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Pirate treasure in Cape May County?

Illustration of William "Captain" Kidd overseeing a treasure burial by Howard Pyle

According to an old undated newspaper filed away at the Cape May County Museum, an author identified only as Z.H. recalls a story told to him about Captain Kidd’s treasure supposedly buried in Cape May County.


[This story was told to me] during the cold, winter evenings around a glowing wood fire. I was but a small lad and a silent listener. I have thought often of the sore disappointment of the actors in the drama of this story remembered by me as if only heard last evening.

On a certain cloudless night in the 1870s, when at near midnight, by the light of the moon, it was quiet as a grave and the stillness was broken only by the flapping of sail, the rush of the incoming tide and the roar of the surf on the sandy beach.

After making our boat secure and lowering the sail, we hurriedly secured our picks and shovels and crossed to a point on the beach marked by a stake in the soft beach sand. Only the day before had we determined upon this very spot, by the ranges that stood on Nummy’s Island, the Five Mile Beach, and by one dead cedar tree that stood alone on the beach to the north.

I was a little nervous. It seemed to me that my heart beats could be heard a 100 yards away. We said little, but after reaching the spot we lost no time in removing the loose sand. One of my companions had not been at work more than 20 minutes when we heard him say, ‘Here it is. I just struck it with my shovel!’ And striking it several times it gave forth a dead, metallic sound. Our anxiety was intensified and our hopes seemed near realization.

I stopped shoveling and was standing erect, when I could discern some object moving. I watched the object for a few seconds to satisfy myself I was still alive. The object appeared to be approaching us. As it grew nearer, we were to see that it was the outline of a man. On it came, nearer and nearer; this form of a man and at his heels a large dog. A hasty consultation determined our course of action. We made a hasty retreat to our boat and we fled that ghostly shadow of a man on the beach.

Boy that I was, my interest at high pitch, I asked, “And, did you go back the next day?”‘

“Yes, my boy,” he sadly said. “We did not discover the metal box, but something else instead. It was the imprint in the soft sand of a heavy box or chest weighing many pounds being pulled across the sand. Deep footprints indicated that it had been no light task even for a strong man to drag the metal box and its contents up among the sand hills of the beach where we lost all trace of the trail. And to this day none of us know the contents of the box and whether it was part of the buried bounty of Captain Kidd, the pirate, found by some lucky treasure hunter, or the form of the pirate himself stalking the beach with his dog that clear moonlight night at half past midnight.”

– Z.H.

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:


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. 

Working at the Top: Cape May’s Lighthouse Keepers

This article originally appeared in Cape May Magazine‘s Fall 2007 edition.

Mayhugh Palmer Tees inside the lighthouse.

Mayhugh Palmer Tees inside the lighthouse.

She prefers working at the top.

Saturday mornings at 8:15 a.m., this slender dark haired woman, moving with a dancer’s grace, ascends the 199 steps to the look-out at the Cape May Lighthouse. This is her ritual, no matter the sea-swept winds, rain and fog that sometimes shroud the red cap atop the cream tower that is Cape Island’s most visible landmark. On a clear day she can see 20 miles in all directions. This July morning the sun splashes millions of diamonds on the sapphire sea. The light salty breezes rustle her log book as she writes.

She pauses, touches the rail, and circles the observation deck, absorbing the 360-degree view from 136 feet high. She scans the horizon for oil tankers, fishing boats, sloops, schooners and ferries. “Flounder must be running,” she says to herself, observing a village of vessels.

Who is this solitary figure? An apparition, the lost spirit of Florence Arabelle “Belle” Palmer who assumed keeper duties when her husband Harry suffered a serious heart attack in 1933?

Photograph by Thomas Michael Mann

Photograph by Thomas Michael Mann

A surreal phantom she certainly is not. She has a striking resemblance to Cape May’s last lighthouse keeper, Harry Hall Palmer. She is his descendant, his granddaughter– Mayhugh Palmer Tees, who inherited his proclivity for life at the top. Like her grandfather, she is a lighthouse keeper, and has been for 11 years. She is one of several contemporary keepers of the Cape May Lighthouse, a museum since 1988, telling its 148-year history and lore to the 100,000 visitors each year.

“I come early for my watch at the top,” she says, “a half hour or so to meditate and enjoy the beauty, solitude and quiet my grandfather must have experienced at this high level. It is my peace to absorb the power of nature and stay connected to the Palmer family. They lived in that white house down there.”

This only surviving keeper’s house was built in 1860. (It is now the private home of the Cape May Point State Park superintendent.) Originally there were two identical white clapboard cottages, one and one-half stories, with red trim and green shutters. The grounds that ran toward the sea were surrounded with white-washed fences. The basement and walkways were red brick. The first floor featured three rooms, front and back porches, and a stairway to four second floor bedrooms. (One of the houses was later expanded to accommodate two keeper families. It was burned by vandals in 1968.)

LIghthouse Keeper Harry Palmer. Photograph courtesy of MAC.

LIghthouse Keeper Harry Palmer. Photograph courtesy of MAC.

Mayhugh’s grandfather and family—wife, three daughters and son– arrived at their new home at the Cape May Light – the official name- in 1924. Nature forced them to depart the 1767 Cape Henlopen Lighthouse, which was teetering and tottering seaward. They were sad to leave their beloved Delaware, but on crossing the hazardous shoals in Delaware Bay, a bad storm brewed with gale force winds. Daughter Ada later told her son Charles Givens, “We were so seasick and scared that we were all happy to land safely, and start our new life at Cape May Light.” (Two years later in 1926, stormy waters undermined Cape Henlopen Lighthouse and the 45-foot
tower collapsed into the sea.)

His first year at Cape May Light, Harry Palmer earned $960. Stamps were two cents. Calvin Coolidge occupied the White House, Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra introduced George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and daughter Ada was pulling grass from lighthouse brick walkways, dreaming of a flapper’s dress and hairdo.

Harry Palmer (center) and family

Harry Palmer (center) and family

The post of lighthouse keeper entailed a unique lifestyle for the keeper and his family. The duties were often lonely and tedious and could be downright dangerous when storms buffeted the lantern. It was especially perilous if weather forced the keeper to climb from the watch room to the lantern landing and remove snow and ice from the 16 windows 12 stories up. Harry Palmer, like the long line of keepers before him, night after night, climbed the 217 steps from the Oil House with two and one-half gallons of fuel to fire the light just before dusk and make sure it was extinguished just after dawn. The four-hour vigil, or watch, was alternated with an assistant keeper or two. A watch included assisting with sea disasters, if necessary, and keeping a log of fuel, weather and passing ships. Lenses that reflected the light had to be kept sparkling, brass shined, windows cleaned, the tower and top ball painted. They were the air traffic controllers of their day, writes John Bailey, in his book Sentinel of the Jersey Cape.

Harry Palmer was made of the right stuff for the job. When it came time to paint the lantern roof, and the ventilator ball on top, his daughter Ada told her children, “Father put a ladder on the watch look-out, threw a rope around the ball, and pulled himself up to the roof, waved and painted. All the while, Mother below was protesting loudly.”

Inspection reports indicate Harry Palmer was a meticulous lighthouse keeper. He nurtured his gardens with the same precise energy. He won awards for his hydrangeas. His vegetable garden covered half an acre. Ada’s daughter Harriet says her grandfather was “a very caring caretaker.” He loved peaches, fresh and preserved. He took great pride in his pole beans, tomatoes and corn. His wife stored the canned summer vegetables and prepared pickles in the bottom of what had been the 1847 lighthouse.

Photograph by Thomas Michael Mann

Photograph by Thomas Michael Mann

“They were a close family,” says grandson Charles Givens, a commercial crab fisherman. At night, the Cape May Light falls on his house on nearby New England Road. It gives him a sense of comfort and family connection. “They had a good life at the Lighthouse. When we get together, all the conversations point eventually to life at the light. Grandfather was highly respected in the U.S. Lighthouse Service and at Cape May Point. The locals would come to the Lighthouse for water. It was a gathering place to exchange news, and trade the day’s catch for Grandfather’s produce.”

Though keeper Palmer and his wife never drove an automobile, and were quite isolated, they enjoyed a social life. “They entertained famous ornithologists for dinners from their garden,” says Charles. “Both Witmer Stone, author of the Bird Studies of Old Cape May, and [noted ornithologist] Charles Urner were guests. Grandfather described birds and migration activity he observed from the tower.”

There have been more than 30 personalities involved in three lighthouses at Cape May Point. The first, built in 1823, was 68- feet tall, and is now lost to the sea, the casualty of erosion. The second, built in 1847, had a 78-foot tower and was replaced because it was poorly constructed. This third existing structure was first lighted on Halloween, 1859.

Keeper Caleb Woolson and family. Click for full image.

Keeper Caleb Woolson and family. Click for full image.

The second to last keeper of the Cape May Light was Caleb Swain Woolson, who, like keeper Palmer, has many descendants living within a few miles of the still flashing beacon.

Woolson tended the light for 41 years, from assistant in 1883 to retirement in 1924. He fell off a ladder and broke his wrist and hurt his hip as an assistant, but the next year -1903-was promoted to keeper at a salary of $760 a year. Theodore Roosevelt occupied the White House. Ford Motors incorporated and sold its first Model A. Gas was a nickel a gallon.

The Woolson family. Click for full image.

The Woolson family. Click for full image.

A Woolson descendant, Furman Lee, of nearby Erma, says his great-grandfather stabled cows in the cut-off base of the 1847 lighthouse. “They were self sufficient,” he says. “They produced their own milk and grew vegetables in two big fields.  His daughter, my grandmother, Bertha, bought a house at 402 Holly Avenue, at Cape May Point, for $7.47 at a tax sale in 1901. I was born in that house, just a few steps from Lake Lily, in 1932. The house is still there. My mother sold it for $6,300 in 1963. We were always Pointers. We swam Lake Lily in the summer, ice skated in winter. We walked dirt paths to the beach and school. It was very rural, very quiet. At night, the only light, the beacon and its consistent flash.”

The beacon has been the rhythm to lighthouse life, through historic times and weather, good and bad.

Now, in high season, almost 1,000 visitors a day are drawn to the lighthouse to experience history, the daily steps of the keepers, the weather and the most spectacular views at the tip of New Jersey. Keeper David Yeager, whose granddaughter Jennifer Keeler recently became engaged to Keith Snyder at the top, has been telling visitors stories and answering questions since 1989.

Caleb Swain Woolson. Click for full image

Caleb Swain Woolson. Click for full image

The Cape May Light would not be preserved as it is today if it were not for one of its angels, Tom Carroll, a retired Coast Guard captain. He stayed on in Cape May with his wife Sue in the 1980s to throw all their energies into restoring the old Mainstay Inn on Columbia Avenue into one of the best B&Bs in America. Tom says today he would not have wanted to be a lighthouse keeper. “Too boring and lonely for me,” he says.

But a keeper he is. It was Tom who approached the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC) and with persistence and patience cajoled the non-profit organization into a complicated lease agreement that in 1986 saw the deteriorating lighthouse open to the public, but just the bottom. The top was in a sad state of decline. It was rusted, leaking and unsafe, even though it just had been named a National Historic Landmark.

The present lighthouse appears from behind the remains of the 1847 lighthouse. Photograph taken during the mid-70s by Vincent T. Marchese. Click for full image.

The present lighthouse appears from behind the remains of the 1847 lighthouse. Photograph taken during the mid-70s by Vincent T. Marchese. Click for full image.

The rallying cry was “Save the Lighthouse.” Thousands of lighthouse fans bought T-shirts, bricks for $2 each, steps for $100, windows for $500. In just two years the hard work of MAC officers and volunteers climaxed with a ribbon cutting on May 18, 1988. The tower was open to the public for tours, MAC charging admission and hosting a gift shop in the Oil Room to raise more money for continued restoration.

The miracle of the Cape May Lighthouse restoration is that other communities followed the formula so painstakingly worked out here, and have saved many other sentinels of the shore as public places to learn of a beacon’s safety and assurance.

Perhaps the best time to visit the Cape May Lighthouse is at night when precisely one-half hour before sunset, the light is lit. Standing beneath, head craned upward, the cream tower glowing at the red top, that steady beacon against the star-studded sky is comforting as a heartbeat. “The lights are the heart and soul of maritime history and the shore,” says Tom Carroll. “They are steady, friendly, welcoming open arms of light.”

Mayhew Palmer Tees, in navy blue uniform, much simpler than the dress blues with shiny brass buttons that her grandfather keeper Harry Palmer wore, once again climbs the 199 steps to the top. She opens the doors where her grandfather stood watch for nine years, and as he did more than 70 years ago, she lifts the cover of the log book.

She faithfully writes in the book every watch.

5/15/04 “A wedding at the Pavilion. The bride, groom and photographer made the climb to the top. She climbed in sleeveless white gown with a flowered headband, and a single white rose.  A beautiful bride.”

9/11/04 “Three years ago today I will never forget. New York was in chaos. By the time I arrived at the Lighthouse a plane had hit the Pentagon and then Flight 93 destined for its day in history. We must always remember and never forget 9/11/01. I still turn my eyes north and look to the air.”

9/10/05 “The Hill family from Michigan climbed up, walked outside, and got a cell phone call from their Army Sgt. son stationed in Baghdad. The parents described the view.  How extraordinary.”

And so do other descendants:

7/07/04 “We are related to Caleb Woolson who worked at the Lighthouse 1918 to 1924. My family came to this area in 1678, and worked as whalers in the bay and ocean.” Donald F. Woolson, Chicago.

8/15/04 “Family was one of the original Cape May families, came over on The Mayflower. Family ran the stage coach between Philadelphia and Cape May. After many years, we have all finally left Cape May, unfortunately.” Geoffrey S. Hughes.

8/16/04 “It is a shame I missed Mr. Hughes when he was here. I have Hughes in my family tree which also includes the names of Corson (of Hereford Light, in North Wildwood), Hand, Pierce, Swain, Schellenger and Leaming.” Mayhugh Palmer Tees.

The Cape May beacon, that steady, friendly, welcoming arm of light still shines bright.

Who’s Been Here? The Famous Visitors of Cape May

What do Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Ford and Norman Rockwell have in common? At one point in their famous lives, they all came to Cape May.

For more than a century, Cape May has attracted a list of notable celebrities and historical figures; from presidents and actors to musicians and sports legends.

You may have heard about John Philip Sousa performing at Congress Hall or Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Harrison summering in Cape May. But did you realize the town has attracted many more well-known guests?

ColonialHouse2The Greater Cape May Historical Society has conducted extensive research on the many renowned persons who have come to Cape May, whether to live, vacation or to just stop in and have a meal. The Society’s current exhibit, “More Fascinating Famous Visitors to Cape May” is a follow-up to a successful exhibit held last year at its museum located in the Colonial House.
Museum curator Pat Pocher said the idea for the exhibit came from a computer database of famous Cape May visitors she’s working on. “The idea was to create a list that can be used by researchers in an organized form,” Pocher said. From the list sprang a fountain of information about famous visitors — photographs, writings and anecdotes.

While documentation exists as evidence that many of these people visited Cape May, personal accounts are also abundant. Besides official written sources are eyewitness accounts of encounters. “Some of the information is anecdotal, where people will come to us and say ‘I waited on this person at the Mad Batter,’” Pocher said, referring to occasions when entertainer Joan Rivers and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia dined in Cape May. “It’s part anecdote and part reference to old histories.”
For example, while literary sources pin down Oscar Wilde’s appearance at the Stockton Hotel, mentions of Mark Twain’s stay are only heard in passing and so are tougher to prove. “Someone said Twain was here but we haven’t nailed it down yet. It makes sense because this was the place to be in Victorian times,” adds Pocher.

MartnLutherKingJrThe exhibit contains photographs, memorabilia and notations on the many famous actors, musicians, sports heroes, politicians and historical figures who visited Cape May. Some of the visitors in this year’s exhibition are surprising — American icons like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglas and Civil War figures like “Stonewall” Jackson, William Tecumseh Sherman share the exhibit with celebrities like Linda Ronstadt and Eddie Cantor.

The Mainstay’s Sue Carroll uncovered evidence of Confederate commander Stonewall Jackson’s visit to Cape May in the “Life and Letters of General Thomas J. Jackson,” by his wife Mary Ann Jackson. “In 1858, after a visit to Fortress Monroe…We then went by steamer to Cape May, where he luxuriated in the surf bathing.”

lloydCape May’s old Victorian hotels have had their share of famous guests through the years. The Windsor Hotel saw such notable visitors as Frank Lloyd Wright, railroad tycoon Diamond Jim Brady, Grace Kelly, William Randolph Hearst, Henry Ford and Joseph Kennedy. George Gordon Meade, Commander of the Army of the Potomac, was a guest at the Stockton Hotel’s inaugural ball in July 1869. Meade biographer, Guillermo Bosch found a reference to Meade and Cape May in “The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade.” According to Steven’s “History of Cape May,” in 1890, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman visited his daughter, who was residing in a Columbia Avenue cottage. Newspaper accounts of the time reported that Sherman was a guest at the Stockton Hotel.

The Friends General Conference attracted many prominent speakers over the years. The Quaker conference was held twice a year from 1928 to 1968. Civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was invited to speak to the Conference in June 1958. Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck visited in June 1950, also as a speaker at the Conference. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas went to Cape May Point and addressed the group in June 1962.

Also of historical significance is evidence that Frederick Douglas passed through Cape May in 1859 along the Underground Railroad, on his way to New York.

Several well-known actors and entertainers have visited Cape May at various points in their careers to perform, or just to relax. Actor Burgess Meredith performed in Cape Playhouse in 1932, and even married one of the cast members! Cape May Point Mayor Springer performed the ceremony. Entertainer Eddie Cantor came to the resort aboard a yacht during the 1930s. According to news accounts, musician Linda Ronstadt visited Cape May in July 1996 with her children. Ronstadt stayed at the Queen Victoria Bed & Breakfast during her visit. She had previously visited Cape May some time in the 1980s with Nelson Riddle’s orchestra. Actress Brooke Shields was spotted in 1989 bouncing along Beach Avenue in a white truck, and dancer Edward Villella, visited in both 1994 and 2001 and stayed at the Puffin. Lawyer-to-the-stars F. Lee Bailey was spotted in 1976 near the Marina.

Rockwell2Artists have drawn inspiration and relaxation from Cape May. Andrew Wyeth was in Cape May during 1992-93 making sketches. A painting of his of a life boat and a nun, titled “Cape May” now exists in a private collection. Norman Rockwell vacationed in Cape May Point in 1962, while Howard Pyle, the so-called “Father of American Illustration” visited in 1902.

Athletes have also frequented Cape May. Former Philadelphia Eagles star Ron Jaworski was a customer at the Ball Park Café. Other sports figures vacationing in Cape May have included Yankee pitcher Sparky Lyle, Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham, Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer, skater Scott Hamilton, Yankee Joe Pepitone, Giants coach Bill Parcells and boxer Billy Conn.

In the political realm, the following presidents visited Cape Island, many before they became president: Andrew Jackson (1839), William Henry Harrison (1840), Franklin Pierce (1855), James Buchanan (1858), Ulysses S. Grant (1869, 1874), Chester Arthur (1883), Benjamin Harrison (1889 through 1891 and 1893), and Woodrow Wilson in 1911.

Cape May’s charms were also beheld by men running for the nation’s highest office. The following presidential candidates visited Cape May: Henry Clay (1847), William H. Seward (1865), Horace Greeley (1847), James Blaine (1884), Wendell Wilke (1940), George McGovern (1986), Bill Bradley (through the 1990s). Recent evidence turned up new additions regarding visiting politicians. Gerald Ford, George Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Bob and Elizabeth Dole came to Cape May around 1970 to 1973 to
support Charles Sandman’s bid for governor. In the 1960s, George Bush (the father, not the son) was in Cape May to promote an oil venture.

DisplayDisplay1Cape May has been a grand host to foreign visitors, as well. In 1900, Chinese Minister Wu Ting Fang and his wife and son spent the season here. Well-known Siamese twins Chang and Eng entertained at the Washington Hotel with two of their children in 1866.

Some guests have peculiar anecdotes attached to their visits. Psychologist B.F. Skinner came to Cape May around the 1970s or 1980s en route to China with his daughter. Skinner dined at Alexander’s and stayed at the Queen Victoria. Spying one of his books on a shelf, he autographed it, unaware it was a library book borrowed by the hotel’s hostess.

The list of famous guests is far from complete, so the public is welcome to bring their information or accounts of famous visitors to the museum. “The people who come to this exhibit really enjoy it. We’re also trying to have people vote for their favorite famous visitor,” Pocher said.

The exhibit is located at the Colonial House, 653 1/2 Washington Street next to Cape May City Hall and runs from June 15 to September15 and from October 5 through October 14 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Colonial House is closed Sundays. For more information, call (609) 884-9100.

Was Lincoln really in Cape May?

The person who could perhaps be considered the most famous visitor of all remains at the center of a swelling controversy among local historians. It has been rumored for years (with a hotel register the only physical evidence) that Abraham Lincoln stayed in Cape May.  Some believe Lincoln visited in 1849 with his wife. A brittle hotel register from the Mansion House bears the inscription “A. Lincoln & wife.” Whether this is the 16th president’s signature is still the subject of debate. The hotel register is part of the current exhibit, and anyone can compare the hotel registry’s signature to the Great Emancipator’s signature and decide for themselves if Lincoln indeed visited Cape May.


Register from the Mansion House, circa 1849, showing the signature of an "A. Lincoln & Wife"

An historic document with Abraham Lincoln's signature.

An historic document with Abraham Lincoln's signature.

Was Abraham Lincoln in Cape May? Tell us what you think.

Update: It is believed the “A. Lincoln” who signed the register at the Mansion House was a grocer from Philadelphia named Abel Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln was supposedly practicing law in Illinois the day he was meant to have signed the register. Abel Lincoln was reportedly a frequent visitor to Cape May. Ocala Star-Banner, February 12, 1990

Cape May’s Role in History: Pathway to Freedom

William Cowper

William Cowper

In the early years of the American republic, slavery’s role continued to feed the fledgling nation’s economy.

Five hundred years ago, European ships began capturing and transporting Africans across the Atlantic Ocean as part of a burgeoning slave trade.

“I pity them greatly, but I must be mum
For how could we do without sugar and rum?”

William Cowper (1731-1800)
Pity for Poor Africans

The ships left Europe laden with trade goods, obtained slaves from Africa, trading their human cargo in North and South America for New World goods such as tobacco, rum and sugar.

map1During the American Revolution, slavery flourished across the colonies. Many of the slaves owned in the Northern states lived with their slaveholding families on small farms and were relegated to housework or laboring in the fields.

According to an early newspaper account, the first case of slave freedom in Cape May County came in 1790 in a case of the State against John Ware on habeas corpus proceedings of a slave named Negro Jethro: “In appearing to the court that the said Negro Jethro was born on the eighth day of September, 1768, in county of Cape May and that his mother, Charity Briggs, a mulatto woman, was free at the time of birth, and that Jethro was bound by the overseer of the poor to Nathaniel Foster.”

In 1768, Charity Briggs was purchased by John Connell with Jethro. Connell sold her time of service to another slave owner, who also raised Jethro. He then sold Jethro to another slave owner, who sold him in 1788 to John Ware. Since Jethro was born to a free woman, attorney general Joseph Bloomfield granted the slave his freedom.

In New Jersey, the gradual manumission of slavery increased in the early 1800s through legislative efforts.

The New Jersey Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery helped with the passage of an act in 1804 that gradually abolished slavery.

Under the act, children born of slaves after July 4, 1804, were to be freed after serving as apprentices to their mother’s masters. For females this meant freedom after 21 years; for males, 25 years.

douglass“In thinking of America, I sometimes find myself admiring her bright blue sky – her grand old woods – her fertile fields – her beautiful rivers – her mighty lakes and star-crowned mountains.

But my rapture is soon checked when I remember that all is cursed with the infernal spirit of slave-holding and wrong; When I remember that with the waters of her noblest rivers, the tears of my brethren are borne to the ocean, disregarded and forgotten; That her most fertile fields drink daily of the warm blood of my outraged sisters, I am filled with unutterable loathing.”

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895)

This act made New Jersey the last Northern state to abolish slavery.

The abolition law of 1804 freed 12,460 black New Jerseyans by 1820. The number of blacks still held as slaves was 7,557 at that time. But the abolition act of 1804 received criticism from a second New Jersey abolitionist group, the New Jersey Anti-Slavery Society. The society, formed in 1840, submitted petitions to the legislature, arguing the state already made slavery illegal through its “Bill of Rights,” passed by the state’s second constitution.

Even though the society lost a legal battle over this issue, their cries hadn’t fallen on deaf ears. In 1846 the state passed its second major emancipation law, which formally outlawed slavery. While the law outlawed slavery, it didn’t protect all slaves. Under the act, all black children born after the act’s passage were free, but those blacks were to be “apprentices” for life.

The act did offer former slaves greater legal protection; they could sue for their freedom if abused or mistreated and they could not be sold without written consent.

This act was superseded in 1865 by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery nationally.

Yet it was a long time from 1840 until the post Civil War years and in New Jersey, although most blacks were free, many remained in slavery.

The issue drew its share of critics and opponents in New Jersey, but the overall sentiment leaned toward the South. New Jersey supported the doctrine of state’s rights and believed the emancipation of slaves would cause freed bondsmen to sweep the state, competing with whites for employment. The state was firmly under Democratic control in 1860 and 1864, and Abraham Lincoln did not carry New Jersey in both elections.

In 1850, Swedish novelist Frederika Bremer visited Cape May and described a local restaurant employing “a regiment of somewhat above forty Negroes” and of conversations with a Philadelphia abolitionist.

“I have derived pleasure from my acquaintance with an amiable family, or rather two brother-families from Philadelphia, who live in a cottage near here for the benefit of sea-bathing. Mr. F., the elder, is the minister of a Unitarian congregation in Philadelphia, one of the noblest, purest human beings whom God ever created, true, fervent, and full of love, but so absorbed by his anti-slavery feelings that his life and his mind suffer in consequence, and I believe that he would with the greatest pleasure suffer death if by that means slavery could be abolished,” Bremer wrote. “This grief for slavery would have made an end of the noble minister’s life had not his daughter enlivened him every day with new joy and fascination.”

In the antebellum South, a bondsperson’s life was cruel and painful. Many families were broken apart, sold at slave auctions and relocated. Women slaves experienced sexual abuse from their slaveholders. When slaves learned they would be sold, they often fled.

During the years prior to the Civil War, thousands of slaves attempted escape via a system named the Underground Railroad. Many of the runaways were helped along the way by various “conductors,” anti-slavery sympathizers who provided shelter, food and clothing. A runaway would rest at various stops along the Underground Railroad, en route to safe destinations in Canada, Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Mexico or the Indian territory in the west.

But the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 allowed runaway slaves to be recaptured in Northern states and brought back to their Southern masters. Under the act, those aiding escaped slaves faced heavy fines and imprisonment, placing Underground Railroad conductors also at risk.

New Jersey wasn’t a primary destination in the Underground Railroad but a place where slaves were ferried through along the eastern seaboard. Slaves entered New Jersey from Delaware, crossing the Delaware River and landing in Greenwich, New Jersey in Cumberland County, or through Philadelphia.

Not every slave entering new Jersey made it farther north. Some remained living in seclusion in heavily wooded areas and tiny villages.

Harriett Tubman

Harriett Tubman

Harriet Tubman escaped slavery in 1849 from Dorchester County, Maryland. She arrived in New Jersey and later become the most famous conductor in the Underground Railroad, working for a time in the Greenwich Line.

Tubman worked as a cook in Cape May in 1852, earning money to help runaway bondsmen. She learned how the Greenwich Line worked, and of routes in Salem, Cumberland and Cape May counties, including obscure Indian trails.

She made over 19 trips into the South and helped guide 300 runaways northward, earning her the nickname “Moses,” and a bounty on her head.

Edward Turner, a free black landholder in Lower Township, just north of Cape Island, also contributed to the Underground Railroad.

According to Jeffrey Dorwart’s book Cape May County, New Jersey, “Turner’s family intermarried with the Cox, Armor, Trusty and Taylor families, establishing wide kinship ties throughout the county. According to tradition, Turner employed his wagon, remote woodland farm in the Union Bethel community, and family ties to operate an Underground railroad station in Cape may County that shuttled fugitive slaves to Snow Hill (Lawnside), Haddonfield, or other stations farther north.”

According to one spokesperson at the Cape May County Historical Society, there are so many rumors about runaway slaves stopping in Cape May County along the Underground Railroad, but no real evidence to point to actual incidents.

One reason is Cape May’s geographical location on the Delaware Bay, farther from Delaware than Salem or Cumberland counties.

Yet published accounts tell of mariners from Cape May and Atlantic counties, many of whom were free blacks, operating the Underground Railroad line into Greenwich, New Jersey. In the 1850s, fugitives traveled by foot from Cumberland to Cape May County. Lenni Lenape guides assisted runaway slaves through the swamps and bogs at night, avoiding slave catchers out for bounty.


A boat operated between Cape May and Lewes, Delaware then, as it does currently. At night, local mariners operated a route across the Delaware Bay, ferrying slaves across.

Turner may have assisted Harriet Tubman with moving escaped bondsmen through Cape May County. In Emma Marie Trusty’s book, The Underground Railroad Unveiled – Ties That Bound, Turner and notably, churches, were responsible for aiding slaves.

According to Trusty: “We conclude that some members of the Union Bethel community functioned as station masters. Others were said to have hidden slaves in a cave near Cape may Point and on Edward Turner’s farm. Family ties and friendships transcended church denominations. Black church communities functioned as one soul on the Underground Railroad when the need arose.”

While the compassion of the Quakers who populated southern New Jersey helped raise anti-slavery sentiment, it was the free black community itself that provided aid to runaway slaves. In Philadelphia, black minister Richard Allen’s church, the first African Methodist Episcopal Church, known as “Mother Bethel,” secretly housed hundreds of slaves as an Underground Railroad station.

The A.M.E. churches soon spread to communities in southern New Jersey, providing safe havens for slaves on the run.

“Church members in this region were actively engaged in Underground Railroad activity. Members and friends of the Cape May Underground railroad worked as watermen aboard ferry boats,” Trusty writes.

Turner and his family continued operating his Underground Railroad station well into the Civil War. Slavery came to an end nationally following the war, but the Underground Railroad helped thousands find freedom. Cape May’s contribution wasn’t as significant as the major routes through Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, or Boston in the east or Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago in the Midwest, but it did play a role in secluding and moving some slaves.