One afternoon, I decided to look for the lost civilization of South Cape May. Unlike another lost civilization – Atlantis – there are still vestiges of South Cape May around. I started my search by walking along Beach Ave. toward the Cove – that’s west toward the sunset for those of you new to Cape May.
I tell you truly nothing is more ghostly than walking along this stretch in the dead of winter and realizing that a town once stood here. The borough of South Cape May once extended 21 blocks west heading toward the lighthouse. The first evidence of a town lies in the street signs. Just as I pass Broadway, as you’re walking past the Surf Motel, the next street is First Avenue. Then, as you pass the Mount Vernon Hotel, you’re at Second Avenue. Then….well, and this is the point I’m getting at – there’s the Jetty Motel, the Cove Restaurant and ….sand. What happened to Third Avenue and beyond? How does a whole town just disappear? Let me tell you all about it.
Once upon a time, say 1840 to be precise, a man by the name of Mark Devine bought 89-acres of beachfront property at a sheriff’s sale. Every chance he had, he bought another parcel of land, until one day, he had 225 acres of land stretching from Patterson Avenue to just shy of Cape May Point. One reason the land was so easily acquired was because it was mostly marshland, meadows, and run off from Cape Island Creek. Devine’s foresight, however, paid off when in 1882, an ambitious entrepreneur by the name of Theodore M. Reger gathered a group of like-minded individuals and formed an investment group – The Cape May City Land Company – and bought the Devine tract south of Broadway. Reger and his associates formed two more holding companies over the next five years – The Neptune Land Company and the Mount Vernon Land Company.
Looking back, one wonders what the other investors were thinking because just as the key to Atlantis was a temple built to honor the god Poseidon, the key to Reger’s South Cape May was a 58-foot high tin and wood elephant which he called the Light of Asia. It’s difficult to tell if Reger knew or cared about Atlantis but he apparently did care about another elephant – Lucy. Used by another land developer, one James B. Lafferty, who in 1882 used the huge tin elephant to advertise his new development south of Atlantic City – now called Margate. Lafferty also had a patent on Lucy. Reger coughed up the patent fee and got to work on the Light of Asia. But he couldn’t even make that work. People didn’t take to the name and called her Jumbo because, duh, she was huge and because P.T. Barnum of Barnum & Bailey Circus had an elephant named Jumbo.
Jumbo was a kind of multi-use facility. Reger used a portion of the space as a real estate office. In her belly was a big room measuring 18 ft x 30. This area could be leased to vendors for the sale of sodas, candy and ice cream. The entrance to Jumbo was through her hind legs and then up a spiral staircase to a hall. The 10-cent admission fee would get you up another flight of stairs to the top of Jumbo’s back where a covered pavilion observation facility or “Howdah” was built. Drinks were sold in her two front legs. Construction started in 1884 and she was ready to rock and roll by the summer of 1885. She was built at a cost of $18,000 and sat 300 feet back from Beach Avenue and the railroad tracks that had been constructed to connect the area to Cape May City.
Unfortunately for poor Jumbo, South Cape May was considered to be a very remote part of the city and, at 10-cents a customer, she didn’t have too many visitors. The train car only came through three times a day and she ended up being a financial loser. By 1900, Jumbo was demolished. Much of her time in between was spent as a haven for vagrants. But for a while, she did as she was supposed to do – shine the spotlight on Reger’s other venture The New Mount Vernon Hotel which was painted across her side in 1887.
The New Mount Vernon Hotel was to take the place of the old Mount Vernon Hotel. The old Mount Vernon Hotel was located right on Beach Avenue just west of Broadway and at 4-stories, was to be the largest hotel in the world. In September of 1856, when the hotel was nearly finished, a fire left it a pile of rubble.
Twenty some years later, enter Theodore Reger who thought he could resurrect the Mount Vernon like the phoenix from the ashes. The Neptune Land Company issued $300,000 in capital stock to finance development of the Devine tract which included, according to Jeffrey Dorwart’s book Cape May County, New Jersey, “reclamation of land, and construction of seawalls, wharves, roads, hotels and cottages.” When things weren’t going as quickly as they might have hoped, the group reorganized under the Mount Vernon Land Company in 1887 in hopes of speeding up their plan to develop the area.
According to Joe Jordan’s book Cape May Point The Illustrated History: 1875 to the present, the new association drew up plans to build the New Mount Vernon which included a much smaller hotel and cottages extending 14 blocks beachfront and 69 blocks stretching back to Cape Island Turnpike or what is now Sunset Blvd “in a relentless gridiron pattern.” The Mount Vernon Tract ran between 7th and 21st avenues in South Cape May. All toll, 2,500 lots measuring a mere 30-feet in frontage and 100-feet in depth were planned for cottages. Jumbo stood watch between 15th and 16th avenues. Reger set up his real estate office inside Jumbo and construction on the New Mount Vernon began in 1887. By 1888 South Cape May consisted of one hotel, 8 cottages, a 2-story pavilion and bathhouses.
Determined to make the project work, Reger and his partner James Henry Edmunds withdrew the Mount Vernon Tract from Lower Township and incorporated in 1894 as the borough of South Cape May.
Also in 1894, the two formed yet another company – the West Cape May Improvement Company – to develop the lots and streets in the newly formed borough. Edmunds went on to serve as mayor for the City of Cape May between 1885 and 1892, 1895 and 1896 and to be an influential figure for West Cape May. In 1886, Edmunds bought the Cape May Wave newspaper.
It’s so easy to digress – let’s get back to South Cape May. Reger and his associates underestimated the adverse effect of the remote location of the New Mount Vernon tract and really underestimated the pounding nature would impose on the land. By 1910 those beachfront properties had to be moved back a block and turned so they were facing the railroad tracts on Mount Vernon Avenue instead of the ocean. A 3-story boarding house opened but that was the extent of development. The rest of the land remained an open meadow.
Fast forward to 1925 – a newly paved Sunset Boulevard replaced the gravel Cape Island Turnpike. Sunset Boulevard was built because developers got wind that a ferry connecting the Delaware Bay with Cape May Point was going to be built. Suddenly, those meadow lots were looking a lot more attractive. New developers stepped in, filled in the land. Road which previously led to no where now connected to Sunset Boulevard. By the way, the ferry never was built until about 20 years later and never at that location. Why? Because a concrete ship brought in to be used as a landing for the proposed ferry slipped its moorings shortly after being towed to its Sunset Beach destination. Plans for a ferry sank with the ship. The name of the ship? The Atlantus.
Also around 1925, a cluster of Spanish-villa type cottages were built in South Cape May. They were built with clay tile roofs and walls of plaster – see Spain – dry, Mediterranean weather. Cape May? Wet, damp, cold weather. Yet, it still came as a great surprise to the owners of these villas when their homes did not stand up to the hurricane winds, high waters and pounding rain so common in Cape May. By this time there were about 50 cottages comprising South Cape May built on less than 5% of the available land parcels.
A 1936 Nor’easter leveled a devastating blow on the tiny community. Gale force winds racked the cottages. According to Joe Jordan’s accounts in his Cape May Point book, “The beachfront homes of the mayor and his neighbor toppled into the sea shortly after the Coast Guard had rescued the occupants.”
Then came the great Atlantic hurricane of 1944. Floodwaters stretched as far back as Sunset Boulevard and 4 blocks beyond. Any houses left standing were so badly damaged they were left inhabitable. With no properties to tax, the borough of South Cape May had to declare bankruptcy and once again became part of Lower Township.
In November of 1950, another fierce storm came ashore bringing abnormal tides which, combined with a full moon, brought tidal waves of such force, they reached all the way to Sixth Avenue in West Cape May. Winds of 88-miles per hour ripped through what was left of South Cape May returning it to what it was in the beginning – a meadow. Waist-deep debris from the wreckage of South Cape May ran all the way into Sunset Boulevard.
Unlike the Atlantis of Plato’s time, vestiges of South Cape May are still with us and not completely lost. What remains of South Cape May is now South Cape Meadows – the land, run by the Nature Conservancy, – is for the birds. All that is left of South Cape May are the clay tiles locals sometimes find along the beach if they’re lucky. We still have the two street signs, the Mount Vernon Motel, and Mount Vernon Avenue, which runs parallel to Beach Ave., and cut off abruptly to a nature path leading down to the beach. The Borough of South Cape May, however, is no more. Another lesson for the annals of “Don’t Mess With Mother Nature.”
Never fear. Our story has a happy ending. The birds who reside there now have lived happily ever after at South Cape Meadows. The end.