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Month: November 2003

Cape May on Fire

The outlined area on this copy of an 1878 map that appeared in the Philadelphia Bulletin days after the fire shows the extent of the devastation caused by the blaze that began in the Ocean House on Perry St.

The outlined area on this copy of an 1878 map that appeared in the Philadelphia Bulletin days after the fire shows the extent of the devastation caused by the blaze that began in the Ocean House on Perry St.

fireactionshotFire broke out the morning of November 8, 1878  in the summer city of Cape May around 7 a.m. in the attic of the new wing at Ocean House on Perry Street. By the time the flames could be contained, some 11 hours later, 40 acres of prime property lay in a pile of charred ruins. Arson was suspected. No one was injured.

A workman on the roof of the Stockton Hotel spotted the fire, but it was Civil War hero Colonel Henry Sawyer who sounded the fire alarm.

Northwesterly winds blowing at 35 mph reaching gusts of up to 50 mph caused the fire to crisscross Perry Street north to Washington Street . Flames then shot over to Jackson Street spreading south to Beach Avenue, turning back up Decatur to Washington again. The flames moved east toward Ocean and Gurney where firemen, with the help of fire engines sent from Camden, finally contained the inferno at approximately 6 p.m.

The path of the fire systematically brought about the destruction of some of Cape May’s finest hotels. Shortly after the fire ignited in the Ocean House, Congress Hall – on “Whiskey Row” – also caught fire which consumed the new wing fronting Perry Street. Soon after, the main wing of the hotel facing Washington Street was also engulfed in flames.

Simultaneously, more flames shot to the back of Merchant’s House on Jackson Street. The Merchant consisted of two, three-story buildings, situated midway between the Atlantic Hotel and Centre House on Jackson Street, immediately adjoining the Ocean House property.

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Centre House on Jackson Street

Winds then carried the fire down to the beach. By 10:30 a.m., the conflagration destroyed several cottages along Jackson Street, as well as Centennial House and the old Atlantic House.

Cape May Fire Chief Colonial Edward Lansing admits the city is ill-equipped to handle a blaze of this magnitude. The current fire department consists of a truck, one hand-engine, and a number of chemical engines. Col. Lansing’s request for funds to purchase new equipment were denied earlier this year by City Council because of budget constraints.

The main problem, he said, was lack of water. Although a valiant effort, the bucket brigade stretching from the ocean to Ocean Hotel, some 300 feet, was insufficient in stopping the spread of this devastating fire.

oldkingscottageMayor Thomas Edmunds sent a telegram to the Camden Fire Department for aid and around 12 noon, with the fire at its height, and after the Avenue House had caught fire, a steam engine from Camden arrived by special train. The fire was then checked at Perry and Jackson but continued to spread toward Decatur where Judge Hamburger’s cottage was destroyed. Three of W. E. King’s cottages were also destroyed.

Around 2 p.m. the alarm came that Columbia House, on Ocean Street which runs from Beach Avenue to Hughes Street, was on fire. The Columbia House, with a dining room accommodating 800 people, burnt to the ground within ten minutes.  Several cottages along this stretch were destroyed along with Columbia House bath house and 150 other bath houses belonging to the Stockton Hotel.

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The Columbia House on Ocean Street

Some of the cinders from the fire lodged on the roof of Stockton Hotel but no damages resulted. The last building to be destroyed by the fire was Wolf Cottage, two hundred yards away from Stockton Hotel.

At 2:30 p.m. the fire still rampaging, General Sewell of the West Jersey Railroad ordered the tracks be cleared for a special train to take down two more engines from Camden. In one hour and 20 minutes the firemen were at the terminus of the road. Forty-five minutes later, a train with six cars filled with passengers left Camden bound for Cape Island.

The passenger list consisted of lawyers, realtors, politicians, hotel keepers, cottagers, and newspaper men from Philadelphia and New York.

Many made jokes about the novelty of the impromptu excursion; the fun of going to the seashore in overcoats and of a promenade on the newly-illuminated beach. These victims of the fire who had lost their cottages, were generally in good humor, and said that they intended to put up for the night either at Congress Hall or the Columbia.(which of course were burned out of existence by the time they got to Cape May).

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At 4:30 p.m. a second fire engine arrived from Camden. At 6 p.m. firefighters were finally able to check the flames and contain the fire at Gurney Street where the Stockton Hotel still stood. The houses on Columbia Avenue escaped the fiery fate of their neighbors.

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Stockton Hotel at Gurney Street

Col. Lansing said the last train from Philadelphia arrived at the station at 6:30 p.m. and contained the passengers from Philadelphia whom, he said, seemed disappointed to see only smoke and ruined embers. They were expecting to witness this great conflagration of flames shooting up against a reddened sky.

Camden fire engines, he said, were used throughout the night to hose down all the buildings so the fire would not again erupt.

Col. Lansing said the fire was evidently the work of an incendiary, as there had been no fire in the Ocean House since the close of the summer season and Ocean House had not been occupied for several days.

The current proprietor of Ocean House, S. R. Ludlam, was last seen boarding a train for Philadelphia fifteen minutes before the fire erupted. Authorities are looking for Ludlam in connection with circumstances leading up to the conflagration.

The entire burnt district covers an area of about forty acres, and is situated between Congress on the west, Washington on the north, Ocean Street on the east, and the beach on the south. The total loss is estimated at about $400,000, of which more than half is covered by insurance on the property and furniture.

The house on the left in the above picture is the Skinner House which is located on Congress St. Picture courtesy of Don Pocher.

Lost in the fire were the following commercial properties:

Congress Hall, owned by a stock company; loss $100,000.

Ocean House, $45,000; insured for $33,000. Ocean House was one of the oldest “caravansaries” on the island. (Caravansary is a kind of inn with a large central court, where caravans stop for the night) Built in 1856, it accommodated up to 400 guests.

Centre House, owned by J.E. Mecray; loss $35,000. Centre House could hold up to 400 guests and was three stories high.

Columbia House, owned by John C. Bullitt; $60,000; insured for $55,000.

Atlantic House, owned by E.C. Knight; loss $20,000. The Atlantic had a capacity for over 250 guests, and was four stories high. It was erected after the fire of 1869.

Merchant’s Hotel, owned by William Mason; loss, $15,000. Merchant’s Hotel was north of Ocean House and could hold 100 people.

And if a fire destroyed the same area today?


Postscript: Mr. Ludlam was arrested and brought back to Cape May for trial. He was, however, found innocent of the charges of arson. The jury believed the evidence brought forth by the prosecution was circumstantial and insufficient to bring about a conviction.

Col. Lansing was ultimately blamed for the fire. Cape May people expressed bitter
complaints about the defective hose with which the city was supplied. The hose ran about 2,000 feet and burst every few minutes, finally collapsing altogether. It is believed that if the city had a good hose, the fire could have been contained within a couple of hours. City Council is looking to set aside funds for new fire equipment and will discuss it at the next council meeting in two weeks.

NOTE: Council readily approved the funding for new equipment at its next meeting. In a town whose sustenance relies on tourism, there was a frenzy of rebuilding in Cape May and the next summer has one of its best seasons ever.


CapeMay.com extends grateful credit for the facts and in some cases the wording of the great fire report to the Greater Cape May County Historical Society. The original account of the 1878 fire in the Historical Society’s report was first published in a Philadelphia newspaper on Nov. 9, 1878.

Also thanks to facts and details supplied by Col. Lansing (aka John Alvarez who portrays the besieged fire chief in the tour conducted by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts – MAC titled “Cape May On Fire.”)

And a final thanks for information and the map published in “The Summer City By The Sea” by author Emil R. Salvini. Color postcards are courtesy of Don Pocher.


199 Steps to the Stars: Climbing the Cape May Lighthouse…again

And how do I climb thee? Let me count the ways…

Believe it or not, I found there’s more than one way to approach the Cape May
Lighthouse, which by the way, celebrated its 145th birthday on Halloween.lighthousedrawing2
Climbing the Cape May Lighthouse is one of our quintessential tourist experiences and people have been indulging in the climb since 1988 when the Mid -Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC) leased the lighthouse from the United States Coast Guard. That was the first summer the lighthouse was opened to the public and the first time in 50 years that civilians ascended the long, narrow, curved staircase.

For one reason or another, I have spent most of the summer and well into the fall looking at, photographing, and climbing, or at least thinking about climbing, the 199 steps that lead to the tippy-top of the lighthouse watch gallery.

My first excursion was in June as I put into action an itinerary for seeing the sights around the island on foot. Starting from the Pavilion at the west end of Cape May’s promenade, I took a stroll along the beaches which lead to Cape May Point State Park. A path which branches off near the old bunker led me to the observation deck in the park and then a short walk across the parking lot put me right in front of the lighthouse.
lighthouselookingupI think the entire walk took only 20 minutes, but I must confess, on that very warm day and with the prospect of having to walk back to Cape May, I stood before the massive cylinder, straining my neck to look toward the top and a beautiful blue sky and decided, “Nah, not today. Right now I’ll just think about climbing the steps.”

That said, it is still an excellent way to approach the lighthouse climb. I would suggest a light (emphasis on light) picnic lunch in the park. Give yourselves a little rest and plenty of water and then “forward ho.”

I believe it was a Saturday afternoon in July or early August when I next attempted to climb the 199 steps. This time I biked out to the park via Sunset Boulevard making a left onto Lighthouse Avenue. I wanted to get the true tourist experience. You know – that would be the one where you’re climbing and winding and climbing along with what seems to be a sea of a billion other people and suddenly, a large rotund man is descending the very same, very narrow stairway demanding you move out of his way lest his panic attack becomes even more pronounced than it already is. Pressing my body against the red-bricked inner wall, I said to myself, “This too shall pass,” and he did.
When I got to the watchman’s gallery a very nice lady answered all the questions put to her and also let people know about the books which are available on the
Cape May Lighthouse. Then I stepped outside to see the view.

Because I live here, I chose a clear day with little wind and so my view was spectacular. I know that visitors don’t always have the luxury of picking their sentinelcoverweather, but if you do have a little leeway, give yourself a break, pick a nice day and you’ll have a wonderful experience once you get to the top – because that is the frosting on the cake. It’s another world up there and as close to feeling like a bird as I guess humans can get in Cape May.

But a word to the wise: Don’t go on a Saturday afternoon anytime – let alone in July or August. It’s crowded. And why punish yourself? If circumstances dictate that you can only come on a Saturday, arrive early or closer to closing time because one thing you don’t want to do is to scale the steps as though it’s just another thing you have to do so you can say, “Yeah, yeah. We did that. Very nice. Very lovely. Now let’s get out of here.”
That said, let me tell you about what I think is the best way to climb the lighthouse. At night. MAC offers a tour called Stairway to the Stars. I made sure that I bought my ticket Saturday afternoon at the information booth at the end of Washington Street Mall because I didn’t want to miss the tour (Stairway to the Stars is limited to 35 tour goers) and also because my excursion coincided with New Jersey’s Lighthouse Challenge in which visitors are challenged to visit 11 New Jersey lighthouses in a span of 48 hours. Good thing I bought my ticket early because it was standing room only on the ol’ trolley which boards at Washington Street (directly across the street from the information booth).
Dan was our very able bus driver and Rich Chiemingo, manager and keeper for the Cape May Lighthouse, was our guide.

Everything went right on this tour – because you know how wretched tours can be
sometimes. First off, it was a perfectly clear night, the stars out in full force, and winds were at a minimum – as opposed to the Thursday when I originally planned to take the tour. On that night, the skies were cloudy, a precursor to a very nasty storm which came through later that night and – this is the most important point – wind gusts were approaching 40-50 mph. That’s a challenge I chose to skip.

coreyspicBut back to my perfect night. We couldn’t have had a better tour guide. Rich, in addition to having a very sexy voice, is quite knowledgeable about the lighthouse and told us things I don’t really remember reading about, for example the fact that the current lighthouse built in 1859 was first lit on Halloween night. Also he told us that every lighthouse has a distinctive signal which lets the navigator or sea captain know that he is approaching the Cape May Lighthouse as opposed to Barnegat or Absecon. Cape May’s is a 15-second blink. In addition, each lighthouse also has a distinctive color characteristic. No lighthouse is painted the same for land identification. Cape May’s colors are a sandy -colored tower with a dark red top and this is called its day mark. There are lots of details about the lighthouse and lots of history but it’s the beauty of the lighthouse that I want to tell you about.

I’ve never been to Cape May Point State Park at night so the first thing I noticed when I stepped down from the trolley was how desolate and dark it was. I imagined what it must have been like out live out here at a time when the only houses were the keeper’s and his two assistants.

The lighthouse itself was spotlighted for us so we could safely walk to the entrance. The 157 1/2-foot tower looms ghostly against a blackened sky. Keepermacsstairwaytothestars2 Rich tells that that as of 1870 or so a newly formed lighthouse board required all lighthouses built in the United States to be, among other things, at least 150 feet high and built to withstand 5-times hurricane force winds.

Because it is a tour, our ascent is much slower and more relaxed than my summertime climb. At the top, I step outside onto the observation deck. During the day, my attention was focused on the view – Delaware Bay, Cape May, Cape May Point and all things directly below me. At night, it’s all about the stars.

Never having been a Girl Scout, I can’t name the constellations in view but I can appreciate their beauty and that of the ferry looking all twinkly and
fairy tale-like crossing the bay to Lewes, Delaware.

Tour-goers are quiet or speak in soft tones like a those inside a church do.

When it’s time for me to descend, I do so rapidly because there’s really nothing
to see out the windows. I wait for the rest to come down. We must stay in the lighthouse until everyone is down. Keeper Rich then takes us outside to the gate where our trolley bus is waiting, but first, he says he has a surprise.
He turns the spotlight and all other lights off. We look up at the lighthouse just as many a lighthouse keeper must have stood over the years with nothing else but the beacon light to break the darkness about us. The lighthouse stands regal, solitary and comforting.

So that’s my tale. How do I count the ways to climb thee?  One step at a time,
of course. So happy climbing because know this – it truly is worth it.

Don’t think just because you’re reading about this in November that all is lost.
I have it on great authority that the lighthouse stays open daily through January from noon to 3. For Stairway to the Stars info log onto the www.capemaymac.org.


What if it all burned again?

The fire that started on November 8, 1878 and spread from the Ocean House on Perry Street to engulf 40 acres of hotels, stores and houses in flames was one of the most devastating and furious fires of the era. The economic impact lasted for years and forced Cape May to begin a spurt of construction in the two decades that followed, producing a legacy of Victorian architecture for which Cape May is now famous.

But that was long ago and far away, so long ago that our appreciation of the town’s losses are hard to comprehend. For a different perspective on their loss, we ask what would the town lose now if the same area burned out of existence again today, 125 years later? Given fire fighting capabilities, manpower and preparedness, such a catastrophe is highly unlikely; but a summary of the lost businesses and buildings might help us understand today what the impact must have been like in 1878.

If the same acreage were destroyed today, what would no longer exist in Cape May?

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1. Victorian Motel, 4 private residences and rental properties

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2. The recently refurbished Congress Hall, The Blue Pig restaurant, Shops of Congress Hall including the Cape May Day Spa, Uncle Bill’s Pancake House

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3. One whole block of Washington Mall including Cape May Popcorn Factory, the Whale’s Tale, Christmas Plus, Golden Gull,Wave One,Import Bazaar, Stumpo’s Italian Grill, Andrew’s Antiques, Fralinger’s candy store, Good Scents

Today, Washington Street Mall runs from Ocean to Perry Streets. The 1878 fire consumed the entire south side of one block (Perry to Jackson) which is currently home to a dozen businesses and restaurants, apartments and shops.  Carpenter’s Lane today connects Perry with Ocean, parallel to Washington Street.

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4. Sea Villa, King’s Cottage, 4 private residences, The Star Suites, the shops of Carpenter Square Mall, the Merry Widow, Prince Edward Suites, The Beacon Suites, Saltwood House, The Woodward House The Puffin
Inn at 22 Jackson, all of the “7 Sisters,” Hot Dog Tommy’s, The Acroteria, Shark Bait, Summer Sea Surf Shop, Samantha’s, Brad’s Beachfront Cafe, Coffee Tyme, Village Leathersmith,  Season’s Cafe, George’s Place and the residences and apartments above the stores and restaurants.

The fire of 1878 started in the Ocean House on Perry St.  Today the same spot includes the Carpenter’s Mall, King’s Cottage and Seavilla Bed & Breakfast inns, private homes and the newly reconstructed Star Suites.

This area also includes inns and homes on the west side of Jackson St, some of the most picturesque in all of Cape May.

Shops and restaurants along Beach Ave. are also included in this sector.

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5. The Virginia Hotel, the Ebbitt Room, Carroll Villa and the Mad Batter, Poor Richards Inn, Private home, The Tides Condominiums, Putt-putt Minature Golf, Carney’s (both “rooms”), Shirt shops of Cape May, Sweet Things, Faria’s Surf Shop, Cabana’s (both restaurants), The Merion Inn, Antique and gift shop, the Goodman House, Sugarplum, 4 private residences.

The 1878 blaze destroyed most of both sides of Jackson Street.  From where the former Poet’s Inn stands today north to Washington St. was spared on the east side of Jackson.  Below that point, the fire swept through to Decatur St. and beyond to Ocean Street.

Here in the early 21st Century, this block of Cape May includes many celebrated Victorian structures: the historic Virginia Hotel, (including the Ebbitt Room), the Carroll Villa Hotel (with the Mad Batter restaurant), Poor Richards Inn, the McConnell rsidence, the Merion Inn, the Goodman House, the Sugarplum Cottage and 3 more private residences.

Other important building that would be lost if the fire struck the same area today include The Tides Condominium Complex, a miniature golf course, the old Arnold Hotel which now houses Carney’s (both “rooms”), the Shirt Shops of Cape May, Sweet Things, Faria’s Surf Shop Cabana’s (both restaurants) and a number of apartments.

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6. 1st Presbyterian Church, Cape May Public Library, the Queen Victoria (both structures, The Manse, 2 private residences

This block of Cape May is at the heart of the city. In1878 Hughes Street did not connect Ocean and Decatur streets. Today where Hughes intersects Ocean is the Cape May Library and one of her landmark B&Bs, Captain Mey’s Inn.

Across Ocean from Captain Mey’s the fire was stopped at the Pharmacy building which is now the home of Whiskers.

At the other end of Hughes on the beach side is the the First Presbyterian church. Adjacent to the church is The Manse. Part of the recently constructed Empress is across from them, along with four private residences.

One of Cape May’s best known inns, The Queen Victoria is at the corner of Columbia and Ocean Streets.

All of these now beautifully restored structures contribute to Cape May’s Historic Landmark status, and sprang from the ashes of the terrible fire of 1878.

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7. Marquis de Lafayette Hotel, The Pelican Club restaurant, the Fin Bar, the Elward House, Columbia House, the Celtic Inn, Leith Hall, the Shy Pelican

The entire beachfront of this section is occupied by the Marquis de Lafayette Hotel complex. Atop the main building is The Pelican Club restaurant an below the is outdoor Fin Bar.

Along Decatur, behind the Marquis parking area is the Elward House, a rental property and residence that has been in the same family for generations.

At the corner of Columbia and Ocean is the newly renovated Columbia House.  Next to the Columbia House are wo more of Cape May’s fine Victorian inns, the Celtic Inn and Leith Hall. These too were built on Ocean street in the late 1800s shortly after the fire.

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8. Ocean House, Beauclaire’s, Sea View House, the Inn of Cape May, Aleathea’s restaurant, the Avondale by the Sea  Motel

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Completing the path that Cape May’s greatest fire took is Section 8. It extends along Beach Ave from Ocean Street to Gurney.

Here the domination of the Inn of Cape May (named the Colonial Hotel when it was first built) is hard to miss.  And adjacent to this meandering Victorian building is the modern Avondale by the Sea.

Today the stretch of Coean Street burned down in 1878 includes the Inn on Ocean, Beauclaire’s and the private dwelling Coll’s Sea View.

The fire was stopped at the lawns of the monstrously large Stockton Hotel which survived the fire in 1878 only to be destroyed  a few years later.


whiskers.jpgThe potential losses today would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars in property alone. Not lost would be Whiskers, pictured left, the business that now occupies the same building that housed a drug store where towns people stopped the blaze from spreading further 125 years ago.