You are lying on the beach on Cape Island. The breezes plant salty kisses. The sun caresses your skin. The ocean water tickles your toes. The sound of the sea lulls you into oblivion.
The Island’s beautiful tide-washed strand creates a place for the very best of natural experiences, but can you believe most of this seascape is man-made?
They dug the current 500-acre Cape May Harbor with mammoth dredges starting in 1903, spreading the dredge spoils over 3,600 acres of wetlands and oyster beds to create the new East Cape May development.
The Cape May Inlet jetties (formerly called Cold Spring jetties), were completed in 1911, their long arms reaching 4,500 feet into the Atlantic, at the mouth of the harbor. These inlet jetties are devils in the struggle against beach erosion.
During World War II, with German submarines torpedoing ships off Cape May, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in a wartime emergency act, sliced across the peninsula from the Coast Guard base to Delaware Bay, digging a three-mile canal to protect U.S. military maneuvers.
Now fast-forward to the 1980s. It is sad to see that Cape Island beaches are mere slivers of what they were when the Lenni Lenape Indians, the Unalachtigo, (meaning people who live by the ocean) fished and hunted the high dunes and broad beaches.
The fast-eroding seashore had become a major political-economic issue. Energetic young visionaries all around Cape May were restoring Victorian structures, converting them into comfy B&Bs. The city was enjoying its new-found halo as a National Historic Landmark. Positive publicity went nation-wide. Yet the buzz in the tourist industry produced a big negative: Cape May is a pretty town. Great architecture, nice gardens, good restaurants. But the beaches are lousy. “You had to plan your vacation around the tide table and move your blanket inland every five minutes,” says Vicki Clark, executive director of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce.
Pressure was put on the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps finally admitted a big mistake had been made in anticipating the negative aspects of cutting through the canal 45 years earlier. The Corps agreed that the design of the canal, with the extended older jetties, had a devastating affect on Cape Island beaches.
“It’s obvious from aerial photographs that the north jetty creates a severe offset that interferes with the river of sand that flows offshore,” says Army Corps Project Engineer Dwight Pakan. “The sand gets trapped at the north jetty and impedes the natural drift southward toward beaches in Cape May City, the Cove, the Meadows, the Lighthouse beach and Cape May Point.”
It took an act of Congress to decide that what the government had mistakenly taken away, it must return to Cape Island. The Army Corps of Engineers got the assignment in the late 1970s to design a beach replenishment project that would dramatically change the landscape and life of locals and vacationers.
First evidence of new sand from Poverty Beach to Pittsburgh Avenue appeared during the winter of 1991. Giant mountains of sand were pumped in from a dredge offshore, then sculpted and graded. The monster sand-moving equipment appeared in the mist and fog like dinosaurs hulking against the sea.
“There was no beach at all,” says Pakan. There were the massive concrete and boulder seawall and groins reaching into the ocean that had been constructed in the 1940s to protect beach front properties. “We buried them with sand to shape the new beach.” It stretched from the Coast Guard base south past the deteriorating 1908 Christian Admiral Hotel, a mere shell of its former self, the once-grand centerpiece of the East Cape May Real Estate Company development.
Since 1989, the cost of rebuilding and replenishing Cape Island beaches has topped $50 million with estimates of more than $100 million to continue replenishing in the future. More than 33 million cubic yards of sand have been redeposited from offshore to create 5.7 miles of expanded beach from the Coast Guard base to Cape May Point. This new seascape today remains very political, experimental, controversial and one of the most expensive manufactured beaches in the world.
Depending on which side of the blanket you are sitting, beach replenishment is considered a blessing – or a curse.
Taxpayers from all over America foot the multi-million dollar bill to build the beaches. And taxpayers, through Congress, have promised to continue paying for replenishment for 50 years after the initial projects are completed.
Despite the commitment, every year is a struggle to secure the money. “It’s a forever challenge to convince midwest and mountain representatives that beach replenishment is not about a sun tan, but bread and butter issues,” says Congressman Frank LoBiondo “If there’s no beach, there are no tourists, no businesses, no jobs, the ripple effects are devastating. Likewise, the beaches and dunes protect lives and property. Without this system in place we would suffer the consequences of a storm direct hit. Remember Katrina?”
There is no debating that beaches are the lifeblood of the economy. The lust for the sea experience generates billions in vacation dollars and real estate fortunes. Many blessings, indeed.
But there is danger lurking along man-made beaches where high surf breaks closer to the beach and there are sudden drop-offs and step-offs in the ocean where the imported sand has not stabilized to form a gentle slope found on natural beaches. There are invisible cavities near stone groins, aging steel and wooden piers that have been blanketed with sand.
Veteran beach lovers in Cape May Point were angry the first summer after the 2004 winter beach replenishment. They were vocal about dangerous holes and drop-offs, new rip currents and rough imported sand. They were accustomed to narrow tide-cooled sloping beaches of the finest sand in the world.
Former Mayor Malcolm Fraser, an engineer, told the upset beachgoers, “Patience. We need to wait for nature to take its course stabilizing the new beach. The tides will wash over it, hardening the beach in place. Natural sands will drift in, and begin to collect as is to happen with successful beach replenishment.”
Patience and stubbornness are Fraser traits that have been fundamental to building the 2.7 miles of new beach from the 3rd Avenue Cove in Cape May to Cape May Point.
The nuns at St. Mary By-the-Sea prayed for a miracle when they realized their massive picturesque summer retreat house at the Point was threatening to fall into the sea. (Cape May Magazine, Fall 2006) You could say it’s a miracle that Mayor Fraser was able to use an obscure executive order signed by President George Bush in 1991 allowing the Army Corps a loophole to protect threatened, but critical wildlife habitats. In this case, it is Cape May’s Migratory Refuge.
Mayor Fraser’s motivation? Without success his little town of 240 cottage dwellers might wash away in major storms as neighboring South Cape May did a century ago. The World War II bunker where he proposed marriage to his wife in 1953 now stood on pilings in the surf. The wetlands, known as the Lower Cape Meadows, home to the Migratory Bird Refuge at Cape May Point State Park, near the Lighthouse, were inundated with salt water when Hurricane Gloria hit in 1985 and broke dunes. Storms in 1991 breached rebuilt dunes a half dozen times and contaminated the fresh water.
Sometimes it seemed a losing proposition, but Mayor Fraser never gave up. “I promised my bride 53 years ago she would always live in Cape May Point,” he says. “It was a pre-nuptial agreement.”
A decade of studying, politicking with Congress and planning with the Army Corps of Engineers resulted in the 2004 project that pumped in 1.7 million cubic yards of sand at the cost of 15 million dollars. High dunes were constructed over massive cores of gravel and clay. Where there once was sea and the ghosts of South Cape May, a wide expanse of beach stretched toward the Atlantic. The Lighthouse beaches quadrupled in size. Dunes now protect the nuns’ 150-year-old St. Mary’s and Point cottages. And the Army bunker where Mayor Fraser proposed marriage has sand around its feet.
The most dramatic change in the landscape is in East Cape May where developers went bankrupt at the turn of the century. Once the new beaches were built in 1991, the neighborhood flooding that happened with every fierce nor’easter and hurricane became a bad memory. When the Christian Admiral was torn down in 1996, the monopoly game began in earnest.
Called the Admiral Beach Estates, the site of the old hotel was subdivided into 26 lots. Beachfront lots sold for more than $400,000. Now, 10 years later, there are a couple dozen new multi-million dollar mansions, and one beachfront lot remaining. It was listed recently at more than $3.5 million! Some of the lots have been flipped several times, fortunes being made. Residents were living on highly escalated land, but they lost their private tiny beaches hidden by the seawall.
As this story is written, a mean nor’easter is battering Cape Island. It’s dusk at Cape May Point. Malcolm Fraser pulls on his slicker and boots, a slight figure, bracing against 55 mph winds at a beach look-out. Into the darkness he sees his beaches are holding. He returns to his cottage on Lake Lily. “We survived another one,” he says to his wife.