The Stephen Smith house has stood at 645 Lafayette Street for nearly 170 years. Maybe you’ve walked past it. Maybe you’ve read the plaque out front that offers a brief summary of Smith’s life. But you might not realize that he was a key figure in the pre-Civil War Underground Railroad.
The Stephen Smith House
Smith was born into slavery and bought his own freedom, and by the 1840s and ’50s had become one of the wealthiest black men in America, channeling his wealth into education programs, libraries, and schools for free blacks. He founded churches, including the Cape May AME Church on Franklin Street, and the first home for aged African Americans. He owned properties on Decatur, Mansion, and Jackson Streets, and others near Congress Hall.
Smith and William Whipper, his business partner and close friend, owned a lucrative lumber and coal business in Pennsylvania. When large groups arrived in Pennsylvania seeking freedom from the slave state of Maryland–too many to escape by wagon or on foot–Smith and Whipper devised a false end to their railroad cars to conceal them on the journey north.
Portrait of Stephen Smith by James Stidun, c. 1840
Smith was a target of racial attacks in Pennsylvania that eventually sent him to Philadelphia and later to Cape May, though it was not immune, since the resort attracted abolitionists and southern planters alike. Still, Smith constructed his retreat, and he also opened a hotel next door that offered $8 beach vacations to African Americans from Philadelphia. He died in 1873.
The Stephen Smith house was saved from the wrecking ball in the 1960s, when it had been slated for demolition under Cape May City’s urban renewal plan. Today, the house is owned by four siblings, the Hamptons, whose grandparents purchased the home in 1932 from Smith’s grandniece. Through grants and donations, they hope to restore the building, which will display artwork, furniture and historic artifacts original to the home–a testament to Smith’s legacy.
For more information on Stephen Smith and to learn about ongoing preservation efforts, visit 645lafayette.com
Historic information for this post taken from Cape May Magazine‘s Fall 2015 article Stephen Smith: Cape May’s Underground Railroad Leader by Barbara Dreyfuss.
One of the most common questions we receive during the off-season is “What is there to do in Cape May right now?” There’s a funny misconception that winter means we close our doors–all of them. I’ve been asked, more times than I can count, if Cape May is open in the winter months.
That’s one of the reasons we began compiling this holiday weekend guide for the Valentine’s Day/Presidents’ Day Weekend, to let people know that, indeed, we’re open. And we’d love for you to come down.
This year, enjoy special lodging packages at Cape May accommodations, including the Virginia, Grand Hotel, Mission Inn, The Harrison, John Wesley Inn, and the Carroll Villa. Romantic fixed-price menus are available at a selection of your favorite restaurants: the Ebbitt Room, Mad Batter, Washington Inn, Blue Pig Tavern, Blue Rose Inn, Elaine’s, and Willow Creek Winery. We’re also compiling a list of shop hours, and events and leisure activities happening that holiday weekend.
Visit lovecapemay.com for information, hours, and links.
Ringing in the new year in Cape May? Make your reservations now for New Year’s Eve. We’ll continue to update this list as more restaurant information becomes available. Don’t see your restaurant listed? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with any additions.
The Black Duck
Now taking reservations for New Year’s Eve. Open January 1 & 2. Call (609) 898-0100
The Boiler Room
Congress Hall’s underground night club welcomes 2016 with the Billy D. Light Trio. Order fresh brick oven pizza and rock out to one of Cape May’s favorite party bands on New Year’s Eve. There is no cover charge.
The Ebbitt Room
Now taking reservations for New Year’s Eve. Seatings from 5pm-7:45pm for $95 per person and from 8pm- 10:30pm for $105 per person; includes Champagne Toast. Visit their website to view the menu and call (609) 884-5700 for reservations.
Now taking reservations for New Year’s Eve. Call (609) 884-5444.
The Merion Inn
Celebrate on New Year’s Eve! 4:30-5pm a la carte seating (kid friendly) or 7pm and 9pm seatings for our prix fixe menu. Barry Miles on piano all night! Call (609) 884-8363 for reservations.
Outside Cape May
The Reeds in Stone Harbor
Now taking reservations for New Year’s Eve. 5–11pm 4-course, prix fixe dinner. Call (609) 368-0100.
We can hardly believe Christmas is in three days! Here’s a glimpse at more of the beautiful decorations around town. Pictured are the Cherry House, Queen Victoria, Congress Hall, Mason Cottage, and the Mainstay Inn.