- Cape May NJ Travel Guide and Vacation Planner Blog

Month: November 2004

Monarch Butterflies in Cape May

butterflyhdrConsider the Monarch Butterfly. It begins life as a caterpillar living underneath the leaves of the milkweed plant for a couple of weeks. Then, it forms a letter J and hangs out under a sheltered area forming a big green glob for about 10 days, after which, it emerges as a breathtakingly beautiful orange and black butterfly. Next mission? Go to Mexico. The Monarch travels more than 2000 miles beginning in late August to reach its winter home in butterflies1Florida, Texas and Mexico. The great Mecca of Monarchs is El Rosario, Mexico where they hibernate clustering together with other Monarchs in groves of oyamel fir trees that are 10,000 to 11,000 feet above sea level until March. With the advent of spring comes the mating season. The Monarch flies back to North America- the land of the more plentiful milkweed plant. Few survive the trip but those that do lay their eggs, thus insuring the species survives. Some non-migratory Monarchs stay in the more tropical climates but as many as 10 million choose migration.

The average life span of a butterfly is one month, maybe six weeks. The Migratory Monarch however, by virtue of the fact that it takes the risk of traveling so far south, extends its life by four more months. It lives just long enough to find the closest milkweed, mate, lay its eggs and then perish. Once the Monarch offspring reach more northern climates like Cape May, they reproduce two or three more generations before autumn arrives and their southerly migration begins again.

Just like the raptors and other birds, the Monarch finds Cape May and Cape May Point an attractive stopping off point to rest, regroup, and wait for the right winds to carry it forward on its amazing journey.

butterflies2The Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO) at Cape May Point has been charting the Monarch’s path for the past 14 years. This year has been particularly disappointing for people like Paige Cunningham and Louise Zemaitis, field coordinators for the project. A standard census count is made three times daily between September 1 and October 31. Thousands of Monarch Butterflies are tagged each year in Cape May. In southern Cape May County an average of more than 75 butterflies have been tagged per hour. The best year was in 1999 when 328.56 monarchs were registered in one hour. The worst year was in 1992 when 10.41 were counted per hour.

Thus far this year, the average is 7.16 per hour.

The reasons for the drop in numbers are still an unknown according to Senior CMBO Naturalist Mark Garland. It could be the result of a severe frost in Mexico two years ago killing thousands of wintering Monarchs. It could be the result of a severe hurricane season or loss of habitat or an unusually wet and cold summer season but Garland says it will take a few more years of tracking the Monarch before any real conclusions can be made.

holdingbutterflyThe census takers count, tag and weigh each Monarch. Census takers travel a five-mile route each day, three times a day from Higbee Beach, up New England Road, down Bayshore Road to Sunset Blvd. and ending at Alexander Avenue.

Seaside Goldenrod is the Monarch’s number one nectar source and thanks to anti-beach erosion techniques plenty of it is now growing in the dunes of Cape May and Cape May Point but Zemaitis and Cunningham encourage residents to keep planting those butterfly bushes and help in the count either by calling in data found on butterflies in their yard and/or adopting a butterfly. For $25 you can adopt a tagged Monarch. In exchange, you receive a certificate with the tagging details of the Monarch you adopted. If the Monarch is found and identified along the way to Mexico, the adoptive parent receives another certificate chronicling its journey.

Paige Cunningham

Paige Cunningham

On a cloudy day in October, two weeks before the census was to end, took a trip to the picnic pavilion at Cape May Point State Park where Zemaitis and Cunningham are holding a Monarch tagging demo. The demonstrations are held Friday through Monday and Wednesday, September 25 through October 20 at 2 p.m.

It’s a hands-on demonstration which even on this cold, bleak day is fairly well attended. Zemaitis and Cunningham are good at bringing an urgency to the Monarch’s story. As they remove the delicate butterfly from its envelope and it begins to flutter the two women show us the difference between a male and a female. They ask us to touch its abdomen and let its legs touch our hand.

“It’s sticky,” said one man.

“The original Velcro,” said Zemaitis.

butterfliesgroupNow it’s time for the Adopt A Butterfly portion of the program. But hello, it seems one adoptee doesn’t want to fly away. Can’t blame her. It’s cold and windy but she better fly away soon because it’s going to get even colder in the coming weeks. With a little help from her friends, she warms to the task and fly away she does.

As we stand watching her flutter away, turn toward the bay, and then say no – not today – and turn back toward the trees – you can’t help but say a little prayer in the hope she makes it all the way to Mexico.

4th Annual New Jersey State Film Festival

filmhdr2When you throw a pebble into the water, it starts a ripple. That ripple starts more ripples and, before you know it, you have a film festival getting ready for its 4th year, and then you have young filmmakers winning awards, and then you have a governor passing legislation to lure more movie makers into the state. And that’s what they call a ripple effect.

The 4th annual Cape May NJ State Film Festival begins Nov. 18 and runs through Sunday, Nov.21.

Actor Joey Pantoliano

Actor Joey Pantoliano

This year’s recipient of the Cape May New Jersey State Film Festival’s Founders Award for Outstanding Contribution to New Jersey Film Arts is none other than veteran actor Joey Pantoliano—known to many loyal fans as Ralph (Ralphie) Cifaretto, the sarcastic, belligerent, and misogynistic Mr. Obnoxious who literally lost his head on the Sopranos. Although cast often (he has been in over 60 movies) as the classic bad guy, in real life he is a genuine stand up guy who grew up streetwise in Sinatra’s hometown of Hoboken, NJ, where he still has an apartment. This award will be presented at the Festival’s Opening Night Gala on Friday, November 19th beginning at 7:00 pm.

jibjablogoIn addition, Gregg and Evan Spiridellis, founders of JibJab Media and creators of this year’s hottest and hippest political satires, the animated song parodies, “This Land Is My Land” and “Good to Be in D.C.” will be the recipients of the Festival’s first Annual Award for Artistic Achievement & Innovation in New Media. This award will also be presented at the Opening Night Gala. The Spiridellis brothers were born in Marlboro, NJ and raised in central NJ. They have production offices in Los Angeles, CA.

Ron Rollet, artistic director and founder of the Cape May NJ State Film Festival didn’t know what he was getting into when he started project.

Michael Laird

Michael Laird

“I blame it on Michael Laird,” he said in a recent phone interview with Michael Laird was the artistic director and founder of Cape May Stage until his death due to cancer in 2001. “I would say to Michael we really should start a film festival here in Cape May and he would say well no. It’s too much work.” When I realized that Michael was ill, I also realized that he was really too ill to undertake such a project. But shortly before he died he came to me and said, ‘I’ve been thinking about the film festival and I think we’ll go ahead with it. And when he said ‘we’ – we both knew he was dying. So, he tricked me. I made a promise to him and I had to go through with it.”

Rollet went before City Council and asked them for permission to bring the NJ Film Festival to Cape May. They gave him the weekend before Thanksgiving.


Actor Robert Prosky

“I was thrilled to death.” He had just moved to Cape May Point as a year-round resident. “I didn’t know it was the slowest weekend of the year.”

He called his neighbor, the famous character actor Robert Prosky, and told him he’d like to do a retrospective of his work and asked if he would he participate.

“He was very gracious and said he would.”

They held the first Film Festival at what was then called the Welcome Center, located on Lafayette Street. It is now home to Cape May Stage.

“I figured we’d have about 50 people attending. I called filmmakers I know in New York (he taught filmmaking at New York University’s School of the Arts) and I still expected about 50 people.”

They sold out. Five hundred people attended.

“I said to myself, ‘Where did all these people come from?’ ”

The second year of the festival expanded the venues to include the Frank Theater Beach 4 as well as Congress Hall. The result? 3000 seats sold out.

And out of the NJ Film Festival came the Young Filmmakers Program which sponsors two summer workshops plus a January-June Young Filmmakers’ Forum held here in town. The workshop participants meet every Tuesday on the third floor of the City Centre Mall on Washington Street. In fact, Rollet, said, they wanted to continue meeting throughout the summer. “Who would have thought teenagers would want to meet in the summer?” asked an amazed Rollet.

The Cape May County teens work with another Cape May Point neighbor – Hollywood screenwriter Joe Stinson of Clint Eastwood “Make my day” fame. The result? For the last two years in a row, films produced by these South Jersey teens have received national recognition with a regional Emmy Award for their productions.

Organizers of the festival have added a screenwriter workshop, plus the New Jersey State Short Film Screenplay Competition, established to encourage and reward NJ film writers. Stefan Prosky, noted animator of Sponge Bob fame mentors the young filmmakers working on short films and is the curator for this year’s Festival of Independent Shorts to be held Saturday Nov. 20.

Now, you might ask yourself, how did the governor get involved? The highlight of the festival is the Governor’s Award Ceremony held at Congress Hall, where a prominent film artist is presented with the Governor’s Award for outstanding contribution to film in New Jersey.

Well, the answer is quite simple. Rollet picked up the phone and asked him (Gov. James McGreevey). The result? He said yes. The Governor’s Award has been given to veteran actors Robert Prosky, Susan Sarandon and Billy Baldwin with a fourth candidate to be announced.

trioAnd – the governor’s participation in the Cape May NJ Film Festival inspired him to introduce legislation to encourage movie makers to come to New Jersey by offering financial support in the form of loan guarantees to would-be film producers. The legislation, also known as the New Jersey Film Production Assistance Program was passed last year with the help of Billy Baldwin. Baldwin is also president of New Jersey based CSC Communications/Cargo Films. Baldwin’s role in supporting New Jersey Arts with his “Hollywood comes East” initiative is credited with helping to keep filmmaking alive and well in New Jersey. The CEO of CSC/Cargo, Thomas Colitsas responsible for creating the program, also received an award for his work in this field.

As for Susan Sarandon, it just so happens that shortly before Rollet gave her a jingle, she discovered, totally by accident, that her 14-year-old son was interested in filmmaking and enthusiastically agreed to speak before an attentive teenage audience in 2002 about the business of film and the future of young filmmakers. We might note that there were a few others present as well. The ballroom in which the award ceremony was held only accommodates 800 people – the other 800 had to stand outside and listen to the loud speakers.

The bottom line of this ripple effect? Ron Rollet’s goal is to continue to focus on New Jersey and young filmmakers.

“I sort have a chip on my shoulder being from New Jersey and I was determined to show them (that other Hollywood) that we could put this together. People come to film festivals not particularly because of the film but because of the place. Cape May is a beautiful place and people love coming here.”

logoSo, it doesn’t bother Ron too much that after having added Convention Hall as another venue the Cape May NJ State Film Festival may have maxed out at 3800.

Before Ron Rollet came along, the week before Thanksgiving in Cape May was just the week before Thanksgiving.

Hey that’s some ripple.

For more information or for tickets to all festival events, please go to or phone (609) 884-6700.

150 Years of Firefighting

If any one ever tells you that history doesn’t make a difference, tell them to come to Cape May. Yes, it would have been a seaside resort no matter what, given it’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, but who knew that a fire in 1878 would ensure National Historic Landmark status nearly 100 years later? And, who knew that the impact of that same fire that occurred on Nov. 9, 1878 leveling 39 acres of land right in the heart of the city could still be felt on a sunny Sunday afternoon in October, 2004?

newtruckOn October 10th the City of Cape May celebrated the acquisition of a new Tower Ladder truck affectionately called Tower 5154. The cost? $699,975. For a town with a year-round population of under 5,000 a 95-foot tower/ladder might seem excessive but for a town that has been plagued by as many devastating fires as Cape May it is more a case of “better safe than sorry.” spoke with firefighter and local columnist (and former mayor) Robert Elwell Sr. recently about the fires that changed this place we call Cape May.

Bob has stacks of pictures and newspaper clips that he has saved over the years. He uses much of the information to write his column “Glancing Back” which appears in the weekly Cape May Gazette newspaper. His list of the biggest and most significant fires in Cape May’s history begins with the Mt. Vernon Hotel.

mtvernonAt the time of its construction in 1853, the Mt. Vernon was considered the largest hotel in the world. With a dining room capacity of 3000 people, the Mt. Vernon made Cape May famous, according to an account by Elwell, “as a vacation spot before the Civil War.” It was located on Beach Avenue in South Cape May. South Cape May (chartered as a borough in 1894) had oceanfront lots that ran between 7th and 21st avenues connecting Cape May Point and Cape May. The ill-fated community washed out to sea after repeated storms and breathed its last gasp during a September hurricane of 1944.

The Mount Vernon breathed its last gasp during a September fire in 1855. The ocean frontage of the hotel ran 495 feet. It was four-stories high and ornately decorated with gingerbread at every level. Six people died in the fire – one of the two proprietors, Philip Cain, his two daughters, two sons and a housekeeper.

The next great fire occurred at the Mansion House in June 1857. Built by Richard Smith Ludlam, Mansion House was located on Washington Street, and then known as Washington Avenue. It was three stories high and accommodated 300 guests. According to Elwell, Mansion House was the largest hotel on Cape Island when it was built in 1832. firemen4pastIn 1850 the Kursaal, located behind the Mansion House, was annexed to the hotel as a dining room on the ground level with sleeping quarters on the upper floors. The Mansion House, the Kursaal and two other lodging houses burnt down in a matter of hours.

In his column, Elwell quotes one Philadelphia writer who makes the following observation even before the Mansion House fire: “I believe there is neither a fire engine, a hose, ladders, hooks or even fire buckets on the island, at least I never saw any one of these appliances when there. If one of the main houses should ignite, at least there ought to be prompt means to pull it down by means of large fire hooks, if nothing better could be done, so as to prevent the enlarging volume of flames from extending to the other great hotels by spark or heat.”


Ocean House

Ludlam’s son would later rename Mansion House to Ocean House which changed its location to Perry Street. It is in Ocean House where the Great Fire of 1878 began. In the category of there’s no such thing as a coincidence – It is Ludlam’s son who would be accused of starting that fire, although authorities failed to make their case in court and he was found not guilty on those charges.


United States Hotel

The second biggest fire in Cape May’s history was the fire of 1869. It occurred on August 31 at 2:30 a.m. By noon, one fourth of the Cape Island’s business section (also, the oldest section in town) was destroyed. Fire broke out in a small store located on Washington Street between Ocean and Decatur streets. The fire destroyed everything from Washington Street to Beach Avenue and from Ocean Street to Jackson Street. Among the losses were The United States Hotel, the new Atlantic Hotel, the American Hotel, Hufnal’s Drug Store, Barrett’s Saloon, and all the commercial buildings on the east side of Jackson Street.

Elwell writes, “Built in 1851, The United States Hotel had been the scene of several suspicious fires dating back to 1862. City officials had offered a reward for the apprehension of the arsonists of these fires. However, none was ever arrested.”

The hotel was never rebuilt. The previous owner, Aaron Miller owned the hotel for one year and sold it one week before the fire to Charles Conway for $80,000. Hmmm.

Cape May’s fire equipment at the time consisted of one hand-drawn hook and ladder apparatus. And, as you can, tell, it proved to be woefully ineffective. Knowing this, the mayor telegraphed the Camden fire chief and asked for help. Help arrived by train by noon but everything was in ashes by that time.


The Columbia House

A wind shift – the same kind that destroyed Columbia house in 1878 – help save the grand hotel this time.

Blame for the fire turned on Peter Paul Boynton who owned the oriental wares store where the fire started. He was brought before the mayor under suspicion of arson but was exonerated.

At last, city officials came to the recognition that the buildings were made of wood, and would be rebuilt with wood so maybe they should invest in a little fire fighting equipment. A second hand fire engine was bought from the Philadelphia Fire Department for $3,200. The Cape May Fire Association was formed – Dr. James Mecray was president and John W. Lyett served as secretary.

None of these measures were enough, however, to save the town from the devastating fire of 1878 in which several cottages and large hotels were destroyed.

Elwell cites a couple of reasons why the city again fell prey to arson. “The fire department up till that time was loosely organized,” he said in a recent interview, and he thinks the volunteer firemen truly thought “it’ll never burn down. The Cape May firefighters back then were mostly from rural parts of the town and had never really been exposed to” a large city approach to fighting fires. More importantly, said Elwell, “the city had no infrastructure.”

The old fire station

The old fire station

An overview of Cape May’s fire department written 20 years ago by Elwell’s aunt and Cape May’s librarian at the time Emma G. Elwell show that the very same Mansion House owner – Mr. Ludlam moved in 1867 that the city purchase “10 of the Portable, Self-acting Fire Engines.” The motion did not pass. Nor did a similar motion to purchase three Patent Fire Extinguishers. That motion was defeated in June of 1869. The Washington Street fire erupted that August.

City officials finally saw the necessity to provide the community with a full-time fire department after the Great Fire of 1878 and Cape May became the first town in the county to have a paid fire department. The fire fighters were volunteers who were on call 24 hours a day but the horses, used to pull the fire wagons, needed constant care firemen5pastand tending. That necessitated hiring full-time chauffeurs who stayed at the fire house. The chauffeurs had one duty – to drive and care for the team of horses. Fifty men were hired to train, exercise and groom the team. Chauffeurs were still retained when the horses were replaced with motorized vehicles in the 1920s and it wasn’t until the 1970s that Cape May and surrounding areas hired full-time, paid fire fighters who did more than just drive.

Because the Great Fire destroyed so many large buildings, many of the houses and hotels still standing today were built in 1879 after that fire. They, therefore, share the same Victorian architecture which helped give Cape May its National Historic Landmark status in 1976.

The Windsor Hotel on fire in 1979

The Windsor Hotel on fire in 1979

Despite attempts to keep the fire department up to snuff and keep the city safe from another fire that would destroy our Victorian town, Cape May has still had its share of modern fires, the most memorable being the destruction of the Windsor Hotel built, ironically, in 1879 after The Great Fire. Elwell notes in his column that destruction of the Windsor Hotel was “noteworthy because it was the worst fires in Cape May in the 21st century.”

windsorfire2The original owner, Thomas Whitney, called it The Windsor after England’s Windsor Castle. The Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson, spent the winter of 1917-1918 in the hotel. At her side was her first husband, Lt. Earl Spencer Jr.

The hotel was purchased by fundamentalist minister Rev. Carl McIntire in the 1950s.

windsorfire1In 1973 the city ordered the hotel closed for fire code violations and because it “posed a threat to public safety.”

On May 18, 1979 at 10:02 a.m. the Windsor fire was reported by Donald Pocher who lived behind the Windsor on South Lafayette.

Elwell, who attended the fire, said the 100-year-old building “went up like matchsticks.”

Arson was suspected but never proved.

firemen2There have been other fires, most recently in 2001 when the historic Devonshire on South Lafayette burnt to the ground in minutes. It has since been replaced by a modern condominium version, that has the same original name. So, you can see the significance a small town like Cape May places on Tower ’54. The new truck’s “coming out party’ included a parade up Beach Avenue with fire engines from all the surrounding communities adding to the fanfare. The parade ended at the fire house at the corner of Franklin and Washington avenues. To celebrate, there were speeches, the Coast Guard band, bagpipers and plenty of food.

Virgnia Hotel fire

Virgnia Hotel fire

Bob Elwell was there and so was his son, Rob who is the fourth generation firefighter in the Elwell family.

History makes a difference to the people who live in Cape May and the Cape May Fire Department is dedicated to making that difference count.

Our special thanks to Bob Elwell for sharing his pictures with us for this article.