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Then and Now: The Impact of Urban Renewal

urban-header

The Hedges, a private home. The Hedges later became Arnold’s Green Terrace Restaurant and Bar.

Even for people who have been in Cape May for generations, the Cape May of just 50 years ago is a real juxtaposition with today’s town, where houses are generally well-maintained and have median appraisal values exceeding half a million dollars. Who can even remember the invariably white-painted, poorly-maintained, old fashioned houses of the 1960s or Washington Street before it became a mall? Even pictures don’t totally tell the story of how houses fell into – and out of – disrepair.

One story of how Cape May became blighted went like this (as told by a city employee in 1969 Senate testimony). First, large houses were built by wealthy out-of-town families who needed space for their families and servants. Then, various events occurred such as the 1929 depression which resulted in these properties being taken over by people with more moderate incomes who could not afford to maintain them. New owners divided once single family properties into multiple rooms and apartments for summer rental. Hard use by renters contributed to ongoing deterioration right up until the 1960s when summer visitors were drawn to new, modern motel rooms. Cape May’s rooming house era had ended. Once-elegant homes were now viewed as undesirable “white elephants.” Cape May was ripe for change.

So many American communities had fallen into this same disrepair that Lyndon Johnson made the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) a central component of the War on Poverty. With it came funds to eliminate slums and create opportunities for economic development. While Cape May residents wanted to improve their town, not everyone was enamored with accepting federal funds, especially those from Democrats. The townspeople – or at least some of them – were beginning to think about how Cape May could be changed. Some wanted to highlight the Victorian homes. Others wanted to create ratables. Enormous destruction from the 1962 storm forced people to consider state and federal programs to assist in rebuilding the town.

tides

The Tides Condominium complex was built where the Baltimore Inn once stood. The Baltimore Inn was demolished as part of urban renewal.

The first recommendation to pursue federal funds came in 1963 from the Planning Board with recommendations to give the go-ahead to Blair and Stein Associates to prepare an application for an urban renewal project. The application came with a $1000 fee. City officials sold the project by informing citizens that this would be the only taxpayer cost. Even the required city contribution would use previously awarded state funds used to build the promenade following the 1962 storm. Then as now, Cape May residents were conservative about spending taxpayer funds. Blair and Stein were to determine project boundaries, estimate costs, and shape ideas to match renewal fund requirements. The Planning Board suggested a focus on three geographical areas. The Elmira/Bank Street area was destined for complete renewal and for public housing. The Washington Street business center required some demolition and reconfiguring to become a viable commercial center, and the area between the business center and the beach would become an historic area. As part of preliminary planning steps, architectural historian Carolyn Pitts completed a 1964 survey of Victorian properties within what was expected to be the urban renewal district. The survey identified properties for renewal or demolition but, then as now, city decisions about demolition were not necessarily based on the survey. Many historic properties were demolished to accommodate new and non-historic projects.

atlantic-terrace

The landscape of Atlantic Terrace has changed. The gardens have been replaced by small kiosks. The Seven Sisters in the background still remain.

By 1965, the city approved the $3.2 million 77-acre HUD-designated Victorian Village Urban Renewal Project. In the end, there were more than 100 demolished properties, three “new” streets and several large parking lots in the center of town, low income housing projects, beachfront changes, and the massive Victorian Towers to house elderly residents. Then as now, nothing was accomplished without the fights, legal suits, and government changes through which groups express their opinions.

A city-distributed urban renewal progress report outlined Cape May goals “to rehabilitate a complete center-city area into a reborn Victorian showplace designed to attract hundreds of thousands of American and foreign tourists; to revitalize downtown shopping areas; provide scores of improvements through new construction and renovation; and most important, to provide new bases of economic security for all its citizens.” Staff were hired to run the project and an office was established in the 300 block of Washington Street. The first project to be completed was the Victorian Village Plaza. Dedicated in 1966 and described as providing “the major nucleus of a revitalized merchant community,” the project required relocating a train station and demolishing a train depot and a number of other properties to create a 200-car parking lot and six retail stores including the Acme grocery store. Right across Washington Street, a whole block of businesses and a hotel were leveled to provide the large parcel of land needed for Victorian Towers. Additional properties were demolished to extend Ocean Street further north to Lafayette Street. A whole area of Cape May had been reconfigured.

victowers

Many buildings were demolished in order to build Victorian Towers.

Most of the urban renewal work was centered in the middle of the town. Creating a new business district and clearing out areas around Lafayette Street were primary targets. Three blocks of Washington Street were selected to be closed off into a walking mall, an action that city fathers stated will “engender more life in the main shopping area particularly in the fall and winter.” Numerous properties were demolished on the mall blocks to be replaced by modern “Victorian-like” stores, a trend that has continued right up to the present. On the eastern end, the Liberty Theater was demolished and replaced with a series of small stores lining a newly-created Liberty Walk. A modern two-story building, built as Charles Sandman’s offices, eventually becomes a shopping mall complete with an escalator; another newly constructed building was a mid-century modern building with a front façade of vertical wood boards. Other properties were demolished to create three walkways paralleling Ocean, Decatur, Jackson, and Perry streets named for Cape May heroes, Edwin Draper, MD, Henry Sawyer, and Edwin Hill.

The mall was anchored on the eastern end by the Victorian Village Plaza. The western end, along Perry Street and Congress Place, included Congress Hall’s parking garages and three historic properties – the Pink House, Moon’s Drug Store, and the small hotel/boarding house called the Elberon. One idea was for the Pink House to be moved and turned around so that it faced the end of the mall. But, properties were taken by eminent domain and suddenly seven properties were being demolished to create land space for the modern Victorian Motel, destined to provide city ratables that the Victorian properties may not. Before the wreckers got to the Pink House, it was purchased by Tom Hand and moved across the street to a lot on Perry Street next to his Cape May Star and Wave offices where today it looks as though it has been there forever.

The Washington Street Mall as it appeared in the 1950s. In this photograph you can also see the buildings that were demolished to make way for the Victorian Towers.

The Washington Street Mall as it appeared in the 1950s. In this photograph you can also see the buildings that were demolished to make way for the Victorian Towers.

Creating the pedestrian mall eliminated street parking and store access thereby requiring redesign of the area around the mall to recreate parking and give delivery access. The solution was to carve out two new wide streets on either side behind the mall by demolishing still more existing properties to create roadways with diagonal parking. Although little accommodation was made for trash or storage, most stores had back doors for deliveries and many stores actually fronted on these new streets. Lyle Lane was created on the north from Mansion Street and renamed Lyle Lane in honor of a local Cape May family. A section of Layle Lane was renamed back to Mansion Street when Perry Collier opened the Mansion House restaurant and discovered the street’s original name. Carpenters Alley already existed south of Washington between Decatur and Ocean and was extended over to Ocean Street demolishing four more houses, renamed Carpenters Lane, and continued behind the other two blocks over to Perry Street resulting in another 20 demolitions. In fact, the massive number of demolitions created another problem for the city – how to dispose of the buildings once they were torn down.

The mall may have been the cornerstone project, but large tracts of land in the center city area were cleared of businesses and houses to create parking. Many properties were identified as Victorian in the survey, but they were torn down anyway. Tiny Chestnut Street, running parallel to Perry between Mansion and Broad Street, was virtually obliterated by demolishing all 14 structures on the street to create a city parking lot. Additional properties across from the parking lot and from the corner of Lafayette to Broad were destroyed including the long popular Opera House. Another 10 houses were torn down along Lafayette between Jackson and Decatur to create another parking lot, which at the last minute became Rotary Park, an eventual location for city-sponsored concerts. This area was cleared by destroying businesses and homes of the African American community. Even more African American-owned properties were demolished along Broad Street and further east on Lafayette and replaced with affordable housing units. City fathers created a “War on Blight” in the center of town that physically demolished houses and businesses while simultaneously almost eliminating 60 African-American businesses and simultaneously contributing to the reduction of the town’s African American population from about 800 to the 200 present day residents.

Cape May's former train station was located at Ocean and Washington Streets. After the train station was torn down, a parking lot remained there until the Washington Commons shopping area was built.

Cape May’s former train station was located at Ocean and Washington Streets. After the train station was torn down, a parking lot remained there until the Washington Commons shopping area was built.

Little of the beachfront was included in the renewal project district, to the great relief of developers who were anxious to start building those new motels that line today’s beachfront. Like today, owners of existing hotels within the Victorian Village district wanted to offer tourists better accommodations by becoming more modern and up-to-date. Carl McIntyre, a minister from Collingswood, New Jersey, purchased and moved a number of historic properties so that beachfront land became available for the Colonial and other existing hotels got to build adjacent motels with parking. The saved historic houses became dormitories for Dr. McIntyre’s newly opened Sheldon College and, as the college declined, these same properties took on new life as condominiums and a bed and breakfast inn. Other historic properties did not fare so well. The Baltimore Inn on Jackson Street was demolished by the city to create land for a new motel that eventually failed and was reconfigured into the Tides Condominium. Right next door, on the corner of Jackson and Beach, the Hedges, a private home that had already been converted into the then-popular Arnold’s restaurant, was replaced by miniature golf. The very-Victorian Colton Court hotel was torn down to allow a modern motel, also named Colton Court, to rise in its place. The Lafayette Hotel, one of the oldest and most prominent of the remaining Victorian hotels, became another demolition statistic, torn down and replaced on the same site by a new hotel with in-front parking.

The 68 demolitions achieved in the first half of the urban renewal project were listed in the city’s published progress report as an accomplishment. One can only guess at the percent of Cape May properties that were ultimately razed and be grateful that in the Cape May way, a new administration was voted in to stop the widespread destruction before there was little left of the original Victorian properties.

Where Arnold's once stood, you can now find Carney's Restaurant and Bar and a mini golf course.

Where Arnold’s once stood, you can now find Carney’s Restaurant and Bar and a mini golf course.

A lot might be said looking backward almost 50 years to the onset of urban renewal. The goal of creating a stable year-round economic base for all residents did not materialize. If anything, Cape May’s economy is more dependent on tourism than ever before in its history. Then as now, few elected or employed city officials have provided knowledgeable leadership to guide meaningful historic preservation efforts although nobody has avoided talking the historic preservation talk when useful. Perhaps urban renewal funds were just the ticket to mobilize Cape May residents and provide a base from which newcomers would create the bed and breakfast, restaurant, and cultural changes to come. In hindsight, we do not, after all, look like other New Jersey shore towns where almost anything historic (or not) is gone. On the other hand, there may be more “Victorians” in Cape May now than in the 1960s if we are willing to count all the newly constructed sort-of Victorians that have been added since the real Victorian period ended. historic-endmark

Editor’s Note: This article is based on a Then and Now picture exhibit put together by Harry Bellangy, president, Greater Cape May Historical Association and exhibited at the Association’s Colonial House during the summer of 2011.

It should be noted that Mickie Blomkvest served on Cape May City Council from 1968-1972 during Urban Renewal. Mr. Blomkvest later went on to serve as mayor of Cape May from 1976-1988.


The Halls Presidents Walked

The Halls Presidents Walked / Text by Karen Fox

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.

Left to right: Franklin Pierce (courtesy of Congress Hall Archives), James Buchanan, Ulysses Grant, Chester Arthur, and Benjamin Harrison (courtesy of President Benjamin Harrison Home).

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.

President Franklin Pierce

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.

First Lady Pierce

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.

An artist rendering of Congress Hall and bathhouse in 1858. Courtesy Emil R. Salvini

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.

Harriet Lane acted as First Lady for her bachelor uncle President James Buchanan

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!

Yours affectionately,

James Buchanan

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 Chester Arthur

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.

The Wanamaker cottage “Lilenmyn” at Cape May Point. Originally built at Beach and Harvard, it was moved inland and now stands at Cape and Yale as a Marianist Retreat.

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.

President Benjamin Harrison home in Cape May Point, NJ

The back of the photo reads, “Grandpa Harrison’s at Cape May Point. Occupied in summers while he was president, afterwards sold.” Courtesy of the President Benjamin Harrison Home. 

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,

John Wanamaker

The original receipt from Hand’s Central Market. Click to enlarge. Courtesy of the President Benjamin Harrison Home.

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.

First Lady Caroline Harrison. Photo courtesy President Benjamin Harrison Home.

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,

Benj Harrison

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. 


Skee-Ball: The Making of a Seaside Classic

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Cape May Magazine

Somehow, Skee-Ball seemed easier to play when I was smaller. I didn’t have to bend over to roll the ball down the alley, and my lower line of sight made it easier to bank shots off the second set of screws on the left side of the lane. I learned last week, however, from the owner of Skee-Ball, Inc., I’d have scored higher if I’d aimed lower on the alley.

Skee-Ball cost a nickel to play from the 1930s to the 1960s. Photo courtesy Skee-Ball, Inc.

For those of you who grew up without the sound of wooden balls smacking into the ball return, Skee-Ball is a popular arcade game played up and down the Jersey coast, and, today, on every continent. There are even 10 Skee-Ball lanes in Moscow’s Gorky Park. The game started much closer to home, however, just up the parkway and across the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia, 101 years ago.

Skee-Ball is an easy game to play. You simply roll balls down an alley into holes assigned various point values. The object is to score points, which generate tickets. Tickets are redeemable for prizes. For many of us, Skee-Ball tickets were practically a form of currency when we were growing up.

I started playing Skee-Ball when I was a child spending summers at my grandparents’ house in Cape May. It cost a nickel to play in the 1950s, the same as it cost my mother to play the 1930s. My cousin and I used to earn our Skee-Ball money by asking people on Philadelphia Beach if we could have their “empties – their empty glass soda bottles – which we’d redeem at the beach stand for 2 cents apiece. Occasionally, we’d work late, past the stand’s closing time, and have to bury our bottles in the sand behind the rock pilings until we could turn them in the next day. Unfortunately, a neighbor of ours also worked the beach, and, one time, found our stash and cashed it in.

We played Skee-Ball nearly every night in the summer and didn’t have much patience waiting for family members to finish dinner so we could race down to the boardwalk. Most of the time, we saved up our tickets all season so we could buy something really good. I remember saving for a present for my mother – a ceramic butter dish with a red-and-brown rooster on its cover. I haven’t seen that dish in decades, but I know it’s in our house somewhere, just waiting to be pressed into service again.

I recall another summer when I was about 10 and I was not in a gift-giving mood. Annoyed I’d been made to try tomato aspic at dinner, I decided to run away and get a job at the Skee-Ball arcade. Rising early the next day, I pedaled off to Frank’s Playland to find Frank and ask him for work. Frank Ravese was short, solid and brusque, at least with 10-year-olds. He always had a cigar in his mouth, a straw cap on his head, and a change apron around his middle that sagged under the weight of hundreds of nickels. His response to my job request was simply, “Kid, you don’t look like you need a job.” Devastated, I pedaled home.

Child’s Play

Women flocked to the game when the lanes were shortened and the balls made lighter. Photo courtesy Skee-Ball, Inc.

Skee-ball was invented for a child, which may explain its enduring hold on children and the young-at-heart and why it tugs so strongly at our memories. Philadelphian J. Dickinson Estes built the game for his son’s birthday in 1909. His gift consisted of a 36-foot-long alley, wooden rails on the sides, and heavy metal balls you’d drop into one of three holes. The game was a hit with his son, so Estes decided to introduce it to a larger audience at the town fair. By 1911, he was manufacturing alleys for the public. but he didn’t advertise, so sales were slow.

A family in the outdoor-amusement industry, the Piesens, bought the rights to Skee-Ball in 1914, propelling the game into a wider and more lucrative market. The game was also made much more player friendly. Lanes were shortened to 14 feet to encourage their use indoors. Metal balls were replaced with heavy plastic, and two circles were added to the target board. Suddenly, women and children could lift the balls and go the distance on the alleys, so they flocked into the arcades. Skee-Ball also became a competitive sport, with an arcade in Atlantic City holding the game’s first national tournament. As the game’s popularity grew, the lanes got even smaller. Ultimately, they were cut down to an even 10 feet, which is the standard size today.

A Philadelphia Story

Skee-Ball has been a Philadelphia company ever since Estes’ son rolled his first ball. The Wurlitzer Company purchased rights to the game in 1935, and sold them a decade later to the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, which modernized the game with electronics, and officially incorporated “Skee-Ball, Inc.” Joe Sladek, a native Philadelphian and a former CPA with Price Waterhouse in New York, bought the company in 1985.

“The owners of Skee-Ball were looking to sell and I was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time,” Sladek explained. “I wanted to come back to Philadelphia, and I wanted to start working for myself at a company I could grow old with.”

Skee-Ball became a competitive sport in 1932 when the first national tournament was held in Atlantic City. Photo courtesy Skee-Ball, Inc.

Two of Sladek’s children have since joined him in his dream. Son Michael runs operations, and daughter Eileen Graham handles marketing and HR. There’s also a grandson, four-year-old Liam, coming up in the business. Liam likes to play Skee-Ball while his mother’s working, so he’s the product “tester,” according to his grandfather. Sladek is CEO and Jeff Hudson is company president.

Today, the family business is based in Chalfont, Pennsylvania less than five miles from where Skee-Ball was created. The company currently manufactures about 2,000 games a year and estimates it has 125,000 alleys in the market today. Customers range from the Chuck E. Cheese and Dave and Buster’s chains to the Family Fun Center and Victoria arcades in Cape May. About 20 people have games in their private homes.

Starting in the 1990s, the company began to expand to a full line of ticket-redemption games, which includes Tower of Power, Super Shot and Skee Daddle, a pint-sized version of Skee-Ball for toddlers in which they simply drop the balls into holes. Ahh, were it that easy for the rest of us.

Staying current with technology is Sladek’s biggest business challenge today.

“Skee-Ball is a very old game,” he said, “and it needs to be constantly updated.”

He’s very proud of one update. A year ago, Apple added a Skee-Ball app to its iPhone offerings. Quickly climbing to Apple’s top10 list of most popular apps, Skee-Ball is still on the list.

Classic Skee-Ball, however, must be played with real balls and actual alleys. Skee-Ball, Inc. sells two models today, the “New Classic,” which sells for $4,000, and the Centennial, which goes for $5,500. The latter was launched last year to commemorate the game’s 100th anniversary. With the exception of 21st century technology, it replicates a game from the 1930s the family found in storage when it bought the company.

“It’s the oldest game we’d ever seen,” said Sladek’s daughter, “It’s made of maple. And it’s like a beautiful piece of furniture.”

Hard Sell

Photo courtesy Skee-Ball, Inc.

Sladek may make his living selling Skee-Ball now, but he wasn’t always a fan. He didn’t even like the game growing up. He preferred video games. His future wife would change that, however.

“She was a fanatic about Skee-Ball,” Sladek remembered. “She used to clean my clock when we played and she still does.” Pressed for actual scores, Sladek will only share that his wife routinely rolls between 240 and 300 points a game and he rolls “less than that.” It’s become a family joke, he said.

Sladek remained a holdout on Skee-Ball even when his kids were young and played pretend Skee-Ball on the beach in Ocean City, New Jersey. Gradually, however, he began to see the benefits of the game.

“Anyone who can pick up a ball can play,” he said. “You don’t have to be 20 and in shape. You can be four or 94. It’s also a very family-oriented experience. There’s competition but there’s also camaraderie.”

Aside from Skee-Ball’s appeal, there are more subtle cues pulling people into the arcades to play. Skee-Ball has distinct music, capable of galvanizing parents as well as their children. It’s music Sladek built into the game in 1986, and it’s music he continues to use today.

“People recognize it,” he said. “It’s like the start of a horse race.”

The Only Games in Town

You can hear those notes only in two places in Cape May today – the Family Fun Center and Victoria Arcade – on the boardwalk. Both are owned by Adele Tiburzio, whose family has been in the amusement park business for 100 years.

“My father wanted to put Skee-Ball in the 1939 World’s Fair in New York,” Tiburzio recalled, “so he applied and got permission to rent two buildings in the fair’s amusement area. We had 100 lanes in those two buildings! I remember my mother taking me to see it when I was 14. It was packed. It put my father on the map.”

Photo courtesy Skee-Ball, Inc.

A year later, Tiburzio joined her father’s business as manager of a Skee-Ball arcade in Willow Grove Park in Pennsylvania. Preferring to own, however, she bought Fun Land from the Tennenbaum family in 1975, and moved to Cape May to run it. Eight years later, she purchased her second arcade, Frank’s Playland, making her – then as now–Cape May’s reigning Skee-Ball operator.

“Everybody loves Skee-ball,” Tiburzio said, who has kept the cost of the game at a quarter so more children can play. “It’s a game of skill and you win prizes. The more you play, the more you get. It’s addictive.”

At 84, Tiburzio still rolls an admirable 300-320 points a game.

“My father taught me how to bank the ball so I could get higher scores,” she said. Bank off the right side, not the left, she advises players.

There were four Skee-Ball venues in town when Tiburzio moved here – Fun Land, now the Family Fun Center; Frank’s Playland, today the Victoria Arcade; Skee-Ball Palace, a former neighbor of the Beach Theatre; and Rickers, a concession on the boardwalk that is vacant today. While there is some debate about which store was the first to offer Skee-Ball, Rickers seems to edge out Frank’s for that distinction. Rickers had two Skee-Ball alleys at the back of the store. My mother and her friends learned to play there in the 1930s. She is candid about her lack of Skee-Ball skills, however. he sometimes over-shot the lane, she said, and her ball would go flying out of Rickers’ back door, presumably rolling into the ocean and scoring nothing.

Standing behind her counter, Tiburzio has watched several generations of families learn, play and teach Skee-Ball. orking 13-hour days over a lifetime of Skee-Ball seasons, she has gained a sort of “Skee-Ball wisdom” about why people play and how their motivation often changes over time.

“The kids play for the pleasure first and the prizes second,” she said. “The older players play purely for the joy of the game. I tell the kids to stay nearby and often people will give them their tickets.” Donna Laudeman, a lifelong resident of Cape May and hostess at the Lobster House, exudes that joy when she talks about Skee-Ball games past and present.

Photo by Macy Zhelyazkova

“I remember the thrill of dropping the nickel in, pulling back the handle, hearing the click as the balls come down one-by-one, and hearing the sound of the balls when they hit,” she said. “It was incredible.”

The game has taken on an even deeper meaning for Laudeman now that she’s an adult.

“I went to play the other day with a friend,” she said. “We were laughing and carrying on, and when we were done, we looked around the arcade for a child we could give our tickets to –someone with a cup of tickets who didn’t have as many tickets as the others. We ended up giving them to girl who was totally surprised. She couldn’t fathom people giving tickets away. The smile on her face was a beautiful thing. It was a win-win totally.”

The game changes for many of us as we grow older. Similar to life, perhaps, we scramble for empty Coke bottles to play the game to win the prize when we’re young. We play for the joy of playing now – or the smile on a child’s face – and we’re happy helping others work toward their prize when we’re older. Who knew a ball, an alley and a set of circles could impart such insights.

Now if I could just find that rooster butter dish.


139 Years and Still Sailing

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Cape May Magazine. The dates have been updated to reflect the current publication. Photographs courtesy of Judy Lord, and postcards courtesy Don Pocher, both members of the Corinthian Yacht Club of Cape May.

There was no Harbor. There was no Canal. The paint color on your cottage, store or bordello was entirely your own business. At least no one could argue that it wasn’t “authentic.” Few quibbled over morals, either. Steamships brought gamblers, families, the wealthy and the devout bound for the religious retreats at Cape May Point. All were dumped pell-mell right on the sands at Sunset Beach. South Cape May was dry and populated. East Cape May was under water. The country was in a recession that began with a sharp drop in 1873 and then lazily spread out all over the rest of the decade, creating havoc elsewhere in the land. But far from all that madness, the boathouses of would-be yachtsman from Philadelphia lined cool, breezy Madison Avenue overlooking the Cape May Sound, at least according to the club’s website.

The Cape May Yacht Club, circa 1907.

The Corinthian Yacht Club of Cape May started in 1872, the same year as its predecessor in London, the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club. The Cape May launch came about a year after the city’s large hotels put up the money to begin the Cape May Cup and a year before the recession hit. The club’s roots were in Philadelphia. Once a powerful maritime presence, Philly has had its share of ups and downs. It’s also had its share of Corinthians: wealthy sportsmen like Wanamaker and Drexel who embraced the Olympic spirit of amateur competition, then refocused it as an excuse to keep boisterous and low-brow professional sailors out of their clubs.

The Corinthian Movement swept through Britain and the States like a very affluent fever. According to the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club’s own archives, “The members of the new club in 1872 were pleased to be known as ‘Corinthians,’ emphasizing their intention to helm their own boats, although paid hands were still allowed. The term was greatly used in the sporting world of those days and perhaps those who had received a classical education connected it with the Isthmian Games held at Corinth in honour of Poseidon and found it singularly appropriate for yachtsmen.”

Club House of the Corinthian Yacht Club, circa 1918

Can’t you just hear those early Corinthians now? “Isthmian? Steer it myself? Right you are. Now how do you steer this thing?”

Before then, wealthy yacht owners enlisted the help of professional captains to help them win races or nip up to the Great Egg. Few of them could actually steer their own crafts before the movement began. Fascinatingly, fewer still checked their history. The Isthmian games were never about Poseidon (it was a funeral rite for Melicertes). The games occurred about as far inland as you can get on a land bridge behind the city of Corinth with plenty of room for nautical games like chariot racing and poetry competitions. Ahh, Corinth. How little we knew ye.

But history is a wonderful and funny thing. Rich boys go to school, get a vague idea about true Olympic spirit and truces between nations and garlands of celery in their hair (yep celery) and grow up to buy beautifully “yar” little sea crafts they didn’t want to share with stinky sailors. End result, you had to have learned sailing as an amateur to make it into their cup races and clubs – preferably a rich, well-connected and well-behaved amateur. Although later they made special exemptions for wealthy men who’d learned in the Navy. It wasn’t long before these men brought the notion of elegant sportsmanship with them to Cape May, where it flourished.

Laser race in the harbor

To this day, the Corinthian Yacht Club of Philadelphia boasts that it is one of the oldest in the country dating from the mixture of older “Corinthians” that came together in 1892. Older still, the Corinthian Yacht Club of Cape May has held its charter since 1872, in one way or another. Before then, one could enjoy the excitement of a boat race in other ways: charter a small sailboat called the Harriet Thomas for daytrippers. Or if you could afford a yacht of your own and find a local Cape May pilot to steer it, the thrills of the shoals and canyons could be yours by the week. Then there was the early Cape May Cup: starting from the Iron Pier at the end of Decatur Street and looping around Five Fathom Light which, at that time, was still a ship. Now, sadly, it’s just a large buoy about 14.7 miles off the coast of Cape May.

After the amateurs took over the racing scene, one of the Philadelphia Corinthian Clubs won several Cape May Cups. So did their rival the New York Yacht Club. The highlight of the Cup came in 1903, when the Prince of Wales himself won the race on his yacht, the Britannia. The future of the elegant yacht club seemed secure, and when Cape May Harbor was created beginning in 1903, it only made sense that the new headquarters for all things boaty be there.

What of the local sailors and their sailing yachts? Actually, there were a few. They started the Cape May Yacht Club in 1872 and moored at Schellenger’s Landing. Then they built a new clubhouse on what was then Cape Island Creek. We now know it as the “Boathouse Row” between Washington and Lafayette streets just off the harbor. Although these local sailors may not have been ready to rub elbows with His Majesty, their cozy little clubhouse became one of the hottest tickets in town. There they were in 1907, looking over what was going to be the most exciting public works project in history! A harbor for Cape May! A channel to the Atlantic Ocean! New dry land (provided by the dredge spoils of the channel) from Schellenger’s Landing to Madison Avenue! Not only was Cape May getting a fancy, deep new harbor – the island was growing bigger in the process! What could go wrong?

We may never know exactly what prompted the fight, but by 1913 the Cape May Yacht Club was split in half, with the wealthier half becoming the new members of the old Corinthian Yacht Club. They instantly set about building a much fancier clubhouse on Yale Avenue. They dedicated their new palace (complete with guest rooms, verandas looking out over the water, and a huge turret) on the same day in 1913 that the entire harbor was dedicated. The boating world turned out for the dedication. By sheer proximity the new Corinthian clubhouse was oohed and ahhed over by visiting dignitaries, crowds of the curious and jealous yachtsmen. The passing destroyers Jenkings, Fanning and Vixen admired the Corinthian’s fancy clubhouse so much the Navy requisitioned it when World War I began the very next year. Instead of lobster salad and the swankiest of sets, the beautiful structure became a part of the war effort.

The enthusiasm for the Yacht Palace must have paled in the face of the Great War. After the fighting ended, the building became a boys’ camp. (Ironically, the Navy took it back again at the beginning World War II, this time making it a permanent part of the Coast Guard Base. What’s left of it is now used to house flammable materials, according to the Corinthian website. Imagine for just a moment what it was built to be, and realize it’s now an expendable shack.)

Offshore fleet

World War II ended and the last time anyone had heard of the Corinthian Yacht Club – even in passing – had been in the early ‘40s. “They disappeared,” says Jack Sayre, one of the longest running members of the current Corinthian Yacht Club. Kirby Thompkins tried to bring the old club back with the Peter Shields as headquarters, but after three years even that ended. Had too much time passed? Had the world moved on too much?

Maybe only in part. “In 1948, a group of 15 college students got together and called ourselves the Harbor Sailing Club,” says Jack Sayre.

“We started out across the harbor [off Ocean Drive]. Then the city gave us some land at the end of the street [at Buffalo and Delaware avenues]. Our first ramp was two telephone poles. We sailed a mixed bag of sailboats – whatever we could get.” The determined crew got together to clear out the underbrush and trash on the waterfront – each bringing his own equipment, spending his own money, and working like dogs. They attracted some attention leveraging it into fund-raisers, balls, fashion shows, and a lot of respect. Over the next few years, they bought new boats, and constructed a bulkhead of $50 concrete blocks (with members’ names on them) big enough to be a dance floor in a pinch.

Circa 1970

The sailing world took note. “Well, some people from the newspapers came and took our pictures,” says Jack. “Some of the original members of the old Corinthian Yacht Club saw those pictures and came to us. They said, ‘We have a name, we have some money in the bank, and we have a liquor license.’ The only thing they asked was that we use their name. The old Corinthian clubs have a kind of affiliation with each other – a kind of informal understanding. They extend privileges to each other.” The kids just wanted to sail, and now they not only had the prestige of one of the oldest names in sailing, they had the ability to build a clubhouse of their own, make some money and do it up right. So in 1959, the plucky little Harbor Sailing Club became the newest member of the Corinthian athletic family.

The Corinthian Yacht Club name finally found the sailors it needed to flourish. In the last 50 years, the Corinthian has grown bigger and the clubhouse lovelier, true enough. But more importantly, the Corinthian sailors are finally doing what those elegantly muddled sportsmen originally intended: bringing the pure spirit of competition and good sportsmanship to the beautiful science of sailing.

“We’re 760 members strong and financially sound,” says Jack Sayre with notable pride. “We have an active J24 fleet, an active 420 fleet, and active Laser and Sunfish fleets. And we have an Optimist fleet – that’s a small boat for the little guys. We offer sailing lessons to the little ones every summer. Parents don’t have to be a member. That doesn’t matter if the children are interested.” They have adult sailing classes, too, so it’s officially never too late to learn. They host regattas, kids’ races and fundraisers for other local charities in their clubhouse overlooking the harbor.

The Corinthian Yacht Club today.

Now, 139 years later there is a Harbor, there is a Canal. The paint color on your cottage, store or bordello is everybody’s business and subject to Historic Preservation Commission approvals. Members of the Cape May Corinthian Yacht Club can sit on the club’s veranda or look out the large picture window of the new second story and see members’ sailboats bobbing in the harbor among the sleek, rich yachts that tie up elsewhere, the Coast Guard cutters, the whale and dolphin watchers, kayakers, commercial fishing trawlers. They all ply the same waters. They all vie for the same sea space – forced democracy in the day of a still members-only sailing club.

As for the clubhouse itself, well, I’m sorry to say there’s no turret. Hey, what do you expect? It was built entirely by amateurs.

Visit the Corinthian Yacht Club of Cape May online at www.cyccm.com.

 


Where is Cape Island?

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Cape May Magazine. Vintage map and postcard courtesy of Robert W. Elwell, Sr.

Cape Island Creek flowing by the Lobster House.

Cape Island received its name because it was separated from the mainland by a small creek.

In 1691 a map by Thomas Budd showed that Cape Island was a little spot on that map of Cape May County.  The spot was at the south end of the map, which showed a peninsula.  On a later map, dated 1850, by Nunan which was more distinct and better drawn, one can see clearly the area called Cape Island.

An island is, by definition, a tract of land completely surrounded by water, but not large enough to be called a continent.  The area that showed Cape Island on the Nunan map was surrounded by a small creek, hence Cape Island. Later, the small creek was named Cape Island Creek. The area named Cape Island would become the City of Cape May in 1851.

Most people believe that Cape May City was named after Cornelius Jacobsen Mey and, in a way, it was. Captain Mey (the Mey was later anglicized to be spelled with an “a” – May) was a Dutch sea captain who explored the Delaware Bay and River in his ship Glad Tidings. He was appointed the first director of New Netherland (most of New Jersey) in 1623. Captain Mey named the peninsula after himself with the “Cape” being the peninsula and the “Mey” being his last name.  So in essence he really named the area of Cape May County.

The end of the creek at Mt. Vernon Street entrance to the beach.

Nunan’s Cape Island was an area of land surrounded by a creek or ditch. It was said to be about three miles long with its broadest part about one-half mile wide. The boundaries of Cape Island started at the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape May Inlet – which was formerly known as the Cold Spring Inlet. Going south, the boundary continued about 3,500 feet past what is now the Third Avenue jetty at the south end of Beach Avenue. Around this point there was another small inlet which dumped into the Atlantic Ocean, which is now filled in. This was part of Cape Island Creek, which ran to what was called Mt. Vernon Bridge on Broadway, near Grant Street.

The boundary ran from Mt. Vernon Bridge up Broadway to West Perry Street, making a turn east to where Cape May Miniature Golf Course is located today at West Perry and Jackson streets. There, Cape Island Creek picked up again and ran northerly somewhat parallel to Lafayette Street until it reached Schellenger’s Landing.  The first little bridge one goes over going out of town is called Cape Island Creek Bridge. The Cape Island boundary follows the creek past the Lobster House and the channel back to the starting point of Cape May Inlet and the Atlantic Ocean. Thus, it is Cape Island Creek that made Cape Island and, by law, the name was changed to the City of Cape May in 1875.

Cape Island Creek at the bridge on Elmira Street.

The next reference to Cape Island after the Budd map of 1691 was when George Eaglesfield, in 1699, built a causeway connecting the island with the mainland.  The first legal reference to Cape Island was in 1796 when a law was passed to make a road on which boats could be stowed. The History of Cape May County, New Jersey, published in 1897 by Lewis T. Stevens, does not name the road and I can only guess that it may have been Lafayette Street which was a cow path in the early days. Later it was a convenience for wagons and finally adopted as a street.

Where is Cape Island? In simple terms it is where the City of Cape May stands today. In 1848 the village of Cape Island adopted a borough organization form of government. In 1851 it became incorporated as the City of Cape Island with Isaac M. Church as the Mayor. Two other charters were subsequently procured as necessity arose, one in 1867 and another in 1875, when the name of Cape Island was changed to the City of Cape May.

To the average person, boundaries mean very little. But amateur historians around Cape May cringe when they see references in the newspaper or other print to Cape Island when it is not in the confines of the old Cape Island boundaries.  For instance, West Cape May’s slogan says it is in the “heart of Cape Island” when, in the true sense, they are not in the historic Cape Island boundaries. One of the reasons for much of this confusion is that in the early days of World War II the military cut the Cape May Canal through from the Cape May Harbor to the Delaware Bay in order in enhance military operations for the Navy. As a result, many people hearing the phrase Cape Island and crossing over the waterway coming into the Cape Mays think of everything south of the Cape May canal as Cape Island. When, in reality, it was Cape Island Creek that separated Cape Island from the mainland and made Cape Island an island. Hence its name.

Cape Island Creek shown running across the top of an aerial shot of the City of Cape May, circa 1930. Click for full size.

Even if you “Google” Cape Island on the computer, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, has Cape Island all wrong. It says it is “a man-made island at the southern tip of Cape May County” which is totally incorrect. It also says “it consists of Cape May, Cape May Point, West Cape May, and portions of Lower Township.” In reality, Cape Island is made up of only Cape May City. Wikipedia also says that “Cape Island Creek, for a while, was the divider between the mainland and the (smaller) island, but it was mostly filled in and only a small part remains.” This is totally wrong – all of Cape Island Creek is intact except a small portion where Cape May City borders the Township of Lower (at South Cape May beach). Again, this misconception stems from looking at the Cape May Canal which additionally separates the lower end of Cape May County from the mainland. Cape Island is really an island within an island and has been since World War II.

Today, knowing that Cape May thrives on its history, several businesses use the words Cape Island to give their name an old-time feeling. For instance: Cape Island Appraisals, Cape Island Bicycles, Cape Island Campground and Cape Island Gardens.  The only institution that can use Cape Island authentically is the Cape Island Baptist Church since it dates back to when the City of Cape May was Cape Island. Some of Cape May’s best history comes from when Cape May City was Cape Island. Whether we call ourselves Cape Island or Cape May, the fact remains that we are the “Nation’s Oldest Seashore Resort.”