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Month: September 2003

Cape May Point Celebrates 125 Years

There’s a party going on. A celebration.

The tiny borough of Cape May Point marked its 125th anniversary by inviting all the year-round residents of Cape May Point – 250 in all – to a sit-down dinner. CMPoint96b Catered by the Washington Inn, organizer Bob Moffatt used as much homegrown, locally fished, or New Jersey grass-fed food as possible. Live music greeted the formally dressed visitors as dinner started at 4 o’clock on Saturday September 6th.

Everybody knows Cape May Point is a very special place; so when I read the news about the anniversary dinner, I set out to discover just exactly what it is that makes it so special.

I rode my bicycle down Sunset Boulevard on a brilliantly sunny Sunday afternoon. With a bicycle, I had no worries about parking, and, more importantly, I was free to navigate my way around the streets and avenues looking for the answer – which, it turns out, is plural.

Really, it’s just like figuring out why you like someone. It’s never about one thing. There are many things that come together to make a certain person stand out. So it is with Cape May Point.

There’s the sea of course, but Cape May has the same ocean. Ah yes, but here’s the first distinction – Cape May also has a land mass to buttress the town from the sea. Right from the start one can sense the Point’s vulnerability to nature.

lighthouseWhat is here today may not be here 125 years from now and much has already been lost in the 125 years that has gone by.  Because of its location at the very southern-most tip of New Jersey, the Point is also home to the lighthouse. The first Cape May lighthouse, built in 1823, was replaced by another in 1847 and yet another one in 1859. It is the second oldest, continuously running lighthouse in the United States. Its older sister stands overlooking Sandy Hook in northern New Jersey. The lighthouse brings nearly a million visitors each year – the attraction not just to climb the 199 spiral steps and look at the view, but to understand the beacon’s glimpse into life gone by, a life of simplicity yes, but also of isolation.

I don’t think it is a lonely isolation that characterizes the Point, but more one of a meditation with nature – Cape May Point is a wildlife sanctuary – a stopping off point, a retreat – for an impressive number of migratory birds.

And there is a spiritual quality about Cape May Point, a quiet which other resort towns lack. Other than the General Store at Cape Avenue and the Pavilion Circle which cmpointsign provides the same service as an old-fashioned convenience store and from time to time has had a small restaurant in the back, the borough offers no hotels, no grocery stores, no drug stores, and no restaurants. And there are none of the seashore’s traditional array of store, other than the lighthouse’s tiny gift shop.

In 1994, the borough passed an ordinance declaring the community a single-family dwelling closing the lid on any future commercial development.
But long before that, back between 1875 and 1876 when Cape May Point was named Sea Grove and founded by Alexander Whilldin as “a moral and religious home,” the stmarysporchsmall community was on the brink of becoming very commercial. No less than four hotels – Sea Grove House, Cape House, Centennial House and The Shoreham Hotel – were built along Beach Avenue or just one block away from it from 1875 to 1890. Of these, only The Shoreham, now St. Mary’s By-The-Sea, is still in existence. In fact, Beach Avenue is conspicuously empty. All hopes of financial success on the part of the founding fathers, including successful Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker, ended up in the sea. What remained, however, was the religious tenor upon which the borough was founded – that of a retreat.

I’ve always been vaguely aware of the importance religion has had on Cape May Point. Even to thebeadle casual observer, one notices a disproportionate number of churches and retreat houses for such a small community. As I peddle up Cape Avenue, for example, I pass Beadle Presbyterian Church. Built in 1882 near Beach Avenue, it is named after the Reverend Elias R. Beadle, pastor of the Wanamaker family at the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and a frequent summer visitor to Cape May Point. It was the second church to be built at the Point and is an example of the “stick-style” architecture common at the time. It was moved three times to protect it from beach erosion and the perils of violent storms that have plagued the borough for decades.
A little further up on my right at the corner of Cape and Pavilion Avenues is St. Agnes Roman Catholic stagnes Church. Built in 1885, it is an example of “carpenter gothic-style” architecture. There is no bell tower or steeple. A large cross sits atop a steep gabled roof.

Straight ahead is the Pavilion Circle. Someone recently asked my why they call it “Pavilion” Circle when there’s no pavilion. Ah, but at one time a very large pavilion stood in the center of Cape May Point right where the grassy park is now. It was one of the first structures to go up in 1875 and was designed by the Philadelphia architect and fellow Sea Grove founder J.C. Sidney. It was built as a shelter for Sunday worshippers – a fancy version of the tent revival.

The pavilion could accommodate up to 2,000 people and had a central steeple with a bell and watch tower that reached 85-feet in the air. Initially, according to the recently published Cape May Point – The Illustrated History: 1875 to the Present written by Point resident Joe J. Jordan, the pavilion served worshippers from all faiths until 1880 when the various Christian denominations – five in all – started building their own churches. This was also about the time that the great vision of the Sea Grove Association led by messieurs Whilldin, Wanamaker, and Sidney, fell apart. It seems people weren’t as keen to buy property in a community with such strict taboos regarding the individual’s lifestyle. circleAmusement parks were strictly forbidden as was the sale of any kind of alcoholic beverages, and I suspect along with those restrictions came a certain expectation regarding one’s deportment.

And there were further restrictions regarding construction. Structures had to be built within three years. Construction plans had to meet the approval of The Sea Grove Association. (This doesn’t sound so very different from today.) At any rate, the incorporated Association ended up in bankruptcy. Everything they held -cottages, Lake Lily, the beaches, all three hotels, and hundreds of lots – went up on the auction block. The pavilion sold for $400 simply for its timber.

The Pavilion Circle is now a small park where families go to picnic, play Frisbee or just to sit and look at up at the sky.

stagnes As I peddle my way around the pavilion circle, I come to Union Chapel. Built in 1885, Union Chapel was originally a Baptist church, but all denominations were welcomed to use the chapel. In the early 1900s, Lutheran services were conducted there. Constructed in the same carpenter gothic style as St. Agnes, it had a steep gabled roof over a rectangular structure. A narrow 30-foot bell tower with a plain steeple topped off Union Chapel which stood tall until an electrical fire in 1968 destroyed the historic building beyond repair. According to author Joe Jordan, Cape May Point resident Edith Mather found the chapel abandoned when she moved to the borough in 1910. Through her efforts, the chapel reopened and has been a place of worship for various denominations since.

Some historic Cape May Point buildings have become religious retreats. The marianst John Wanamaker cottage at Cape and Yale Avenues, for example is now the home of the Marianists. The cottage, which originally stood on Beach Avenue and was later moved to its present location,  was donated by Wanamaker to the Presbyterian Orphanage, a.k.a. Sunny Corner, in 1916. It remained an orphanage until 1959. In 1962, the Marianist Society Inc., of New York, a group of Catholic Brothers acquired the property for a summer retreat. Currently, it is used for family retreat programs.
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I bike over to my favorite church, architecturally speaking, which turns out to be the first denominational church at Cape May Point – St. Peter’s By-The-Sea. History has it the building was moved to Cape May Point from the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition. Relocated from its original Beach and Cape Avenue location, across from Sea Grove House, in 1903, the Episcopalian church, now sits on a triangular patch of land at Lincoln, Lake, and Ocean Avenues. An example of stick-style architecture, St. Peter’s opened its doors on July 25, 1880 and has held summer services ever since.

Of course, one of the most famous buildings in Cape May Point is St. Mary’s By-The-Sea. Originally built in 1890 as the Shoreham Hotel, the property went up for sale around 1909 and was purchased, according to Cape May Point: The Illustrated History, for $9,000. Four years later, a beach front cottage was purchased as a rectory and in 1923 a second beach front cottage was acquired.  After the devastating storm of 1962, both were relocated to Lehigh Avenue, opposite St. Mary’s.stmarys

St. Mary’s tugs at the heart of anyone familiar with Cape May Point. At one time its location was safe from the danger of falling into the sea but each year beach erosion and the threat of another dangerous storm forces the religious retreat to walk a tightrope with nature. In fact, all of Cape May Point walks the same tightrope – not only in its fight to preserve the land, its wildlife and its historic buildings, including the lighthouse – but to also preserve the quiet, the restorative elixir that makes Cape May Point a very special place indeed.

So, here’s to Cape May Point! May it all last more than another 125 years!


Waiting for Isabel in Cape May…

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

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Cape May City loads would-be flying benches to be taken to a secure place.

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Gulls gather to squawk about their plans at Second Street Beach.

September 17

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Sunny, windy, warm- no visable signs of a storm at 2pm, except the surf.

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There’s a clue: Henry’s is closed.

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Wind is starting to swing signs against a sunny sky.

prestormColumbia

But it’s not windy enough to discourage the start of a major repainting of the Columbia House.

September 18- 9am

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Waves are starting to get bigger at Broadway.

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Despite the wind kicking up stinging sand, people are still walking the beach at the Cove.

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Beach boxes are being removed.

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Steger’s Beach- empty and very windy.

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Many homes and businesses along the beach front have been boarded up.

September 18- Surfers…Crazy!

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September 18

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waves

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September 19 – Day After Isabel

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On Safari…the Cape May Way

skimmerhdr3The other night, I took a sunset Salt Marsh Safari on “The Skimmer,” a 40 ft. pontoon which skims the waterways just like the bird it was named for. Admittedly, I wouldn’t have thought to go on it if I hadn’t been an assignment. Why, you ask? Because birding is a huge component of the safari and birders intimidate me.

First, as I have said before, it’s about the equipment. Birders always have the tools at their disposal to see the birds. I do not have the tools. I do not have a pair of powerful Leika or Swarovski binoculars. So, already I’m out of the loop. Also, they know what to look for when someone yells “Hey, American Oyster Catcher at 11 o’clock.” Where, I say to myself. Where’s the clock? What lookclock? Wait, I see it’s an imaginary clock. OK. So, 11 o’clock is what right or left? I imagine hundreds of clocks. All of them digital. I follow the body language of veteran birders just like any stranger in a strange land who doesn’t understand the language, but to no avail. By the time I figure out where I’m supposed to be looking, the elusive bird has taken flight. While everyone else is ooing and aahing, I’m groaning and moaning.

Well, I have to say that Captain Bob Carlough and his able assistant and wife Linda Carlough put me at ease immediately. How? They bring equipment. I had, for the two hours we were skimming the wetlands,  my very own powerful set of powerful binoculars. They even have kid size binoculars. Secondly, they explained the o’clock thing by pointing. The front of the boat is 12 o’clock. The back of the boat is 6 o’clock. Each side is…well you get it I’m sure. Also note they didn’t do that boater’s thing either because had they said the bow or the stern of the boat my head would still be swimming around like something out of The Exorcist movie. Pointing is good. I can start breathing again. wetlandsLike any good teacher, Captain Bob is a strong believer in show and tell. The South Jersey  wetlands are, he says, “more fertile than the Amazon.” It is the beginning of the food chain, he says, and by way of example he has a basin filled with food sources for birds and the ecosystem in general. He pulls out tiny little glass (its body is transparent) or grass shrimp, a beautiful thumb-sized crab called the Savory Swimmer with wee paddles for back legs. He has a sample of an equally small walking crab.

Once The Skimmer is out of the dock and winding its way through the canal toward the Coast Guard Base, the bird watch alert is up. The sightings are plentiful.

heron“Heron at 11 o’clock,” says Linda Carlough. OK. I’m still a little slow with the o’clock thing but I’m able to follow everyone else and thank the gods these birds are big and white. Even I spot the Heron, as well as the Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Black Skimmer, and the Great Blue Heron. Ahhh. At last I can sit back and relax. My next source of anxiety is that I’ve traded by binoculars for my Nikon digital camera, so you, my faithful readers can see what I see. This, however, was definitely a time for the 35 mm Nikon with the zoom lens because guess what? You have to be pretty quick on the trigger to get a really nice picture of a bird in flight, or when it’s getting ready to pounce on something. Another problem is that my digital zoom is not zoomyflying enough to close-in (especially while the boat is in motion) on the green eyes of the Carmorans. So, guess what? I put the camera away for a while and go back to the binoculars which are fabulous. So, no I don’t have any really good bird pictures, you’ll just have to take the cruise and see them for yourself.

Captain Bob points to an Osprey nest with three chicks in it. He is very excited about seeing the nest because he said the harsh winter ice took its toll on the wetlands’ grasses and there haven’t been as many successful nests this summer. However, because of the passage of the Clean Water Act as well as the Wetlands Restoration Acts, and similar ecologically friendly legislation, life in the back bays has seen quite a transformation. There were, he said, only 50 Osprey pairs in 1972. Last year 340 were cited. Captain Bob is not shy about his unease with the present administration which, he said seems headed in a direction directly opposite that of environmental responsibility.

Meanwhile, the Skimmer pulls up to a long blanket of green algae floating on the water. The boat comes to a stop so we can get a closer look at this wonder of nature.

algaeWe step out onto what I call the front porch of the pontoon which is level with the patch. Captain Bob skims a seaweed called Mermaid Hair from the water. Linda explains that it is called Mermaid Hair because it looks like someone’s head of hair when it floats in the water. Before we leave we see blood worms and many
birds. This patch is like feeding trough for birds. A Semi-Palmated Plover, a Black-Bellied Plover, and a Ruddy Turnstone were having their evening repast, not to mention the American Oyster Catcher.

As the boat swings around, we don’t go very far before we are in the thick of the Salt Marsh. I can see Wildwood Crest at 3 o’clock and a thick colony of long, green reed-like growth.

“The Salt Marsh,” said Captain Bob, “Is the most bio-productive ecosystem in thepeat world.” Because of the way everything works back here – the reeds separating the salt from the ocean water and crystallizing it – the peat that forms the land mass on which the reeds can grow – and the rich fertile environment which results – all these components come together to create “the beginning of the food chain of the ocean.” And to prove his point, Captain Bob grabs a chunk of peat to show us not only the richness of the soil but the millions of microorganisms which live in it. “Life,” he says, “begins back here with the microorganisms that life here.” The peat acts like a sponge for them and absorbs them.

I am struck by how beautiful the grasses are. They are a deep, lush green. They are thick and majestic. I want to run my hand through them just to a get a sense of what they feel like. As though reading my mind, Captain Bob encourages us to touch them. In other years, they can be broken off  like stalks of salt, he says, but again the odd weather of the past couple of seasons makes them feel like softer atreesnd more pliable.

The Skimmer pulls around to what looks like an island on which a mad scientist would live on. Tall gangly trees have grown there and it is thick with greenery and very weird. It is a heron rookery. I can’t believe it! Hundreds of  giant birds -Blue Herons, Osprey, Egrets are checking in for the night. This is their hotel. Captain Bob says some 600 birds (just a guess he admits) will spend the night there. He says they fly in squadrons of 10-12 until it gets dark. Right now, he estimates there are only about 75 great birds.sunset

And on top of the trees, above the herons and egrets whose plumage forms pockets of snowy white against a darkening sky and mossy green growth are hundreds of black crows menacingly perched looking as though waiting for any sign of weakness so they can pounce. Captain Bob says they coexist pretty well with the other birds. Maybe the herons have hired them as sentinels, placed there to guard them while they sleep. It is just about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

Well, the sun really is setting now and The Skimmer begins its journey back to the Miss Chris Marina but there are still things to see in between the 150 pictures of the sunset that I compulsively keep taking. Listen, if I can’t give you good birdie pictures, the least I can do is share the sunset with you.

boatThere are a couple of fisherman out in their boats still trying to get the catch of the day. They look so peaceful against the night sky and I think of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea – not that they were that old but the waters have turned suddenly cold and they look so small and vulnerable in comparison with the large fishing boats docked behind them.

As we pass under the Cape May bridge, Linda Carlough reminds us that we and our children (and by the way I highly recommend this voyage for children, particularly those say 8 and up) are the caretakers of the land and  “I hope,” she says, “we will have the wisdom that it takes to make us good stewards” and to continue to protect nature’s precious gift to us.save

The Salt Marsh Safari is truly something different for you to do with your family or even by yourself while you’re vacationing in Cape May. Hey, even if you live here this is not the usual tourist tripe (not that there’s anything wrong with tripe. Tripe is a good thing turned snoozer when you’ve seen it or done it a hundred times.)

The Skimmer leaves from the Miss Chris Marina on 2nd Avenue & Wilson Drive.  There’s a Morning Refuge Cruise at 10 a.m. An afternoon Osprey Odyssey at 1:30 p.m. and the Sunset on the Marsh cruise at 6 p.m. The sunset cruise runs Sunday through Thursday but check out their web site at www.skimmer.com first for reservations and schedule changes.