One afternoon, I decided to look for the
lost civilization of South Cape May. Unlike another lost civilization – Atlantis
– there are still vestiges of South Cape May around. I started my search by
walking along Beach Ave. toward the Cove – that’s west toward the sunset for
those of you new to Cape May.
I tell you truly
nothing is more ghostly than walking along this stretch in the dead of winter
and realizing that a town once stood here. The borough of South Cape May once
extended 21 blocks west heading toward the lighthouse. The first evidence of a
town lies in the street signs. Just as I pass Broadway, as you’re walking past
the Surf Motel, the next street is First Avenue. Then, as you pass the Mount
Vernon Hotel, you’re at Second Avenue. Then….well, and this is the point I’m
getting at - there’s the Jetty Motel, the Cove Restaurant and ….sand. What
happened to Third Avenue and beyond? How does a whole town just disappear? Let
me tell you all about it.
Once upon a time, say 1840 to be precise, a man by the
name of Mark Devine bought 89-acres of beachfront property at a sheriff’s sale.
Every chance he had, he bought another parcel of land, until one day, he had 225
acres of land stretching from Patterson Avenue to just shy of Cape May Point.
One reason the land was so easily acquired was because it was mostly marshland,
meadows, and run off from Cape Island Creek. Devine’s foresight, however, paid
off when in 1882, an ambitious entrepreneur by the name of Theodore M. Reger
gathered a group of like-minded individuals and formed an investment group – The
Cape May City Land Company – and bought the Devine tract south of Broadway.
Reger and his associates formed two more holding companies over the next five
years – The Neptune Land Company and the Mount Vernon Land Company.
Looking back, one wonders what the other investors
were thinking because just as the key to Atlantis was a temple built to honor
the god Poseidon, the key to Reger’s South Cape May was a 58-foot high tin and
wood elephant which he called the Light of Asia. It’s difficult to tell if Reger
knew or cared about Atlantis but he apparently did care about another elephant –
Lucy. Used by another land developer, one James B. Lafferty, who in 1882 used
the huge tin elephant to advertise his new development south of Atlantic City
now called Margate. Lafferty also had a patent on Lucy. Reger coughed up the
patent fee and got to work on the Light of Asia. But he couldn’t even make that
work. People didn’t take to the name and called her Jumbo because, duh, she was
huge and because P.T. Barnum of Barnum & Bailey Circus had an elephant named
Jumbo was a kind of multi-use facility. Reger used a
portion of the space as a real estate office. In her belly was a big room
measuring 18 ft x 30. This area could be leased to vendors for the sale of
sodas, candy and ice cream. The entrance to Jumbo was through her hind legs and
then up a spiral staircase to a hall. The 10-cent admission fee would get you up
another flight of stairs to the top of Jumbo’s back where a covered pavilion
observation facility or “Howdah” was built. Drinks were sold in her two front
legs. Construction started in 1884 and she was ready to rock and roll by the
summer of 1885. She was built at a cost of $18,000 and sat 300 feet back from
Beach Avenue and the railroad tracks that had been constructed to connect the
area to Cape May City.
Unfortunately for poor Jumbo, South Cape May was
considered to be a very remote part of the city and, at 10-cents a customer, she
didn’t have too many visitors. The train car only came through three times a day
and she ended up being a financial loser. By 1900, Jumbo was demolished. Much of
her time in between was spent as a haven for vagrants. But for a while, she did
as she was supposed to do – shine the spotlight on Reger’s other venture The New
Mount Vernon Hotel which was painted across her side in 1887.
The New Mount Vernon Hotel was to take the place of
the old Mount Vernon Hotel. The old Mount Vernon Hotel was located right on
Beach Avenue just west of Broadway and at 4-stories, was to be the largest
in the world. In September of 1856, when the hotel was nearly finished, a fire
left it a pile of rubble.
Twenty some years later, enter Theodore Reger who
thought he could resurrect the Mount Vernon like the phoenix from the ashes. The
Neptune Land Company issued $300,000 in capital stock to finance development of
the Devine tract which included, according to Jeffrey Dorwart’s book Cape May
County, New Jersey, “reclamation of land, and construction of seawalls,
wharves, roads, hotels and cottages.” When things weren’t going as quickly as
they might have hoped, the group reorganized under the Mount Vernon Land Company
in 1887 in hopes of speeding up their plan to develop the area.
According to Joe Jordan’s book Cape May Point The
Illustrated History: 1875 to the present, the new association drew up plans
to build the New Mount Vernon which included a much smaller hotel and cottages
extending 14 blocks beachfront and 69 blocks stretching back to Cape Island
Turnpike or what is now Sunset Blvd “in a relentless gridiron pattern.” The
Mount Vernon Tract ran between 7th and 21st avenues in
South Cape May. All toll, 2,500 lots measuring a mere 30-feet in frontage and
100-feet in depth were planned for cottages. Jumbo stood watch between 15th
and 16th avenues. Reger set up his real estate office inside Jumbo
and construction on the New Mount Vernon began in 1887. By 1888 South Cape May
consisted of one hotel, 8 cottages, a 2-story pavilion and bathhouses.
Determined to make the project work, Reger and his
partner James Henry Edmunds withdrew the Mount Vernon Tract from Lower Township
and incorporated in 1894 as the borough of South Cape May.
Also in 1894, the two
formed yet another company – the West Cape May Improvement Company – to develop
the lots and streets in the newly formed borough. Edmunds went on to serve as
mayor for the City of Cape May between 1885 and 1892, 1895 and 1896 and to be an
influential figure for West Cape May. In 1886, Edmunds bought the Cape May Wave
It’s so easy to digress – let’s get back to South
Cape May. Reger and his associates underestimated the adverse effect of the
remote location of the New Mount Vernon tract and really underestimated the
pounding nature would impose on the land. By 1910 those beachfront properties
had to be moved back a block and turned so they were facing the railroad tracts
on Mount Vernon Avenue instead of the ocean. A 3-story boarding house opened but
that was the extent of development. The rest of the land remained an open
Fast forward to 1925 – a newly paved Sunset Boulevard
replaced the gravel Cape Island Turnpike. Sunset Boulevard was built because
developers got wind that a ferry connecting the Delaware Bay with Cape May Point
was going to be built. Suddenly, those meadow lots were looking a lot more
attractive. New developers stepped in, filled in the land. Road which previously
led to no where now connected to Sunset Boulevard. By the way, the ferry never
was built until about 20 years later and never at that location. Why? Because a
concrete ship brought in to be used as a landing for the proposed ferry slipped
its moorings shortly after being towed to its Sunset Beach destination. Plans
for a ferry sank with the ship. The name of the ship? The Atlantus.
Also around 1925, a cluster of Spanish-villa type
cottages were built in South Cape May. They were built with clay tile roofs and
walls of plaster - see Spain - dry, Mediterranean weather. Cape May? Wet, damp,
cold weather. Yet, it still came as a great surprise to the owners of these
villas when their homes did not stand up to the hurricane winds, high waters and
pounding rain so common in Cape May. By this time there were about 50 cottages
comprising South Cape May built on less than 5% of the available land parcels.
A 1936 Nor’easter leveled a devastating blow on the
tiny community. Gale force winds racked the cottages. According to Joe Jordan’s
accounts in his Cape May Point book, “The beachfront homes of the mayor and his
neighbor toppled into the sea shortly after the Coast Guard
had rescued the
Then came the great Atlantic hurricane of 1944. Floodwaters
stretched as far back
as Sunset Boulevard and 4 blocks beyond. Any houses left
standing were so badly damaged they were left inhabitable. With no properties to
tax, the borough of South Cape May had to declare bankruptcy and once again
became part of Lower Township.
In November of 1950, another fierce storm came ashore
bringing abnormal tides which, combined with a full moon, brought tidal waves
of such force, they reached all the way to Sixth Avenue in West Cape May. Winds
of 88-miles per hour ripped through what was left of South Cape May returning it
to what it was in the beginning – a meadow. Waist-deep debris from the wreckage
of South Cape May ran all the way into Sunset Boulevard.
Unlike the Atlantis of Plato's time, vestiges of
South Cape May are still with us and not completely lost. What remains of South
Cape May is now
South Cape Meadows – the land, run by the Nature Conservancy, - is for the
birds. All that is left of South Cape May are the clay tiles locals sometimes
find along the beach if they're lucky. We still have the two street signs, the
Mount Vernon Motel, and Mount Vernon Avenue, which runs parallel to Beach Ave.,
and cut off abruptly to a nature path leading down to the beach. The
Borough of South Cape May, however, is no more. Another lesson for the annals of "Don't
Mess With Mother Nature."
Never fear. Our story has a happy ending. The birds
who reside there now have lived happily ever after at South Cape Meadows. The end.