Island is a noted and much frequented watering place, the season at which commences about the first of July and continues until the middle of August or the first of September. There are six boarding houses, three of which are very large; the sea bathing is convenient and excellent, the beach affords pleasant drives, there is excellent fishing in adjacent waters.”
Picture to yourself, oh, gentle reader, the days when you were young and lived in the country, the particular day when that hireling of our Government, the census-taker, rang your bell, if you had one. Perhaps you went to the door yourself, or maybe you were curled in a hammock dozing in the sun and wondering about the outcome of the barbers’ strike and where you would next have your hair cut. Then that persistent hireling unrolled a yard or so of paper and asked you impertinent questions, as, were you male or female, where you were born, were you free, white, and twenty-one? Remember the cut-and-driedness of it all, and then read the report of the census-taker of 1840, which delightful product is almost an essay on Cape May: “The village of Cape Island is a favorite watering place in the southern part of this township, thirteen miles south of the Court House. It began to grow into notice as a watering place in 1812 at which time there were but a few houses there. It now contains two large hotels, three stories high and 150 feet long, and a third one, lately erected, four stories high and 100 feet long, besides numerous other houses for the entertainment of visitors. The whole number of dwellings is about fifty. In the summer months the Island is thronged by visitors, principally from Philadelphia, with which there is a daily steamboat communications.
It is estimated that about 3,000 strangers annually visit the place. The village is separated by a small creek from the mainland; but its area is fast wearing away by the encroachments of the sea. Watson, the antiquarian, in a MSS. Journal of the trip to Cape Island in 1835, on this point says: “Since my former visit to Cape Island in 1822, the house in which I stopped (Captain Aaron Bennett’s), then nearest the surf, has actually been reached by the invading waters. * * * * The distance from Bennett’s house to the sea bank was 165 feet. In 1804, as it was then measured and cut upon the house of commodore Decatur, was 334 feet. It had been as much as 300 feet further off, as remembered by some old men who told me in 1822.”
Commodore Decatur began in 1804 to estimate the encroachments of the ocean. His record shows that between that time and 1829 the hungry sea has eaten away two hundred and seventy-five feet of land. Jeremiah Macray once told the Hon. Lewis Townsend Stevens that he remembered fields of corn growing where in 1890 the pavilion of the iron pier had stood“A large portion of the inhabitants of the village are Delaware pilots, a hardy and industrious race. About two miles west of the boarding houses is the Cape May Lighthouse,” continues the census taker. Among the seafaring folk these were, of course, those specially skillful in guiding their vessels through the channels and between the sand banks and reefs. These pilots became known to the captains of incoming vessels, who were always well pleased when luck enabled them to “pick up” a pilot from Cape May.
The Mansion House, the second large hotel to be built, was erected in 1832 on four acres of ground on Washington Street. It was the first lathed and plastered hotel, and was the property of Richard Smith Ludlam, who in 1847 entertained the famous Kentuckian, Henry Clay. Mr. Clay spent a week at Cape May in the later part of August, when the summer visitors were nearly all gone, but so great was the enthusiasm created by his visit that boatloads of people came to see him. Horace Greeley, of New York; United States Senator James A. Bayard, of Delaware, and Charles C. Gordon, of Georgia were among the earliest to greet him. A large dinner was given in his honor at the Mansion House, and Beck’s Band was brought from Philadelphia to furnish the music. A welcome address was made to which “Harry of the West” responded in a speech which fairly startled the hearers. Mr. Clay was fond of sea bathing, going into the water sometimes twice a day. It is said that it was ruinous to his hair, not because of the salt but because the Delilians of the day forced him into the role of Samson. A short distance from the Mansion House was the Columbia House, where the New York delegation was entertained.
The seventh son of the seventh son is supposed to see into the future, but there is nothing in the tradition to mark such a one as a poet. Neither was there in the mind of Theophilus Townsend Price any idea that his verse would live. This seventh child of john Price and Kezia Swain Price, who was born at the Price homestead at town Bank, Cape May County, when only twenty years old held commune with the Muses and through their aid immortalized himself as “the Bard of Cape May.” According to a playful request of some young friends, Theophilus Townsend Price wrote in 1848 an “Ode to Cape May” to be sung to the tune of “Dearest May,” a popular song of that day. The Ode has been revised by the Hon. Lewis Townsend Stevens and appears in his interesting and comprehensive “History of Cape May county.”
The newspaper history of Cape May dates back to 1855, when the “Ocean Wave” broke upon the editorial sea. It was a smaller sheet, twelve by eighteen inches, owned by Colonel Johnson, who during its infancy sold it to Joseph S. Leach, by whom it was published until 1863. By process of Point, to the south. During the day a lookout is on duty. The Station built in 1871 stood back beyond the dunes, where the beach curved inland. In recent years the sea has made ground there and the curve has to some extent disappeared. A modern house now stands among the cottages that surround the new “Hotel Cape May.” During the bathing hours, from ten in the morning to six in the evening, from the fifteenth of June until the fifteenth of September, ten Life Guards are stationed at the beach. There are two stations, one in front of the Stockton Baths and the other at old congress Hall. Immediately to the south is the colored people’s recognized bathing ground, guarded by a huge West Indian whose brown skin has turned black in the summer sun. Recently a guard was stationed north of the pier for the protection of the cottagers. One is much needed at the south end of the beach, where for a long distance no means of help is available. In the summer of 1919 two young women were drowned whose lives might have been saved had a guard been near. The distance was so great that although an alarm was promptly given, too long a time elapsed before assistance came. Both were dead when they were brought ashore.
The town has had the approval of America’s chief magistrates. Both James A. Buchanan and general Grant were guests at congress Hall during their terms in office. Franklin Pierce came I 1855, and in 1883 the government steamer, the “Dispatch,” arrived at Cape May bringing President Chester A. Arthur. After being ceremoniously escorted along the beach front, now Beach Avenue, the President was welcomed at the Stockton Hotel by the strains of “Hail to the chief,” played by Hassler’s orchestra and the Weccacoe Band. The cottage belonging to the Hon. John Wanamaker of Philadelphia, Postmaster General under President Benjamin Harrison was loaned by Mr. Wanamaker to Mr. McKinley for one summer. Later a cottage was built with money privately subscribed, and presented to the President.
Old Cape May practically began at the summer station, at the foot of Grant Street. Here stood net-covered horses drawing busses in every stage of repair or dilapidation, awaiting passengers and the dimes that were the fare “to any part of town.” A small street car started its peregrinations beside the boardwalk and wandered along the other end of town. For several years the cars have not run at all, and today jitneys and the old time busses, the “Alpha” and “Omega” of transportation, offer the only means of conveyance to those who do not own automobiles.
In this vicinity a dozen or more commodious cottages had been erected on large plots of ground. They were frame and built in the southern style, with double porches, painted white and vine embowered. Well kept lawns with gardens and ornamental trees surrounded them, enclosed in turn by hedges of a bush much like the tropical tamarisk. Among the bushes the white marble statuary gleamed, and the calls of many birds that have made of these secluded spots a feathered sanctuary, carried one far from the sea that broke at the end of the walk. Hydrangeas, that reached perfection here, meet one’s eye at every turn. In this delightful group of seaside homes were those of General William J. Sewell; of the Sellers of Millbourne, and the Knight family.
The first hotel beyond the station is the Windsor, a three story clapboard building with a long wing parallel with the sea. A porch runs inside the angle and across the end, while verandas hang from the upper story. Sheltered by the building there used to be a pebbled terrace with an ornate fence an “a fountain in the center.” Broad wooden steps lead down to the street level and gave the hotel an air at once imposing and unique. Now the pebbles have gone, the fountain is dry, and where once the water sparkled “in its gleaming marble rim,” green paint has transformed the basin that is filled with soil in which geraniums (not lilies) grow. Grass plots separated by sandy walks replace the pebbles, and the only touch of its vanished beauty is in the groups of the lovely hydrangeas that still grow upon the terrace.The solid wooden fence with its wide flat top, that guarded the ocean side of the boardwalk, has been replaced by modern gas pipe. In the past it was a convenient resting place, available at any moment when fatigue threatened, when one cared to linger, or felt that consuming desiring that comes to the young, to commune, a deux, with sea and sky.
Far back from the ocean stands Congress Hall. The large brick buildings were for many years neglected. The porch roof hung in scallops between the tall square columns, one of which rested against a wall. Part of the roof lay, a mass of debris, on the floor. Broken window panes looked out like sad blind eyes, and even birds hesitated to build amid such evidence of decay. The hotel register contains many names that have made history. Statesmen, artists, travelers and the great of many lands sought hospitality there, left their marks upon these “sands of time,” and went again into the unknown. Recently the house has been renovated and is now open to the public. The tragic atmosphere of decay that so long pervaded the building has been dispelled.
Visitors passing old Columbia, near the corner of Washington Street and Ocean Avenue, lingered to hear colored waiters sing. The crooning musical voices of the negroes in their own weird melodies have a strong appeal. They seem to reach out and set a heart-string quivering with vague longing for something yet unknown.
In 1876 fire, which has been an active enemy of Cape May, destroyed the then Columbia House and made a place for its successor, the New Columbia. Of all the old hotels the Columbia House showed most plainly the prevalent influence of the South. It might have been a huge plantation home transported from some far off southern scene and set down by the sea.
The New Columbia was a brick structure, moderate in size and of commonplace type. It too, was burned, and the place of the two Columbias is filled with small cottages built in a Close, surrounded by grass and hedges and hydrangeas, with a common entrance and exit to the sea. Baltimore Inn is near. Shining in white paint, with shaded awnings and flower boxes on the porch, it looks inviting. Above the old bath houses are the same names as in years gone by. Maguire’s. and further on Shield’s. From under one of them a huge rat scampered and ran across the drive. There was a peculiar fetid odor of old wood rotting in salt water.
A second generation of Japanese conduct the “Art Store,” but a touch of modernity is given by “Arnold’s Hotel” where before the era of prohibition good dinners and ‘good times: were to be had. Still in the window rests the frame of scarlet lobsters, an enticement still, but inside the gayety is subdued to the level of the refreshment now offered. “near beer.”
On Decatur Street, a little way back from Arnold’s is Zillinger’s Café. Beside the house a garden invites the hungry, and between the large leaves of the vine that clings to the latticed roof with its spiral tendrils, are pendant bunches of green and purple grapes. The remains of the pier voice the old question: “If I am so soon done for, I wonder what I was begun for?” Cut off abruptly in mid-air a few feet from the entrance, it juts into space. At low tide jagged rusty supports stick up from the sand, but at high tide the water covers them and hides the danger they have become. The pier was built in 1885, at the foot of Decatur Street, and for many years the only amusement place in town. Now it houses a shop where ice cream cones and salt water taffy are sold; a moving picture theatre; a Japanese rolling ball game; a shop where commonplace embroidered kimonos are shown. At the entrance years ago a giant sword hung, its long serrated sword striking terror into young hearts. Beyond the merry-go-round, and further out a theatre, and then a fishing platform with a lower deck where boats landed. Light opera and musical comedies were given on the pier by stars like Jennie Prince, who shed their historic light on Cape May in the summer time.
Across from the pier is the Lafayette, a relic of Cape May’s gay old days. Theatrical people frequented it and it was thought a “lively” place. On the next corner are cottages originally owned by the late William Weightman, of Philadelphia. They were considered the finest and most modern houses at the Cape. Now painted a dull battleship grey and overshadowed by the newer residences, they are unremarkable. On Ocean Avenue, near the beach and overlooking the Stockton Baths, is the colonial, a medium sized house of “middle age”; and “run” on unpretentious fashion. Opposite is Star Villa, a house of the same type.
The Stockton Hotel was the hub of Cape May, but the Stockton Baths were surely the most important spokes . They cover one end of the block between Ocean Avenue and Stockton /row, and are the last remnant of the Cape May property of the late John c. Bullitt, of Philadelphia, the framer of the Bullitt Bill. Always painted yellow with brown trimmings and red tin roofs, they are today just as they were years ago. In the center is a small house, its porch surmounted by a clock, in which are office and store rooms. The bath houses extend in rows on either side. This was the daily meeting place for all socially inclined. At eleven o’clock on any summer morning the porch was filled with daintily dressed women and men in flannels. In those days girls were mermaids and went into the sea with flowing locks, regardless of the damage of Father Neptune might do. The popularity of the girls was measured by the number of men who asked to dry her hair. A very popular one had to “cut” the drying, as her modern sister does her dances.
At the end of the bath houses is a small photography gallery where the principal business used to be taking tintypes of bathing parties. An examination of those early pictures would be like turning back the pages of a biographical history. The women wore dark blue flannel shirts fastened up to the necks, the tape trimmed ruffles almost covering their hands and clinging closely around their ankles at the end of long full pantalettes. A wide coarse straw hat, tied under the chin in the shape of a poke, completed the costume. What women could be beautiful in such garb? But in those days sunburn was a crime. The men wore loose, flapping, one piece garments very much like the women’s only, of course, without the long wide skirts. Heads bald and well thatched were alike covered with a small skull cap or a straw hat held in place by a string of turkey red. But custom changes, and from being over-dressed they went to the other extreme. Clothes became so abbreviated as to be a matter of concern to the municipal authorities. Now an executive council meets in solemn conclave to decide upon the propriety of stockings or bare legs for bathing girls.
Dominating the town and its activities stood the Stockton, a large clap-board structure built in the shape of a capital “T” with the top laid towards the street. The ground was owned by the Betz estate, but the hotel was built in 1860 and run for many years by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Following the custom, a high roofed porch with great square columns ran around the house. Immediately in front was graveled space, with posts connected by festooned chains. Towards the sea stretched a large lawn at the end of which stood a ruined two-story pavilion, where in the palmy days the Marine Band played summer on summer afternoons. In the Exchange hung a large oil portrait of commodore Stockton, after whom the hotel was named. It gave the house a dignity perceptibly felt although perhaps unrecognized. On the right was the ballroom, where Simon Hassler played, and back in the huge wing the entire space was given over to the dining room.
At night the porches were so crowded it was difficult to find one’s way between the chairs. Some time during the day or evening all found their way to the Stockton, if only to walk through. Beside the hotel, in a building connected with it by a porch, was a billiard room with a bowling alley at the back. The kitchen and service rooms were in a separate building close alongside. Various managers played the part of Boniface, but perhaps the most noted were the Cakes, and “Plunger Walton,” so called because of his operations as a stock speculator. His daughter married Davis S. Chew, of the Chews of Germantown, and William E. Bates, descendant of Francis Guerney Smith. All trace of the hotel has been removed, and grass grows where flying feet once danced. At the upper end of the lot is a small Baptist Church, built of white stucco, and a modern cottage. The rest is vacant, emblematic of the emptiness of life of Cape May since its mainspring was removed. Life no longer runs so merrily on through the summer days. Chimes of laughter are not so often heard, even the echoes of those long past peals exist only in memory and imagination.
Here in the golden days had come the wealth and famous of the South, as well as the elite of Philadelphia and New York. Belles and beaux occupied armchairs on the porch and posed with languid grace. They brought with them their retinues of colored servants, their richly harnessed horses and luxurious carriages that so well suited those wide skirts and veiled faces. Jewels flashed and feathered fan waved a southern beauties coquetted in their inimitable way. Men in stocks and broadcloth made elegant bows and kissed hands that the sun had never touched. The stately minuet was danced in that ballroom whose passing has sparred it the humiliation of witnessing the “shimmy.” The ball room brings back memories of the Hasslers, Simon and Mark, who had their orchestras and played respectively at the Stockton and Congress Hall. Every visitor to Cape May will remember them and the dreamy waltzes that they played.
The bathing gear was but a preliminary to the visit to the Stockton, where the small café to the left of the office and beyond the barber shop, were served such drinks as “horse’s neck,” “brandy floats,” and the best claret punches that were ever made. Back of the Stockton stood the Chalfont, popular as a family hotel, and unchanged today. There was the Page Cottage, too, a “genteel boarding house” much patronized by exclusive Philadelphians. From there Stockton Avenue runs north. Marine Villa, another sacrifice to Vulcan, belongs to the past, its place is empty. Close to its side is the new Stockton Villa, which accommodates but few guest, but it is to be relied upon to have those guests exactly what they should be.
Old Cape May ends here, and turning from the sea the streets run inland and wander among cottages that surround the Stockton. There on the corner lived George D. McCreary, of Philadelphia, with “the little McCreary cottage” next door. Diagonally across the street is the large house of the Scott family, who still spend every summer there. Not far away is the cottage where Mrs. Bowen entertained her brother, Archbishop Ryan of Philadelphia, whose droll stories and brilliant conversation were so delightful. On Washington Street, removed from the daily crowds brought by the incoming trains, the residence of Dr. Phillip Sygn Physic stands alone and secluded. The house is frame and conveys an impression of dignity and generous hospitality that is not lessened by the lack of paint. Fine trees and rare shrubs thrive there and the sun filters through the leaves, dappling the ground with gold. A wide open lawn beside the house is surrounded by a hedge whose impenetrability secures privacy.
On the corner of Washington Street and Ocean Avenue stood Hand’s Market. The Hand family belong to the original settlers, and Cape May owes much to their moulding. In the past the name appeared frequently upon street signs and in the town’s business life. The name is still over the jewelry store at the end of the street, down by Congress Hall, where Cape May diamonds may be had. It is over the office of the “Wave and Star.” The market is now Mecray’s.
Opposite to the market is the Reading Railroad station, and a new building on one corner houses a Savings Fund. Beside the station is the rectory of the Catholic Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea. The original rectory is still in use, a small grey building, its ornate trimmings painted white. The little church of years ago seemed crowded and over decorated; the tall sharp spires and narrow arches above the alter were white painted wood, cut and fretted and tortured into intricate patterns. The impression created by the new church is of breadth and nobility of treatment, of white purity and sanctity, and a retirement from the heat and glare of outside . It is conductive to prayer and meditation. The small columns of the alter and the central part of the communion rail are white marble with brown markings. There are a few stained glass windows whose dominate tone is a deep green, but in the whole church there is no jarring note.
The Episcopalians have two churches, St. John’s, the village church, and the Church of the Advent, for summer visitors. Here every week an address is made by some notable visiting churchman, as Ethelbert Talbot, Bishop of Central Pennsylvania, and the Rev. Floyd Tompkins, rector of Holy Trinity, Philadelphia. The Presbyterians have a handsome church at Decatur and Hughes streets, where the air is cooled by electric fans and an acousticon is supplied for those who have difficulty hearing. The Baptists, Methodists and Hebrews have their places of worship too.
The old tower is standing on Perry Street, marking the oldest part of town and a monument to its decay. Close to its foot nestles an automobile accessory shop. Built of wood and long unpainted, with advertising signs disfiguring its sides, the tower rears its worn head like an old man’s whose hair has paid tribute to the flight of time. The Ocean House, one of the very old hotels and famous in its day, was nearby; it was burned in 1878. It was characterized by a balcony that ran around the third floor, high above the porch. From the roof, which was continuous from its apex to the edge overhanging the balcony, dormer windows sprang, breaking the monotony. Close by was Center House, a similar type. Its large gabled wings were connected by a recessed central building with a high roofed porch.
In the vicinity was the famous Mount Vernon hotel, which had taken the then unheard of time of two years to build and which was said to be the largest hotel, at that time, in the world. Its dining room seated three thousand people. Fatality followed in the wake of the fire that consumed it in 1856, the proprietor and four others losing there lives. Early in the following summer the Mansion House and Kersal, an amusement pavilion, followed it, and years ago this once exclusive neighborhood fell in disrepute amongst the white visitors, the remaining hotels and large boarding houses being given over entirely to the use of the colored population. At present the better class of colored visitors go to the Hotel Dale, a hotel run by a famous Philadelphia caterer exclusively for his people.
Back of congress Hall and round about the corner where is now Mecray’s drug store, the first houses for summer visitors were built. The Philadelphians who came were wealthy men who were attracted by the fishing and the opportunity to do a little quiet gambling. It is said that the first millionaire in America came here. When the house he occupied was torn down to make room for modern improvements, many coins were found under the floor where they had fallen and been forgotten. In the attic were old pistols and small arms that had been undisturbed for many years. Later years brought the luxurious hotels of a few decades ago. The atmosphere of the place changed, and the wealthy from all parts of the country came as regularly to this Mecca of fashion as the true Southerner used to go to “The Whites” or Saratoga Springs.
South of the summer station is the site of the United States hotel. Four stories high , it had a continuous porch on every floor and was surmounted by a cupola from which floated the Stars and Stripes. Fire destroyed in in 1869. Near the hotel was a race track that was in occasional use as late as 1887.
A narrow gauge railroad started at the southern end of end of thown and ran to Cape May Point. The train was drawn by an engine with a funnel-shaoed stack of the same type as “Old Baldwin,” now reposing quietly in the station at Chattanooga. The lessening of its patronage and the deterioration of the track and rolling stock resulted in the failure of the company. The engine and cars were sold to junk dealers, and the track torn up and put to other uses. Busses carried the visitor to Schellinger’s Landing, where in the shadow of the old pavilion he embarked in a flat-bottomed row boat and wound his way between the mud banks in search of hard shelled crabs; or, on a rainy day in early fall, he went in a sneak box, a bird gun laid across the bow, to hunt for rail or reed birds. From Sewell’s Point he sailed about the bay, or, crossing the bar, went seaward in search of wild adventure.
The name of Cape Island, as Cape May was originally known, was first used 1699. When the causeway connecting the island with the mainland was built by George Eaglesfield. Following its history step by step, we turn the pages of the Indian occupation, of the Swedish purchase, the Dutch, the second Swedish, and the final purchase by the English. Perhaps traces of these differing nationalities may still be found, but the most lasting impression was made by the English whaling folk who came during the fishing season and in some instances settled here. Gradually the fishing village became a summer resort and large hotels sprang up beside the lowly cottages. The period of greatest prosperity was just prior to the Civil War, when rich Philadelphians and New Yorkers were added Baltimoreans and travelers from many southern cities. Sweeping the wealth of the south into the realms of memory, the war deprived Cape May’s most luxurious loving visitors of the means of travel, thus taking from her pne of her greatest sources of revenue and advertisement. For many years these have been missing, and the town has suffered a consequent decline in prosperity. The destructive fires that at intervals have wrought such havoc robbed her of the great hotels that made her famous.
About 1908 a number of capitalists interested in promoting Cape May endeavored to regain for her her past prestige. A large brick hotel, the Hotel Cape May, was built on the upper end of the beach towards Sewell’s Point. Many handsome cottages sprang up around it. The Government was induced to make an inland protecting harbor in the bay, with a wide channel to the sea, in which ships could anchor. Much of the marshland was drained and filled. A golf course of nine holes was laid out back of the town, with tennis courts adjoining it. The Corinthian Yacht Club established its summer quarters in Cape May Creek, which empties into the harbor. The Cape May yacht Club was organized, and an attractive club house was built. A Marine Casino furnishes amusement in the form of moving pictures and a merry-go-round. The “Red Mill,” as it is picturesquely called, is the nightly gathering place for the devotees of Terpsichore. Opposite the site of the Stockton is Convention Hall, a dance hall on a pier. The plan laid out for New Cape May is most attractive, with its wide central avenue and streets sweeping round it in long oval curves bisected by others leading from the sea to the harbor.
During the World War the new Hotel Cape May was General Hospital Number 11, and was filled with wounded men from overseas. Camp Wissahickon was established as a Naval Base, and was located between the hospital and the harbor. Many soldiers were in barracks. An aviation field with a huge hanger that housed a dirigible balloon, still adds to the interest of the section devoted to the different branches of the service represented here. At intervals the whirr and drone of an aeroplane are heard, and all eyes turn upward and search the sky until the birdman appears, flying in a long straight line and then turning and circling in wide sweeps of the eagle. The wounded have been taken away and concentrated in a few hospitals scattered throughout the country. Soldiers, sailors and marines have been demobilized and sent home. The Government intends to keep only about one hundred and fifty men on duty in the camp. Cape May has tasted all the delights of giddy youth, the comforts of middle life, and now, in her old age, she is like a women struggling to recapture her youth. The attempted grafting of Philadelphia conservatism on Southern democracy was unsuccessful. The peculiar condition existed of Northern capital and energy promoting a settlement which nature herself, whether by placing it south of the Mason Dixon line, or by some intangible influence, confirmed in its easy-going attitude. Because of its wonderful beach and its central position between North and South, the tremendous initial impetus carried it on for many years. Since the Civil War its decline, gradual, it is true, has been continuous. The cordial yet restricted social life of the South was overwhelmed by Northern reserve, and the summer visitors being mixed types and varying social understanding, found between them an icy wall as impassable as the shoal water between the ocean and bay and as dangerous to those who recklessly attempted to cross. They still assemble on the beach, the only common meeting ground, but they do not gather together, for there is hand writing on the wall, plainly visible to those who running, read: So far mayest thou go, but no further.”
Lying where the bay and the ocean meet, at the southern extremity of the State. Cape May has enjoyed an unequalled position.
Its beach is said to be the finest in the world, smooth and gradual, and free from the sea-cut ledges that mar so much of the Jersey coast. On clear nights the light from Cape Henlopen may be seen across the bay, answering the flash that streams from Cape May. Land breezes are impossible. For when the wind comes from that direction it blows over more than a mile of water and is freshened and purified.
With better train service and easier access, the resorts north of Cape May have made rapid progress to her detriment. The old residents feel that she has been discriminated against, that when the railroad cut down the train service and the last of the great hotels was torn down, the monument was erected upon her burial place. It remains for some one in whose heart sufficient love for Cape May endures, to write the final epitaph. May there be one whose tender recollections will inspire his pen to do full justice, to pay full tribute, to Cape May. She can never be excelled or equaled.