- Cape May NJ Travel Guide and Vacation Planner Blog

Month: September 2002

Beach Drive or Beach Avenue?


“It’s Beach Drive, not Beach Avenue. Our family has been here for sixty years and it’s always been Beach Drive. It’s only recently they started calling it Beach Avenue,” so says Robert Fite, former owner of the Colonial Hotel, circa 1894, now called the Inn of Cape May at Beach Avenue and Ocean Street. The hotel is still a landmark on Beach Avenue in the heart of Cape May.

horsesonbeachaveOpinions run strong and memories deep among those whose families have lived in Cape May for the most of the 20th century. The history of Beach Avenue is rich with tales of fires, storms, innovations and a lifestyle now nearly forgotten. An 1850 street map of Cape Island shows five hotels running along the avenue. They were Congress Hall, Old Atlantic, New Atlantic, Columbia House, and the Mansion House. The next year, 1851, Cape Island incorporated and became Cape Island City. According to The Summer City by the Sea, by Emil R. Salvini, the Cape Island Turnpike Company laid out a road connecting the steamboat terminus to Cape May in 1852, known today as Sunset Boulevard.

That same year talk began regarding construction of a railroad linking Camden City to Absecon Island, but the rail lines did not come to Cape May until the Civil War years in 1863. With the railroad, came more tourists, and in 1869 the Stockton Hotel opened taking up the entire block between Howard and Gurney streets and Columbia Avenue and the Atlantic Ocean.

In the sitting room of the two-story home Fite shares with his wife Betsy, he recalls the “halcyon days” of Cape May in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. “Our house was where the horse stables for the Stockton Hotel were situated,” said Fite. “The stables were demolished prior to WWI.”

Raymond Fite (Robert’s father) along with his wife and family, two sons and a daughter, took over the Colonial Hotel from Wil Church, the original owner, in 1927.

Robert remembers, “in those days people came with steamer trunks and they stayed at least one week, most often more. And, of course there were no restaurants. The hotels all had their own restaurants. We baked our own bread, made our own desserts, and all that time I bet we didn’t have more than four chefs. We had a children’s dining room where a paid attendant watched over the children while their parents ate in the big dining room.


Stockton Bath Houses

Everyone dressed for dinner. The men in coats and ties. On Saturdays the women would be in evening dress. After dinner they’d go across to Convention Hall for dancing. That went on until the 1940s when people still went dancing but things gradually started becoming a little less formal.”

Bathhouses were common along Beach Avenue up until the ‘ 60s. The Colonial alone had 1,000 bathhouses lined along its property. The one-story buildings had showers, hooks for clothes and beach towels. Day-trippers, or “shoobies,” – those who took the train to Cape May for the day with their lunch in a shoe box – could rent a woolen bathing suit if needed.

Mrs. Steger

Mrs. Steger

“Back then,” recalled Betty Steger, whose father-in-law Steven began Steger’s Beach Service in 1930, “hotels had strict rules about being seen in the lobby with bathing attire and you couldn’t bring all that sand into the hotel rooms, so everyone who owned a hotel or concession along the beach had bathhouses. We had boys who would go along the bathhouses and gather up the towels and bathing suits. We’d wash them and hang them up to dry on the rooftops of the buildings. I remember one woman insisted we put up galvanized hooks in her bathhouse so her clothes wouldn’t get rusty on the hook.” As a view of the ocean from the hotel rooms became more of an economic edge and insurance on the bathhouses began to climb, the structures gradually were torn down. “And, you know,” said Fite, “People just quit using them in the ’60s. We saved as many of them as we could. One was moved down to Poverty Beach (at the east end of Beach Avenue) and is being used as an office for The Beach Club. Another one was eventually moved up to Lafayette Street and is currently a gift shop [Tradewinds] situated next to Elaine’s Restaurant.

The landscape of Beach Avenue has always been unique compared to that of other shore towns.trolleyonboards

“We’re one of the few places,” said Fite, “that has a road going along the beach.. It’s always been like that. The trolley ran along the boardwalk until the 1920s when the tracks washed out.” The trestles for the railroad were still in existence along the avenue until the Nor’easter of ’62 swept them away.

The railroad/trolley line started at Sewell’s Point amusement pier, which is now the site of the U.S. Coast Guard Base, and ran along Beach Avenue’s boardwalk into South Cape May (so named because it faced south) to the lighthouse at Cape May Point. The borough of South Cape May ran from 7th to 21st avenues. Chartered in 1894, it is currently under the sea. Many of its Spanish cottages built along Beach Avenue were either destroyed by storms or moved into Cape May proper. The Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 put an end to South Cape May.

Betty Steger remembers as a girl of 14 watching from their Grant Street apartment the onslaught of the Great Atlantic Hurricane. “You didn’t hear warnings about storms the way you do now. It must have happened on a Monday because I remember my father getting on the train to go to work that morning. He came down from Philadelphia to be with us on weekends. The hurricane seemed to come out of nowhere later that afternoon. I’ll never forget it. I saw three big tidal waves that just lifted the boardwalk up crashing it onto the football field where Summer Station and the Oceanview Restaurant are now. I was so frightened.”

Storms and time have altered Beach Avenue more than once. The Nor’easter of 1962, a March storm stormbeach which coincided with a full moon and high tide, again destroyed thirteen blocks of the boardwalk spewing debris all along Beach Avenue, and marked the end of a the traditional wooden boardwalk. A concrete promenade was built in its place along Beach Avenue with a sea wall to try to protect the beach front from future storms. The ’62 Nor’easter proved to be a precursor for many other changes that were to affect the way Beach Avenue would look.

Robert and Anna Bundschu were the proprietors of the Jetty Motel from 1971 until last year. The Jetty was built on Beach Avenue in the late fifties and along the with the Cove Restaurant and the Second Street pavilion marks western end of Beach Avenue today. The Bundschus, who came to Cape May from Wildwood Crest, said that the biggest change in Cape May came with construction of motels in the 1960s.

“Before the ’60s,” said Anna Bundschu, “Cape May was known for its grand hotels and its elegance. I think once the motels came, you had more tourists staying shorter times. Then so many of the fine hotels went into disrepair, like the Windsor Hotel. Well, eventually that burnt down and [the land] was sold for condominiums.”

Robert Fite agreed, “In the ’60s people’s lifestyles changed. We went from quoting weekly rates to daily rates and so many new restaurants and gift shops opened. People weren’t as dependent on the hotels for all their needs, but I think Cape May has aged gracefully and still retains much of the old elegance.”

“Many of the old places we used to go to are gone,” said Betty Steger. “I remember the Green Mill Club awalkingtheboardst Beach and Howard. It was a place for teenagers to go. They had a Ping-Pong table, a soda fountain. This was in the 40s. They had dances and a woman who ran it kept an eye on everyone. I was there every night. And where the movie theater is, used to be a McPherson’s Horse Back Riding. That would have been in the ’30s and early ’40s. I used to love to go there too.”

And about that pesky name? Beach Drive or Beach Avenue?

“Oh yes,” said Betty Steger, “We’ve always called it Beach Drive. It’s only recently that the street signs say avenue. In fact you see, I have some old stationary that says … oh… it says Avenue.”

Bouy on Beach Avenue at Ocean marks the Southernmost spot in New Jersey

Buoy on Beach Avenue at Ocean marks the Southernmost spot in New Jersey

Mayor Jerome Inderwies says no doubt about it, it is Beach Avenue. “And I’ll tell how I know. I always called it Beach Drive. We had a tax assessor for years by the name of John Dollinger, and one day he corrected me. ‘It’s Beach Avenue,’ he said. ‘Always was, always will be.'”

Fast Facts on today’s Beach Avenue

Beach Ave runs 2.2 miles from Wilmington Ave. at the north-east end (Poverty Beach to Second Avenue at the south-west end.

On the Atlantic Ocean side of Beach Ave, there are 8 structures built into the sand. These buildings house 2 restaurants, 2 arcades, 2 candy stores, 2 pizza shops, 1 gift shop, 1 clothing shop, 2 comfort stations, a life guard station and Cape May’s Convention Hall.

On the city-side of Beach Avenue, there are 19 motor inns or resort hotels, 3 historic hotels, 19 restaurants, 7 condominium complexes, 24 shops and galleries.

Fishing: More than just a hobby in Cape May

feastTo call fishing a pastime, or hobby, is an understatement in  Cape May . For many, it’s an entire life. Families live by the sea — their livelihood dependent on Mother Nature’s good will. Their lifestyles are different, reliant on weather, tides, seasons.

Most are born into fishing families, many lose loved ones to the sea. It’s difficult for one to become a fisherman, it’s either in the blood or not. Oh, one can go out and buy a rod and reel, even a 110’ fishing boat, but to really feel the sea, live and die by it, is something else entirely.

I know this first hand because I just ain’t got it in me though I should as I’m surrounded by it. But learning through osmosis doesn’t work. By now I should at least understand some of the lingo — fishermen speak a different language — and be able to catch a fish. I can do neither.

Crab and lobster traps are called “pots”. The “canyon” is a place to fish, not climb. Ropes are sheets and of course the bathroom is called the “head”. Fishermen also tend to drop the “g” from most verbs ending in “ing” and usually omit pronouns or anything that gets in the way of fish.

For example:
Question: “Catchin?’”
Answer: “Caught some weakies yesterday.”
Question: “Keepers?”
Answer: “Nah.”

“Have you caught any fish lately?”
“We caught some weakfish.”
“Were they big enough to keep?”

WAcatchThe ability to keep a fish depends on size. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in Massachusetts sets limitation on various species which are over-fished or likewise, under-fished. Serving as a sort of scale, the NMFS promotes ecological balance deep beneath the waves. A current point of issue is a proposed ban on catching white marlin. For tournament and sports fishing, this ban is an annoyance and inconvenience which could also be financially devastating to some sports fishing captains and marinas. These captains make their living from charters. And here in Cape May , the South Jersey Marina hosts the Mid-Atlantic $500,000 tournament — the marlin most sought after. Fortunately, most fishermen understand the need for regulations — the striped bass being a prime example.

“That’s good eatin’” everyone says of the striped bass or “striper” in fishermen lingo. Because this fish was such good “eatin’” it was over-fished for years heavily depleting the species.

After a size regulation was placed by the NMFS, there was a lot of grumbling, but as little as two years made a difference in stock quantity. Today the size regulation has been minimized and there are plenty of “stripers” frying in pans across Cape May County .

The commercial fisherman feels these regulations a bit differently. Lives depend on “the catch.” It can be feast or famine. Unfortunately, and certainly unintentionally, endangered fish can get snared inside nets or dragged fishing lines, and are killed. Hence, commercial fishermen face stricter rules and regulations, and livelihoods suffer.

commercialAs the non-fisherman-type, I should be lauded by the NMFS. If I had to live on the fish I catch, well, you’d all be saying your adieus to me. I went once on what’s called “the mackerel trip”. It’s the first catch of the spring season, and sports fishermen stock up on mackerel to use as bait for the summer season. Each rod is loaded — I know that’s the wrong lingo, but what the heck — with six or seven, even up to nine hooks and fish are hauled in such. It’s a lot of hard work, but well worth the effort. Summer charters mean money.

I’m not sure why I was along, I rocked back and forth, green at the gills standing mostly in everyone’s way. Perhaps it was to take photographs. If it was, there weren’t many pictures taken that day.

Nevertheless, I was determined to do my share. I cast my line, tugging the pole like the others, and caught nothing. Meanwhile, fish after fish were landed on deck and promptly put on ice. I recast my line, still hopeful — how hard could it be? — and suddenly felt a tug. I had a fish! Perhaps a whole school of fish! I reeled and reeled in the line, ecstatic in my victory, when there at the end flayed one little fish. A tiny fish, certainly not a mackerel or anything like one.

“She caught a herring!” everyone laughed. “Look at the little herring!” That’s when I learned that herring “run” — a real fishing term — with mackerel. And that’s when I knew I had a lot to learn about fishing which might take a couple of lifetimes of experience to even catch up with these folks.

I haven’t caught a fish since, though I’ve tried. Fly fishing off the beach and off the jetties (called “rocks”). It’s a bit ironic, any fish caught would be thrown back. Catch and release. If only they knew.

Sea Star

Sea Star

But I’m not the only hard-luck fisherman out there, but maybe the only truthful one. I could tell you about “the one that got away” — that quintessential avowal one uses when asked “catchin’?”

Martin Dipper, captain of the Sea Star, told of his “secret” spot. “I always tell my charter we’re going to a secret spot. Then we don’t find any fish, and I tell them that’s the secret!”

Dipper is a bit sarcastic and a bit of a joker. The Sea Star fleet has been operating for at least 20 years and is one of Cape May ’s most popular charter fleets along with the Miss Chris boats. They do catch fish.

As did Bob Pacilli, owner the sports fishing boat, The Penguin, who told of the 615 pound marlin he caught this summer, though he laughs when he says he caught it “before” the Mid-Atlantic tournament he participated in.

A highlight of the Cape May fishing season is the “Special Kids Fishing Day” sponsored by organizations like the Cape May Marlin Tuna Club and the Elks Club. Last year 47 vessels were donated allowing more than 200 developmentally-disabled children a chance to “hook the big one”.


Miss Chris

Captain Jim Heinhold chairs the event and told he has used his own vacation time to organize the Association of Retarded Citizens (ARC) clients since 1990. Ironically, despite one of the driest summers on record, the event was canceled due to a northeastern storm. Says Heinhold, “It’s not the rain that cancelled the day but the wind. And I hate disappointing the kids.”

But fishing has been good this summer in Cape May despite — or maybe because of the weather. Flounder has been abundant, as has bluefish, marlin and tuna. The only fish that has been rather sparse is the weakie, that no one has been catchin’.

The Sea Mist

seamistheader2aIn a 1996 article, the New York Times called The Sea Mist “the architectural equivalent of a Sousa march.” Fitting if one takes into consideration composition, transition and above all, an era. Built as part of the 1873 Cape May Beach Land Company’s marketing promotion, lots along the beachfront were sold for as little as $1.00 in effort to settle the area. Not far down Beach Avenue, John Philip Sousa was playing his “Congress Hall March” in front of summer guests — visitors enjoying cool sea breezes at the height of a hot summer. Families who might consider owning a summer house as an indispensable retreat.

beachtoseacThe Sea Mist today looms large on the Cape May beachfront. Whether viewed from land or sea, this red and white “steamboat-style” building with its unique widow’s walk is one of Cape May’s most photographed houses. Originally two stories tall, and used as a summer house, its subsequent nine owners built upwards and around and behind the building each adding his own “harmonic chord.” One can see the different stages of outside development through its porches and windows and inside still stand one section of the original dove-tailed wooden exterior.

50s_b-wA summer house well into the 1960s, subsequent owners turned the building into efficiencies and apartments delighting guests with ocean front views and summer breezes. Current and tenth owner Fernando Tamilio continues this tradition each year improving and upgrading the building’s efficiencies and apartments and have now turned it into a year-round facility promoting the off-season as well as the summer.

originalexteriorThey call the building “the Miracle on Beach Avenue.”

Fernando and his family spent 30 years in the home improvement business in North Jersey and at least 20 vacationing along the coast. When The Sea Mist came up for sale, Fernando jumped at it combining his former experience and what he calls his “credible feel for people.” He told that he’s “having a ball” with the old house and hopes to make The Sea Mist “family-friendly”.

Fernando Tamilio

Fernando Tamilio

“We’ve been improving each and every accommodation with private baths, fully-stocked kitchens and cable television just like your own home,” he said. All but two units offers an ocean view. The Sea Mist also provides beach showers, grilling facilities, a bike rack and that ever-so-important personal parking space. “Park your car and your done for the week” Fernando’s brochure boasts. With its convenient location to the boardwalk and downtown, it’s not such a bad idea.

Inside The Sea Mist is an eclectic array of memorabilia — from stuffed animals to nautical items, historic and new photographs, and objects like Christmas trees hung upside down, a Victorian tradition. Fernando calls this “bright, cheerful, festive Victorian charm.”

victThe Sea Mist is decorated year-round for Christmas with lights and angels and trees. Said Fernando, “The town and Sea Mist are even more spectacular at Christmas time. We offer a Christmas special hoping families can take advantage of off-season events, tours and shopping.”

view2seamistAnother special plan of Fernando’s is to join Cape May’s ghost tour. For yes, according to Fernando, the building is haunted. “You either believe or you don’t,” he said, “but from what I’ve experienced here, I believe.”

Slamming doors, locked doors, sightings, footsteps — he’s experienced them all. The building is 129 years-old after all, one must expect that not all who have graced the floors have checked out.

Fernando says the best place to feel Victorian times is the six-story high widow’s walk. “Wonder what it was like when a lady went to the widow’s walk to see if she could catch a glimpse of her husband returning from sea, not knowing if indeed he would return.” He adds one must feel the wind wreaking havoc, and worried women wandering back inside, some to courageously live out their days alone.

seamistwsnowTruly a Cape May landmark, The Sea Mist reminds one of the Cape May of yore. The old-time ambience, the smell of the ocean air mingling with bed linens, children happily — albeit tiredly — returning from a day at the beach.

In Fernando’s two years of owning the building, hundreds of families have book return visits. Upon leaving, Fernando wishes them health, happiness and prosperity. Said Fernando, “They come to escape their concerns and breathe in a little sea mist.”