On the spring-like day of the New Hampshire primary in January, rocking on the veranda of historic Congress Hall and contemplating the sea, I mused: I would like to put the time machine in reverse and experience an era long ago, just before and after the Civil War, when presidents walked these halls.
It has been Cape May legend that Abraham Lincoln and his wife spent time here. There is no factual documentation that they enjoyed summer here as other presidents did, some visiting more than once.
Five United States presidents enjoyed cool Cape May and the hospitality at Congress Hall: Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Ulysses Grant, Chester Arthur and Benjamin Harrison. Their pilgrimages from the sweltering hot summers in Washington, D.C., started more than 150 years ago when Cape May was the nation’s foremost seaside resort. Congress Hall was a favorite rendezvous for prestigious leaders from the north and south – when slavery was still a force, and 70 years before women were allowed to vote. Then the young country’s worries were grounded in economic fears of a nation expanding westward, and trepidation that the conflict over states’ rights and slavery would erupt into a north-south war, spilling blood on home soil.
This election year the issues circle the globe: the shrinking dollar, soaring oil prices, planet warming, stubborn wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; inflation creeps in, recession reaches out. But a century and a half after presidents enjoyed this veranda, a woman and an African-American are serious contenders for the presidency for the first time in history.
Franklin Pierce, the 14th president, was the nation’s first chief executive to visit Cape May. The year was 1855. It was the premiere season for a new look at Congress Hall. Water (sic) Burrows Miller bought the hotel in 1851 from his father for $42,000, and spent thousands more adding two wings. More dramatically, he installed the tall plantation-style columns that give the building the antebellum appeal that still strikes awe today. Advertisements bragged of world-class amenities: bath houses on Congress Beach, band music played from a pavilion on the lawn, the best dining hall in the nation.
A Congress Hall guest wrote: “What else can it be so grand? At night, when the hall is cleared of tables and chairs, and hundreds of gas jets are brilliantly burning and flickering, and the gay and the elite are flushed with the giddy dance, then you behold a hall scene, beautiful and fair.”
Water Burrows Miller was into promotion, and President Pierce accepted his invitation for a holiday break. White House notes confirm the trip, “They vacationed at Congress Hall over the 4th of July holiday, returning to Washington on July 7th.”
President Pierce (1853-1857), tall, trim and gregarious, was often called “Handsome Frank.” He wore fancy ascots and sported a curl of hair on his forehead. Those close to him worried about his drinking. A Democrat from New Hampshire, he was shocked by his nomination in 1852, and won in a landslide.
His wife, Jane Means Appleton, accompanied him to Cape May. It’s likely he wanted to get her out of Washington and ease her chronic depression. The First Lady hated politics. She was the daughter of a college president and considered politics beneath her, especially after living as a Congressman’s wife in dirty Washington boarding houses.
The worst was yet to come. She reluctantly left New England on a train to Washington in March, 1853, with her husband and only surviving child, 11-year-old Benny. (Two other sons were lost in infancy.) The Pierce car suddenly jumped the tracks and rolled down a snow bank. The president-elect ran to rescue Benny. His only child lay dead in the snow.
Mrs. Pierce was stricken. She ordered the state rooms draped in black. She wore mourning clothes and stayed in seclusion for two years. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (later president of the Confederacy) and his wife Varina eventually persuaded the First Lady to join them at dinners and teas. They encouraged her to vacation at Congress Hall where she and the president strolled the three-story shaded colonnade with its 55 new white pillars.
It was the era of the romantic antebellum influence in Washington and Cape May. Prominent politicians and wealthy entrepreneurs spent vast amounts of money on houses, carriages, clothing and parties. Some southern planters transported their handsome horses and fancy carriages by steamer to show off along the beach promenade.
James Buchanan, the 15th and only bachelor president (1857-1861), followed Pierce to the White House, and Cape May. Pierce was the youngest president; Buchanan was one of the oldest at 61. He wore his hair in a peak and black silk suits a bit too large for his six foot frame with high collars that seemed to make his pale skin “white as flour.”
Buchanan was from Pennsylvania, and like Pierce, a northern Democrat. Both opposed slavery on moral grounds, but thought it was legal, grounded in the constitution. Buchanan was a career politician with considerable diplomatic experience and an epicurean passion. He entered the White House understanding that the nation was splitting apart over human bondage and that war was inevitable. His goal was to stop it.
Buchanan had no intention of spending summers in the White House because of the “bad vapors.” He commuted from Soldiers’ Home, located on a breezy hill in the capitol city. In 1858, the second year of his presidency, he escaped Washington briefly for a summer visit at Congress Hall.
Despite the Civil War looming, Buchanan’s niece Harriet, who had run of the White House, enjoyed keeping up with the southern belles who ruled Washington society. Harriet presided at presidential social events under new gas chandeliers amid furniture she had gilded and covered in satin, tapestry, silk, lace brocades and damask. It was after a sparkling White House dinner December 20th, 1860, that Buchanan received a telegram announcing South Carolina had seceded from the American Union.
The antebellum days ended abruptly – in Washington and Cape May. Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, assumed the White House in 1861. Though Cape May depended on the south for its livelihood, the city supported the president, realizing that its geographic isolation could pose tragic consequences if faced with an enemy army. The economy turned inside out. Amelia Hand noted in her diary that wool rose from 25 cents to $1.50 a pound, cotton seven cents to $1, and tea 40 cents to $1.50. Cape May businesses were accustomed to $50,000 a year in southern revenues. The proceeds dropped to $10,000 a season. A vacationer wrote, “Streets are barren, weeds have taken over lawns, picket fences crumble in the blazing sun.”
After the war an aging former President Buchanan returned for some seaside rejuvenation. A letter to his niece Harriet Lane Johnston:
August, 14th, 1867, Cape Island, New Jersey
My dear Niece:
I do not know exactly when I shall leave this place, but I think early next week. I have been much pleased with my visit here, and have, I think, been strengthened, but much more by the sea air than the bathing. I am not quite certain that the latter agrees with me. We have had a great crowd all the time; but the weather has been charming and the company agreeable.
Mr. Bullitt of Philadelphia gave me a dinner the other day, which I only mention from the awkward situation in which I was placed by not being able to drink a drop of wine.
I am very well, thank God!
President Buchanan died a year later, June 1st, 1868, at age 77.
The Civil War had ended in April, 1865. Only two months later, in June, the victorious Union General Ulysses Grant traveled to Cape May. He drew huge crowds to the Congress Hall lawn, where he reviewed a colorful military drill performed by the reserves from nearby Camp Upton. The newspapers covered every detail of the visit including Mrs. Grant ordering two bathing outfits: one in red flannel trimmed in blue, the other blue trimmed in red.
General Grant became the 18th president in 1869 at age 46. (1869-1877) He returned to Congress Hall as president in the summer of 1875. Wealthy industrialists and merchants had just established a yacht club and were courting Grant to make his summer home in Cape May.
The New York Times reported the visit in glowing terms:
THE CAPE MAY REGATTA
Arrival of President Grant and Party—Other Noted Guests—The Arrangements For the Regatta – Great Crowds and a Successful Contest Assured.
Cape May, NJ. July 10 – President Grant arrived here this evening in a United States revenue cutter, attended by Gov. Hartranft, George W. Childs, Seth J. Comly, Judge Comly, Adolph E. Borie, and Gene Babcock. Their arrival was announced by the booming of cannon and demonstrations of enthusiasm. The distinguished visitors will witness the grand regatta, which promises to congregate more people than ever previously assembled on the island. Four immense trains arrived to-day, and the night is an auspicious gala one. The journalists of South Jersey were to-day entertained at the Ocean House, and this evening Alexander Whilden, President of Sea Grove, has as guests a deputation of newspaper representatives from Baltimore and Philadelphia. The steam yacht Eutaw makes an excursion to the Breakwater from Congress Hall, landing to-morrow morning and will also accompany the regatta, continuing Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. The United States revenue steamer Tallapoosa arrived to-day and will be used by the Regatta Committee and distinguished guests. To-morrow morning the vessel will go to the Five Fathom Light-ship, fifteen miles out to sea, to escort the yacht squadron to the island.
The president and his wife stayed at Congress Hall. Grant was a finicky eater. He insisted his meat be cooked to a crunch, no matter the type or quality. He refused poultry dishes. Grant turned his back on Cape May for his summer place despite the local gentry’s hospitality. He chose instead Long Branch, ostensibly because there was a casino and horse racing. Grant loved fast horses better than anything, including his penchant for whiskey. He was once fined $20 for speeding on his horse. Later on, in honor of the president’s visit, a Congress Hall guest room was decorated with furnishings from his era.
It was a surprise to learn that the 21st president, Chester Arthur (1881-1885), paid a visit to Congress Hall. He has not been part of the Cape May lore. Arthur never expected to become president. A New York Republican, he assumed the office at age 52 in 1881 after President James Garfield died from an assassin’s gunshot wounds. Garfield was ambushed at the Washington train station on his way to meet his wife at their summer cottage in Long Branch.
President Arthur, a widower, traveled extensively and in style. Nicknamed “Elegant Arthur,” he dressed the dandy look in handsome hand-tailored suits, some with jackets trimmed in fur. Cape May greeted him with great fanfare in the summer of 1883. The New York Times reported on July 23rd that “10,000 fashionable visitors are expected for the arrival of President Arthur tomorrow.”
The article goes on to say that he will sail to the Congress Hall Pier aboard the steamship Dispatch. Six sailors in a cutter will row him to the landing. He will review the National Rifles of Washington on the Congress Hall lawn.
The next day The New York Times reported that President Arthur and his daughter, Miss Nellie, were on their way by carriage to Sewell’s Point, but the crowds clamoring to see the president were so large, they
made a halt at the edge of the waves in front of the Congress Hall bathing crowds. The sea was full of bathers and there was a rush of water nymphs to gaze at the President. The carriages were surrounded by the dripping multitude. The President shook everyone’s hand and said he was greatly pleased with Cape May. He wore a dark suit of thin texture and a high narrow brimmed white hat. On leaving Congress Hall Pier that night, the beach was illuminated and there was great cheering.
Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president (1889-1893), a Republican from Indiana, was the president who put the national spotlight on Cape May most intensely. Philadelphia department store mogul John Wanamaker was developing Sea Grove at Cape May Point and became a major Harrison financial backer. Harrison then appointed Wanamaker Postmaster General.
The Wanamakers occupied a large Italianate-style cottage called Lilenmyn at The Point, and lost no time inviting the Harrisons as house guests their first summer in the White House in 1889. They entertained them in a week-long merry-go-round of dinners and parties. President Harrison loved the fresh seafood, especially the oysters. First Lady Caroline Harrison said if it were up to her husband, he would eat oysters three times a day. The First Lady was smitten with Cape May Point. She was an artist and especially enjoyed the ocean views and gardens.
The Wanamaker “syndicate,” as it was called, decided to build the Harrisons their very own large cottage to ensure the President would return every summer and generate headlines, investors and tourists.
The syndicate got to work right away and constructed a 23-room villa at the cost of $10,000 at Beach and Harvard Avenues. The President told Wanamaker he could not accept such an ostentatious gift, that it would be unethical. So they presented the home to the First Lady in a White House ceremony in June, 1890. The presenter was William McKean, editor of the Philadelphia Ledger, who said the contributors were anonymous subscribers. Indeed, the large cottage became a scandal! Washington headlines screamed “the syndicate” was buying presidential favor for railroad and housing developers.
Controversy or not, the Harrisons went ahead with plans to summer in Cape May Point.
To ease the way Harrison sent a check to Wanamaker, who responded:
Washington, July 2nd, 1890
Sir: I am in receipt of your letter of this date advising me of your decision regarding the cottage at Cape May Point and enclosing [$10,000] cheque to reimburse the friends who made the outlay there, as a token of friendship for Mrs. Harrison.
Very Respectfully Yours,
Mrs. Harrison packed up her large extended family and settled in at her brand new cottage on the beach. She had training in home economics and ran a tight but hospitable household. She personally sent orders for meats and produce to Hand’s Central Market at Washington and Ocean Streets. An original document from August 10th, 1890, shows her purchases.
The Cape May countryside fascinated the First Lady and she frequently requested coachman William Turner, a local, to take her for carriage rides around Shunpike, in Lower Township. On Sunday, August 24th, on the way home from church at the Old Brick Presbyterian in Cold Spring, Mrs. Harrison asked to drive by a vine-covered cottage owned by Dan and Judy Kelly. She was obviously intrigued by the picturesque setting and wished to share it with the president. Mr. Harrison climbed from the carriage, introduced himself, asked for a drink of water from the oaken bucket and after a chat, pressed into Mrs. Kelly’s hand a crisp five dollar bill.
The next year President Harrison made headlines internationally when he chose the first floor of Congress Hall as the Summer White House. The New York Times reported July 4th, 1891:
President Harrison’s Fourth was scarcely a holiday. In the morning he walked up the beach with his grandchildren…Postmaster General Wanamaker reached Cape May Point at 11:30 o’clock on the express from Philadelphia. He called early upon the President and spent the afternoon with him in earnest work upon Post Office matters. After business had been disposed of Mr. Harrison took another long walk with Mrs. Dimmick. The President’s family had some fireworks during the evening and were further entertained by a similar display from atop the Cape May Point Lighthouse.
Few knew how sick Mrs. Harrison was becoming her last summer at Cape May Point. She died one year later of tuberculosis at age 60.
Benjamin Harrison sold the Cape May cottage back to John Wanamaker for $10,000 in 1896. That same year he married widow Mary Lord Dimmick, his secretary and niece of the late First Lady. Harrison wrote Wanamaker June 30th, 1986:
My dear Mr. Wanamaker;
Your letter enclosing your check for Ten Thousand ($10,000) dollars for the Cape May Point property came yesterday. I am very much obliged to you again for your kindness.
Sincerely Yr Friend,
The Wanamaker family used the President’s seaside retreat for several years and eventually turned it over to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. It did not survive the ravages of sea erosion. The Wanamaker cottage, originally built at Beach and Harvard avenues, is now the Marianist Retreat and was moved inland. It still stands at Cape and Yale, looking much the way it did when President Harrison rocked on its porch with John Wanamaker.
There has not been a sitting president to walk Congress Hall since 1891, when Benjamin Harrison chose the handsome L-shaped building hotel for his Summer White House.
But if you listen, the venerable old place, with its mellow yellow façade and pristine white pillars that reflect the sea and sunsets, does talk and tells its remarkable stories of yesteryear.