- Cape May NJ Travel Guide and Vacation Planner Blog

Month: September 2001

Need a Bunker? This One’s Ready to Go!

Sixty-year-old gun emplacement bunker. Walls approximately two feet thick. Roof leaks. Foundation washed away. No heat, air, electric or gas. Private location in nice neighborhood with ocean view on all sides. Great fixer-upper. Handyman special. Possibly haunted. Interested parties should apply to the United States War Department, Washington D.C. No reasonable offer refused.

OK, ya got me. This isn’t a genuine real estate advertisement, although maybe it should be (more on that later). But the Cape May Point bunker is indeed an existing structure, around which swirl numerous rumors, misconceptions and, of course, the tantalizing possibility of ghostly inhabitants.

So how much do you know about the old bunker and its vitally important function during the darkest days of World War Two? For instance, if you believe the sea off the southern New Jersey coastline is the last place where a hostile warship might lurk, you may be surprised to learn there was once a clear and present danger of that happening. If you’ve never experienced the fear of a potential enemy invasion along Cape May’s beaches, you probably weren’t living along the Jersey shore in the early 1940s. And if you’ve ever wondered about the origin of the rapidly deteriorating gun emplacement bunker at the southernmost tip of Cape May, or if you’ve seen strange, time-warped apparitions hanging around it then you’ve definitely come to the right online magazine.

BunkerbwDiagramLocated just east of the Cape May Point Light House in what is now Cape May Point State Park, the bunker was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers during the early months of the Second World War. It contained heavy artillery and was manned by a rotating detail of naval gunnery crews, who spent hours on end scanning the horizon for enemy surface ships and submarines. (In fact, a German U-Boat commander surrendered his vessel just off the coast of Cape May at the end of World War Two – which will be the subject of a future article.)

The vigilant fighting men in the Cape May Point bunker saw little combat, but if the war had taken a turn for the worse, these sailors would have been our last line of defense on the Atlantic seaboard. They may not have gotten much of the glory, but the boys manning this coastal battery were heroes in the truest sense of the word, all those years ago.

Strangely enough, today there are those who say they have seen ghostly figures moving around inside the gun emplacement in modern times. Witnesses describe eerie spectral images of men in World War II vintage uniforms looking out from the gun ports, or standing by the entrance smoking a cigarette. Could shades of the sailors who manned this outpost so diligently more than five decades ago continue to haunt their former duty station? If so, they must be somewhat perplexed to find that the old gun emplacement – once sand covered and hidden from view – is now completely exposed, like an alpine lodge that’s revealed after the snow has melted away from its roof and sides in the spring. These purported spirits must barely be able to recognize the place, so thoroughly has it changed since the 1940’s.

Of course, the sand beneath and above the bunker did not disappear overnight. Mother Nature doesn’t work that quickly. Many older residents and visitors to Cape May can remember when the gun emplacement was totally buried in the sand, four hundred yards inland from the waterline. As recently as the 1970’s, there was still some sand supporting it, even at high tide. A set of wooden steps, constructed after the war, led to an observation platform, from which one could cast a fishing line or drop a crab trap or simply enjoy the panorama of the Delaware Bay’s natural beauty. South Jersey native Richard Daniels has fond memories of the old structure. “I can recall climbing the steps to the observation deck as a young child with my father to get to the top of the bunker. There were fixed binocular viewers installed up there that you could use for a dime. The sea breeze was always in your face as you looked out over the water, watching for dolphins, sailboats, and the Cape May Lewes Ferry churning its way across the bay.

Now, the whole bunker is nearly surrounded by the ocean, and it looks like it’s about ready to topple over at any moment.” Indeed, the gun emplacement is no longer safe to visit, nor is it easily accessible. Years of beach erosion have uncovered the bunker’s support pilings, making it look like a huge beast standing in the surf on spindly legs that aren’t quite strong enough to support the mammoth animal’s bulk. It seems clear that tons of concrete cannot stand on wave-pounded rotting timbers forever. Is this, then, to be the gun emplacement’s epitaph? Will it come crashing down in the next big storm, to be hidden beneath the waves and lost from sight forever?

Bunker2That’s where our phony real estate ad comes in. After much consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that the old bunker needs to find itself a new owner. And soon. Here’s how I see it. Cape May has a long and distinguished tradition of preserving historic buildings, and its citizens have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to architectural conservation. Scores of picturesque homes, inns, and businesses have been renovated and lovingly restored to their original luster, earning the City well deserved accolades from around the world. Yet while Victorian hotels and Queen Anne houses admittedly have a great deal more charm than a forties concrete pillbox, we mustn’t limit our civic pride to stately manors and beautiful “painted ladies”. Maybe it’s time to help out an aging army brat before time and tides move her beyond all hope of restoration. Perhaps we could mobilize local resources to adopt the old bunker, or persuade the Army Corps of Engineers that the Cape May Point gun emplacement needs to be stabilized and preserved for future generations. Or better yet, how about a splashy media campaign? We could make posters. And mail flyers. And print bumper stickers. Our T-shirts could read: “Save the Bunker It helped save America.”

But whatever we do, it must be done with great alacrity. Because very soon Mother Nature will finish her work, and the Cape May Point “bunker” will crumble once and forever into the surf… Then I guess we’ll have another “concrete ship” of sorts.

Come to think of it, with beachfront properties in Cape May well into 7 figures, our “bunker” could be loaded with potential, and it’s bound to be nicely priced for a quick sale (no flood insurance, but it does have an antique latrine). The possibilities are endless meanwhile the surf’s pounding around those pilings…

Remembering Alice Steer Wilson

Remembering Alice Steer WilsonWhen Alice Steer Wilson died on July 22 of this year, the city of Cape May lost one of its most vibrant, visual champions. But because she was loved by so many, because her well-known watercolors of the city have enjoyed such popularity, and because she shared her energy and knowledge freely with family, friends, and students– her presence here remains strong.

Alice Steer Wilson self portrait

Alice Steer Wilson self portrait

That fact was evident when an exhibition of the late artist’s most recent work opened at the Chalfonte Hotel on September 2, and the Magnolia Room filled with people admiring Wilson’s much-acclaimed work and remembering her influence here.

The exhibition, entitled “Two Artists Celebrate Cape May,” will remain on display until October 14. It is a joint exhibition featuring the most recent watercolors of Alice Steer Wilson, as well as serigraphs, oils, and pastels by Wilson’s long-time friend, Virginia Tabor. The two friends planned the show earlier this year, at Alice’s suggestion.  It was to be the first time they exhibited together in a show that didn’t include other artists. The idea, Ginny says, was Alice’s. “It was hard to say ‘no’ to Alice,” Ginny recalls. “She was a powerful woman.”

For many years, art was something of a hobby for Alice Steer Wilson. When she attended Oberlin College in the late 1940s, she majored in Psychology. But, “she was always painting a little bit,” says her husband Fred. “It was strictly a hobby and strictly on the side.”

It probably wasn’t until she began working with the Haddonfield Arts and Crafts League in the early 1960s, he notes, that art became a serious pursuit for her. “I guess I could say she had two passions–one was her family; one was her art.” But, he adds, her family came first.

When her children were mostly in high school, in 1966, Alice Wilson got really serious about art and enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. It was there that she met her good friend, Virginia Tabor, who was also a housewife and mother returning to school. In art school, in the 1960s, recalls Wilson’s daughter Janice Wilson Stridick, “they were definitely fish out of water.”

“It was the days of people painting themselves and rolling on the canvases,” Ginny recalls. That didn’t stop them.

Pink HousesmThe years that followed proved to be artistically rich for Wilson. She and her family lived  in Moorestown but spent summers in Cape May. For many years, during these summer vacations, she set herself up in booths in various locations on Washington Street and sketched charcoal portraits for $3, or original watercolors of Cape May landmarks for $25.

“She was a fixture on the mall when I got here,” recalls Washington Street Gallery owner Roman Mediuch. (Alice and Fred Wilson later helped establish Meduich in his business by buying the gallery and leasing it to him.)

Tabor recalls that one summer she, too, worked at portrait-making, but she did her work on the Boardwalk, braving the elements and bringing along her own electric light. She says she probably wouldn’t have had the courage to do it, if it weren’t for Alice’s example.

This kind of support and parallel effort characterized the careers of the two friends for decades. “We supported one another,” Tabor recalls. “It’s just wonderful to have that kind of relationship… We shared the Cape May love affair.”

The public’s familiarity and accessibility to Wilson’s work grew in 1977, when she and her husband Fred began printing note cards of her watercolor images of the town. Some of these included Wilson’s favorite scenes ‹the dunes and the Grey Ghost on the Point, and St. Mary’s.

St. Mary'ssm Dunessm

They were all painted from life, Janice recalls – never from photographs. ( Note cards are still available at stores such as the Whale’s Tale; matted prints of her work are sold at the Washington Street Gallery.)

Abby at NightsmIn 1979, Alice and Fred bought one of the original Cape May buildings, the 1848 Steiner Cottage on Congress Street.  Sometimes, Janice recalls, after she and her brother and sisters were grown, their mother would stay on at the beach house until November, because she loved to paint Cape May in the fall. Cape May, with its magnificent sea-lit colors and charm, became Wilson’s favorite artistic subject.

“If she’d had her way, she would have been in Cape May most of the time,” Janice insists. And this is evident in the work. “If you look, she’s not doing photographic representation of these buildings,” she says. “She’s doing these building through eyes that are filled with love.”

And that love inspired Alice Steer Wilson to work hard, not just painting the city, but helping to preserve its beauty, and encouraging the work of other artists. She was especially active in the work of the Cape May Art League, where she taught for many years.

Her formal artistic association with the Chalfonte Hotel began in the early 1990s, when co-owners Anne LeDuc and Judy Bartella asked her  to exhibit some of her work in the hotel’s lovely Magnolia Room.

House at the Pointsm“I am very humble talking about her artwork,” says Anne LeDuc. “I can’t put words to her artwork. [But] Alice as a person meant the most to me, because she was just so vibrant and so warm, and just had such a twinkle in her eye and a great sense of humor… very human, very interested in all kinds of causes…one of the warmest, kindest people I have ever known.

“I used to walk around Cape May a lot and see Alice sitting in her same pose, usually at twilight,” LeDuc recalls, “always out there painting.”

The Chalfonte Hotel art exhibition became an annual Labor Day ritual and, says Janice Stridick, it gave her mother a tangible goal.

Lighthouse2“My mother had this sense that you had to fill the room,” Janice recalls. And it would take “forty or fifty paintings to do the room justice, in her own mind. It became something she worked toward each year. She liked goals.”

Wilson’s reputation extended beyond Cape May. She did solo exhibitions in the Philadelphia area, and competed in juried shows at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Woodmere Art Museum, and the Philadelphia Watercolor Club, among other places. Besides her work at the Cape May County Art League, she taught at Gwynedd Mercy Academy, the Perkins Center for the Arts in Moorestown, and Stockton College. Throughout her career, she received an extensive list of awards and citations. Her work has been purchased by collectors throughout the United States and in Europe, and more than one million of the note cards have been sold.

In the last 10 years of her life, Wilson was especially prolific, completing, Janice estimates, between 50 and 75 paintings a year.

HotelsmIn last year’s Chalfonte exhibition, which Wilson attended, all but three of the paintings displayed -and there were more than 30 of them – sold within the first half hour of the show. None of Wilson’s new work in this show is being offered for sale. The family, Janice notes, needs some time to evaluate the future of the work that remains with them, and hopefully to place some of it in a permanent museum collection. Instead, limited edition Giclee prints of three of Wilson’s Cape May images “Autumn Triumph,” a picture of the Cape May Lighthouse;

“From One Generation to Another,” an image of the Chalfonte Hotel;  and “Spring Lilies (pictured above)” will be sold during the show. All of Tabor’s work, except “Alice Painting Provence” is being offered for sale. Tabor is accepting orders for Giclee lithograph prints of that oil painting, which shows Alice painting the rooftops of Provence. (Wilson’s watercolor “Afternoon in Provence” shows the result of that effort.)

Alice Wilson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995. A year or so later, after rigorous chemotherapy, the cancer went into remission, and during that time, Janice recalls, she “painted like a banshee.” And her work got even bolder and brighter. “Mom just painted till the very end.” Part of the reason for that was that she wanted this show to go on.

“It’s a very emotional roller coaster,” Ginny explained the day before the show opened. “It’s a celebration. It’s a sadness. It’s certainly a celebration of Alice’s life and love of painting and her determination to live up until the last minute.”

Washington StreetsmMuch of the work in the show includes paintings Alice completed in her last year. Because she was confined to a room in her Merchantville home for much of that time, and eventually confined to bed, many of the paintings are restricted to what she could see from her limited vantage points. Some of the paintings (“Deep Winter” and “Cyclamen in Snow”) show landscapes that were visible from her window. Others are still life’s of flowers friends and family members brought her when she was sick. Others are works she began years ago, during vacations with her husband Fred, Ginny, and Ginny’s husband, Clem ‹to Provence and Florence. The four friends often traveled together, and a few of the images show Fred and Clem relaxing on a balcony in Florence while their wives painted.

For  both Wilson and Tabor, Cape May held special artistic charm… and not just because of the lovely beach scenes or the Victorian bed and breakfasts that distinguish the city. There was something about the light that made it a great place to paint.

“It’s the southern light,” Ginny explains.  “It’s particularly magic in the early morning and the afternoon – the magic time.”

That light pervades the work of Alice Steer Wilson. After spending some time with her watercolors, we begin to see light in a new way – to see how it changes the landscape, the sky, and the historic trappings of this Victorian town. This is Alice Steer Wilson’s gift to us – her legacy and her vision.

Editor’s note: The exhibit continues at the Chalfonte Hotel through mid-October. Alice Steer Wilson’s prints are currently available for sale at the exhibit and at Washington Street Gallery.

Report From Another Era: Nazi Sub Surrenders off Cape May

Photograph used with permission by Dr. Salvatore of the United States Naval Air Station Wildwood New Jersey

Photograph used with permission by Dr. Salvatore of the {link:}United States Naval Air Station Wildwood{/link} New Jersey

CAPE MAY, N.J. – The German High Command called it “Operation Paukenschlag” or Operation Drumbeat. Not wishing to be outdone by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, on December 11, 1941, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler ordered his most fearsome and silent fighting force to sortie into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North America in hopes of scoring another crushing defeat on the American Navy. With a coordinated U-boat attack on Allied warships, tankers, tenders and Merchant Marine supply ships, Hitler very nearly saw his wish fulfilled.

Dozens of Nazi submarines wreaked havoc on a surprised and woefully unprepared United States Navy for over a year during those first frightening days after our entry into the Second World War. Eventually, U.S. patrol ships and aircraft became skilled at tracking and destroying enemy U-boats, but not before the deadly wolf packs had sunk 2,775 Allied vessels amounting to over 14 million tons and hundreds of lives lost.

One of the few successful German submarines to survive to the end of the war was designated U-858.  Nazi subs were neither built nor launched in strict numerical order because the German Navy wanted to confuse the Fatherland’s enemies as to the actual number of boats in service at any one time.

The U-858 was 240-feet long (pictured above is the actual submarine captured), weighed 740 tons and was armed with four torpedo tubes in the bow and two in the stern. She was designed to carry 21 torpedoes and a crew of five officers and 52 enlisted men. Her cruising range on the surface was more than 18,000 miles at a speed of 20 knots while running on diesel power. Submerged, the U-858’s electric motors could propel her at 8 knots for 70 to 80 miles. She could dive in as little as thirty seconds and remain underwater for hours on end, operating at a depth of more than 200 feet.

Contrary to popular belief, most torpedo attacks were launched from the surface since the U-boat needed its diesel engines to get into attack position and keep pace with its target. This meant that most torpedo runs during Operation Drumbeat occurred under cover of darkness or poor visibility, often within sight of land. All too frequently, Americans residing along the east coast from New York City down to Miami Beach were jolted from their beds by loud explosions just offshore, followed by a blaze of fire on the horizon.

On board the cramped submarine, attacks began with an alarm klaxon and an order from the U-boat Commander to his First Officer, “Gefechtsstationen!” or “battle stations!,” followed by a rapid exchange of commands and status reports between the two men.

But if this was a fairly routine sequence of events, what was so special about this submarine?  U-858 was the first Nazi submarine to surrender to the United States Navy after the cessation of hostilities with Germany in May of 1945. And the surrender took place about forty miles off the coast of Cape May, New Jersey.

U-858 had been out on patrol for six weeks and had torpedoed 16 Allied ships when her commander, Kapitanleutenant (that’s equal to a Lieutenant Commander) Thilo Bode received word from his wireless operator that Germany had capitulated and all naval vessels were ordered to stand down and surrender as soon as possible. Kapitan Bode immediately signaled his intention to turn over his vessel to American forces, and on Monday, May 14, 1945 he rendezvoused with a task-group from the US Atlantic Fleet, just east of Cape May.

USS PILLSBURY DE- 133  After hostilities with Germany ended,  Pillsbury and Pope (DE-134) escorted the first surrendered Nazi U-boat, U-858, from mid-Atlantic to Cape May, N.J., after placing a prize crew aboard. Photograph and caption supplied by the Destroyer Escort Information web site.

USS PILLSBURY DE- 133 After hostilities with Germany ended, Pillsbury and Pope (DE-134) escorted the first surrendered Nazi U-boat, U-858, from mid-Atlantic to Cape May, N.J., after placing a prize crew aboard. Photograph and caption supplied by the {link:}Destroyer Escort Information website{/link}.

Naturally, newsmen and photographers were on hand to document the historic moment. They reported that the crew of U-858 seemed quite young (the average age for U-boat crewmen was 20 years of age). They said the men looked unkempt and a bit ragged, but six weeks of traveling in what has been described as a sewer pipe with valves (German subs of that era had no showers or laundry facilities) could make any group of men less than fresh.

The reporters at the transfer of command noted that the 27-year-old Bavarian Kapitan Bode was tall, smooth-shaven, and pasty-faced, with a keen wit about him. When journalists asked the German skipper for his reaction to the surrender orders, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “We expected it. What was the use of going on? We hadn’t seen any ships to attack.” Kapitan Bode added, “Give me my submarine, my crew and I’d like to help fight the Japs with the US Navy.”

The Navy declined the offer and took U-858 and her crew to Fort Miles, Delaware, for processing. The sub was later towed to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and scrapped. It was Cape May that made all the headlines, and the public relations value of this history-making surrender was not lost on certain members of the local press.  On May 17, 1945, just three days after U-858 surrendered, the Cape May Star and Wave published the following editorial, written by a columnist with the clever name of C. Worthy:

“If resort publicity means anything, Cape May hit the jackpot during the last few days, as a result of the Nazi submarine’s surrender off the local coast. Streamer headlines, coast-to-coast broadcasts, newsreels and wire photos carried the story to millions of people throughout the world, and in all of them Cape May was prominently mentioned.”

The article went on,

“It’s things like that about Cape May that make neighboring publicity departments green with envy at times. We know a couple of press agents whose best laid plans have netted not more than a paragraph in the city sheets, who would have given their eye-teeth to have the sub captured off their resorts.”

We don’t know what is lurking in the sea beyond Beach Avenue these days. The war against the Germans is long over, some say even fading into oblivion now.  But maybe, just maybe, Cape May’s position on the east coast will again find her in the spotlight of history, spreading the word that she remains a very special place in America..

With special thanks to local author Richard Daniels for his help in the research of this article.

Cape May’s Role in History: Pathway to Freedom

William Cowper

William Cowper

In the early years of the American republic, slavery’s role continued to feed the fledgling nation’s economy.

Five hundred years ago, European ships began capturing and transporting Africans across the Atlantic Ocean as part of a burgeoning slave trade.

“I pity them greatly, but I must be mum
For how could we do without sugar and rum?”

William Cowper (1731-1800)
Pity for Poor Africans

The ships left Europe laden with trade goods, obtained slaves from Africa, trading their human cargo in North and South America for New World goods such as tobacco, rum and sugar.

map1During the American Revolution, slavery flourished across the colonies. Many of the slaves owned in the Northern states lived with their slaveholding families on small farms and were relegated to housework or laboring in the fields.

According to an early newspaper account, the first case of slave freedom in Cape May County came in 1790 in a case of the State against John Ware on habeas corpus proceedings of a slave named Negro Jethro: “In appearing to the court that the said Negro Jethro was born on the eighth day of September, 1768, in county of Cape May and that his mother, Charity Briggs, a mulatto woman, was free at the time of birth, and that Jethro was bound by the overseer of the poor to Nathaniel Foster.”

In 1768, Charity Briggs was purchased by John Connell with Jethro. Connell sold her time of service to another slave owner, who also raised Jethro. He then sold Jethro to another slave owner, who sold him in 1788 to John Ware. Since Jethro was born to a free woman, attorney general Joseph Bloomfield granted the slave his freedom.

In New Jersey, the gradual manumission of slavery increased in the early 1800s through legislative efforts.

The New Jersey Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery helped with the passage of an act in 1804 that gradually abolished slavery.

Under the act, children born of slaves after July 4, 1804, were to be freed after serving as apprentices to their mother’s masters. For females this meant freedom after 21 years; for males, 25 years.

douglass“In thinking of America, I sometimes find myself admiring her bright blue sky – her grand old woods – her fertile fields – her beautiful rivers – her mighty lakes and star-crowned mountains.

But my rapture is soon checked when I remember that all is cursed with the infernal spirit of slave-holding and wrong; When I remember that with the waters of her noblest rivers, the tears of my brethren are borne to the ocean, disregarded and forgotten; That her most fertile fields drink daily of the warm blood of my outraged sisters, I am filled with unutterable loathing.”

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895)

This act made New Jersey the last Northern state to abolish slavery.

The abolition law of 1804 freed 12,460 black New Jerseyans by 1820. The number of blacks still held as slaves was 7,557 at that time. But the abolition act of 1804 received criticism from a second New Jersey abolitionist group, the New Jersey Anti-Slavery Society. The society, formed in 1840, submitted petitions to the legislature, arguing the state already made slavery illegal through its “Bill of Rights,” passed by the state’s second constitution.

Even though the society lost a legal battle over this issue, their cries hadn’t fallen on deaf ears. In 1846 the state passed its second major emancipation law, which formally outlawed slavery. While the law outlawed slavery, it didn’t protect all slaves. Under the act, all black children born after the act’s passage were free, but those blacks were to be “apprentices” for life.

The act did offer former slaves greater legal protection; they could sue for their freedom if abused or mistreated and they could not be sold without written consent.

This act was superseded in 1865 by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery nationally.

Yet it was a long time from 1840 until the post Civil War years and in New Jersey, although most blacks were free, many remained in slavery.

The issue drew its share of critics and opponents in New Jersey, but the overall sentiment leaned toward the South. New Jersey supported the doctrine of state’s rights and believed the emancipation of slaves would cause freed bondsmen to sweep the state, competing with whites for employment. The state was firmly under Democratic control in 1860 and 1864, and Abraham Lincoln did not carry New Jersey in both elections.

In 1850, Swedish novelist Frederika Bremer visited Cape May and described a local restaurant employing “a regiment of somewhat above forty Negroes” and of conversations with a Philadelphia abolitionist.

“I have derived pleasure from my acquaintance with an amiable family, or rather two brother-families from Philadelphia, who live in a cottage near here for the benefit of sea-bathing. Mr. F., the elder, is the minister of a Unitarian congregation in Philadelphia, one of the noblest, purest human beings whom God ever created, true, fervent, and full of love, but so absorbed by his anti-slavery feelings that his life and his mind suffer in consequence, and I believe that he would with the greatest pleasure suffer death if by that means slavery could be abolished,” Bremer wrote. “This grief for slavery would have made an end of the noble minister’s life had not his daughter enlivened him every day with new joy and fascination.”

In the antebellum South, a bondsperson’s life was cruel and painful. Many families were broken apart, sold at slave auctions and relocated. Women slaves experienced sexual abuse from their slaveholders. When slaves learned they would be sold, they often fled.

During the years prior to the Civil War, thousands of slaves attempted escape via a system named the Underground Railroad. Many of the runaways were helped along the way by various “conductors,” anti-slavery sympathizers who provided shelter, food and clothing. A runaway would rest at various stops along the Underground Railroad, en route to safe destinations in Canada, Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Mexico or the Indian territory in the west.

But the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 allowed runaway slaves to be recaptured in Northern states and brought back to their Southern masters. Under the act, those aiding escaped slaves faced heavy fines and imprisonment, placing Underground Railroad conductors also at risk.

New Jersey wasn’t a primary destination in the Underground Railroad but a place where slaves were ferried through along the eastern seaboard. Slaves entered New Jersey from Delaware, crossing the Delaware River and landing in Greenwich, New Jersey in Cumberland County, or through Philadelphia.

Not every slave entering new Jersey made it farther north. Some remained living in seclusion in heavily wooded areas and tiny villages.

Harriett Tubman

Harriett Tubman

Harriet Tubman escaped slavery in 1849 from Dorchester County, Maryland. She arrived in New Jersey and later become the most famous conductor in the Underground Railroad, working for a time in the Greenwich Line.

Tubman worked as a cook in Cape May in 1852, earning money to help runaway bondsmen. She learned how the Greenwich Line worked, and of routes in Salem, Cumberland and Cape May counties, including obscure Indian trails.

She made over 19 trips into the South and helped guide 300 runaways northward, earning her the nickname “Moses,” and a bounty on her head.

Edward Turner, a free black landholder in Lower Township, just north of Cape Island, also contributed to the Underground Railroad.

According to Jeffrey Dorwart’s book Cape May County, New Jersey, “Turner’s family intermarried with the Cox, Armor, Trusty and Taylor families, establishing wide kinship ties throughout the county. According to tradition, Turner employed his wagon, remote woodland farm in the Union Bethel community, and family ties to operate an Underground railroad station in Cape may County that shuttled fugitive slaves to Snow Hill (Lawnside), Haddonfield, or other stations farther north.”

According to one spokesperson at the Cape May County Historical Society, there are so many rumors about runaway slaves stopping in Cape May County along the Underground Railroad, but no real evidence to point to actual incidents.

One reason is Cape May’s geographical location on the Delaware Bay, farther from Delaware than Salem or Cumberland counties.

Yet published accounts tell of mariners from Cape May and Atlantic counties, many of whom were free blacks, operating the Underground Railroad line into Greenwich, New Jersey. In the 1850s, fugitives traveled by foot from Cumberland to Cape May County. Lenni Lenape guides assisted runaway slaves through the swamps and bogs at night, avoiding slave catchers out for bounty.


A boat operated between Cape May and Lewes, Delaware then, as it does currently. At night, local mariners operated a route across the Delaware Bay, ferrying slaves across.

Turner may have assisted Harriet Tubman with moving escaped bondsmen through Cape May County. In Emma Marie Trusty’s book, The Underground Railroad Unveiled – Ties That Bound, Turner and notably, churches, were responsible for aiding slaves.

According to Trusty: “We conclude that some members of the Union Bethel community functioned as station masters. Others were said to have hidden slaves in a cave near Cape may Point and on Edward Turner’s farm. Family ties and friendships transcended church denominations. Black church communities functioned as one soul on the Underground Railroad when the need arose.”

While the compassion of the Quakers who populated southern New Jersey helped raise anti-slavery sentiment, it was the free black community itself that provided aid to runaway slaves. In Philadelphia, black minister Richard Allen’s church, the first African Methodist Episcopal Church, known as “Mother Bethel,” secretly housed hundreds of slaves as an Underground Railroad station.

The A.M.E. churches soon spread to communities in southern New Jersey, providing safe havens for slaves on the run.

“Church members in this region were actively engaged in Underground Railroad activity. Members and friends of the Cape May Underground railroad worked as watermen aboard ferry boats,” Trusty writes.

Turner and his family continued operating his Underground Railroad station well into the Civil War. Slavery came to an end nationally following the war, but the Underground Railroad helped thousands find freedom. Cape May’s contribution wasn’t as significant as the major routes through Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, or Boston in the east or Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago in the Midwest, but it did play a role in secluding and moving some slaves.