Al Conly demonstrates how to load and operate a Brown Bess musket. You can see this musket demonstration in person at the Colonial House, 653 ½ Washington Street, from 1-4pm on Wednesdays in July.
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Al Conly demonstrates how to load and operate a Brown Bess musket. You can see this musket demonstration in person at the Colonial House, 653 ½ Washington Street, from 1-4pm on Wednesdays in July.
The Stephen Smith house has stood at 645 Lafayette Street for nearly 170 years. Maybe you’ve walked past it. Maybe you’ve read the plaque out front that offers a brief summary of Smith’s life. But you might not realize that he was a key figure in the pre-Civil War Underground Railroad.
Smith was born into slavery and bought his own freedom, and by the 1840s and ’50s had become one of the wealthiest black men in America, channeling his wealth into education programs, libraries, and schools for free blacks. He founded churches, including the Cape May AME Church on Franklin Street, and the first home for aged African Americans. He owned properties on Decatur, Mansion, and Jackson Streets, and others near Congress Hall.
Smith and William Whipper, his business partner and close friend, owned a lucrative lumber and coal business in Pennsylvania. When large groups arrived in Pennsylvania seeking freedom from the slave state of Maryland–too many to escape by wagon or on foot–Smith and Whipper devised a false end to their railroad cars to conceal them on the journey north.
Smith was a target of racial attacks in Pennsylvania that eventually sent him to Philadelphia and later to Cape May, though it was not immune, since the resort attracted abolitionists and southern planters alike. Still, Smith constructed his retreat, and he also opened a hotel next door that offered $8 beach vacations to African Americans from Philadelphia. He died in 1873.
The Stephen Smith house was saved from the wrecking ball in the 1960s, when it had been slated for demolition under Cape May City’s urban renewal plan. Today, the house is owned by four siblings, the Hamptons, whose grandparents purchased the home in 1932 from Smith’s grandniece. Through grants and donations, they hope to restore the building, which will display artwork, furniture and historic artifacts original to the home–a testament to Smith’s legacy.
For more information on Stephen Smith and to learn about ongoing preservation efforts, visit 645lafayette.com
Historic information for this post taken from Cape May Magazine‘s Fall 2015 article Stephen Smith: Cape May’s Underground Railroad Leader by Barbara Dreyfuss.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Photographs appear courtesy of Robert Elwell, Sr. and the Cape May County Historical & Genealogical Society.
In 1905 Cape May was a thriving national seashore resort. Many of the people coming to Cape May were fans of the new automobile or horseless carriages. They would take their cars on the stretch of sand from Madison Avenue to Poverty Beach for a ride.
In the spring of that year invitations went out to automobile owners in the City of Cape May inviting them to attend a meeting for the purpose of forming an automobile organization with the goal of transforming Cape May City beach into a national automobile speedway. As a result, there was an enthusiastic meeting of a large number of auto owners. A. H. Chadbourne was made temporary president. A. G. Batchelder, secretary of the Racing Board of the Automobile Club of America, who traveled all the way from New York to attend the meeting, was the guest speaker. Thus, the Cape May Automobile Club formed with Edward B. Smith of Philadelphia as its president. Jack Hiscock served as secretary. Fred Betz, III, J. N. Wilkins, and A. L. Depew formed a committee to select the vice presidents and to arrange for the details of final organization.
The beach they wanted to make a speedway was a stretch between the Life Saving Station (just east of Madison Avenue) and Sewell’s Point, where the beginning of the Cold Spring Inlet is located at the Coast Guard base today. Cape May’s beach was described as the best beach in the nation. Only the famous Ormond, Florida beach was considered better for racing new machines. As a result, race dates were set for July 29, August 25, and 26. The races would be run against time.
The organization felt extremely happy with the progress they had made in the first few meetings. Their chance of landing some of the country’s top automobile racers to race on the Cape May beaches would put Cape May on the national map. The race would attract some of the best race car drivers and their automobiles in the country.
Mr. Walter Christie was invited to the Cape May Speedway by the Cape May Automobile Club to see if he could break the world’s record for both the mile and kilometer in his famous 180-horsepower (hp) car. This would be the big event that for the first time would bring thousands to Cape May to witness the attempt. Christie felt confident that he could do this by speeding over the Cape May sand. Using his famous car in the Ormond/Daytona course, he drove a mile in 40 seconds (about 90 mph). This was the fastest mile time ever in an American-built gasoline car. It was reported that since that time, he had increased the power in his car and it would be the Cape May beach where the results would be recorded.
In the early racing days there was a famous Dewar challenge cup. At first, many thought Henry Ford would receive the Dewar cup by default since Walter Ross (who won the cup at Ormond) sold his racing car. Walter Christie sent a challenge to Henry Ford to race him on the Cape May beach where the winner would take possession of this prestigious challenge trophy.
The New York Journal reported that Louis Chevrolet would be coming to Cape May for the races in August to try to break the mile and kilometer records established on the Cape May beach in July by Christie. The Journal went on to report that, “Chevrolet will drive the 120 hp Fiat car which finished second in the recent Gordon-Bennett race in France. The car has been shipped from Italy for the Vanderbilt cup race, but is expected to be here in ample time for the Cape May race.”
Several American records were broken on Cape May sands. They were broken by America’s greatest driving experts of that time. But the race that all eyes were upon was the race on August 25, 1905 between Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet, A. L. Campbell, and Walter Christie. Much was at stake on that summer day, namely prestige for the race car drivers. As for the spectators, jokes flew back and forth along the boardwalk and knickered kids hollered, “Get a horse!” No one that day realized how historically important that August 25, 1905 would be in automotive history.
Prior to the Cape May Automobile Club organizing, Mr. Winton, of Winton Automobile Works of Ohio, traveled to Cape May to test the beach for a race scheduled for August. Mr. Winton’s car was claimed to hold the world’s record for speed and he brought it with him. After he inspected the beach, he claimed Cape May beach to be the finest racing beach that he had ever found. Mr. Chadbourne of Philadelphia, who owned “a very handsome car,” was also in Cape May and made daily runs on the beach. Deeply involved in the automobile era, Chadbourne and Winton were looking to enter one of their cars in the Cape May beach races.
Mr. John Hiscock, a Philadelphia newspaperman, followed the race promoters while in Cape May and felt sure that the race would take place on the Cape May beach. D. Leroy Reeves, of the Philadelphia Ledger, also tagged along with the promoters. He claimed that Cape May beach would be the best place for the race. As word got around, eventually 25 machines (cars) came to Cape May with owners interested in the outcome of the test on Cape May beach.
Members of the Cape May Automobile Club pulled out all stops and did everything within their power to make these events a success. The leading automobiles of the Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and New York areas were being readied for action on the Cape May beach speedway when the racing began.
Cape May City and the committees in charge of the racing details worked feverishly with the anticipation of many prominent automobilists who would come to witness Christie’s record trial on the City’s beaches. The club decided that Mr. S. M. Butler, secretary of the Automobile Club of America, would take charge of the timing apparatus which was his usual assignment in big racing events. Mr. M. A. G. Batchelder, from the American Automobile Association (AAA), agreed to act as referee for the races. Mr. G. F. Wagner would act in the capacity as clerk of the course, which he did for all-important race meets in the country.
The auto club, and really the entire city, was excited about the automobile time trials to be conducted on the Cape May beach speedway. These trials would eventually lead to attempts at breaking the world’s record for speed in gasoline automobiles. Many prominent racing officials came to Cape May to examine its beach to see if it was satisfactory for racing. Among the officials was Robert Lee Morrell, chairman of the racing board of the AAA, who was the leading authority in racing matters in America.
Cape May’s auto club, which arranged for the time trials and races, offered two trophy cups – one to be known as the Cape May Trophy – was valued at $1,000 and the other valued at $500. Both cups were splendid examples of silversmith’s art and designed by J. E. Caldwell of Philadelphia. The Cape May Trophy would be awarded for the best time over a straightaway beach course for one mile. The other cup ($500) called the Kilometer Cup and would obviously be awarded for the best time on the beach’s kilometer course.
The auto club arranged to have seven other events to run the mile course. Amateurs in all makes of cars would be classified as to the horsepower of their cars and they would be trying for the best timed speeds. Chauffeurs and professional drivers would be in other events to show off their talents in handling their employers’ cars. All in all it would be quite a day for Cape May and racing in America. So much excitement was generated in the Philadelphia area that special trains were run on the Pennsylvania Railroad to ensure enthusiasts would get a chance to view the racing at the Cape May Beach Speedway.
Colonel John Tracy, manager of the Lafayette Hotel, said, “The racing would be one of the greatest events in the history of Cape May. I am satisfied that we have the best mile and kilometer course in the country and possibly the world. Should these meetings be held successfully as they now promise to be, a new attraction will be added to the many superior and natural advantages we already possess.”
The race, scheduled for July 29, 1905, was rained out and held the following day.
The Cape May Automobile Club had to get special permission from the AAA to race on a Sunday as the regular rules restricted Sunday racing.
Christie was victorious in his 8 cylinder, 180 hp Blue Flyer and took his great machine over the course several times. In these heats, the times were very close to the record and in three heats his time was 25.2 seconds or 90.72 mph. Finally, as the spectators and officials looked on, he was clocked at 25 seconds flat (89.28 mph) – a new kilometer record.
Christie told a local newspaper reporter, “I am gratified of course, by the performance, but not at all surprised. I believe I can clip a little more off the record on this beach.”
“How about the mile record?” the reporter asked.
“I have always believed I can lower the mile record on the Cape May beach, but conditions must be perfect.” Christie replied.
The Cape May Automobile Club sent out entry blanks for a two-day automobile meet and speed test to be held Friday and Saturday, August 25 and 26, under the official sanction of the AAA racing board. There would be a special prize for a free-for-all event for the mile and kilometer opened to the world. A one-mile gymkhana race; standing start; touring cars with three passengers and cars to be run three-eights of a mile. Also on the roster of events – stop car, unload all passengers who would select umbrellas from a barrel, open them before resuming their seats – car to continue as soon as all passengers were seated with umbrellas raised. First car crossing the mile finish line is the winner. If any umbrella was closed, broken, or turned inside out, the car would be disqualified.
According to Carrie Daly’s diary, August 25th, the first day of automobile racing, was fair all morning with rain starting about 11:30. She wrote that it rained very hard all afternoon. As track conditions were spongy from the rain, some of the racers put off racing until the next day.
An estimated 20,000 spectators viewed the first races. The boardwalk was lined for two miles.
Results of the races of August 25th were: Cedrino, in his 20 hp Fiat won the first event; Kelsey, in his Maxwell, made a good show for the second prize. In the second event, open to women, Mrs. C. C. Fitler, in her Packard with 28 hp, won in 56 seconds.
Events 5, 6, and 9 between the great racing experts were postponed, owing to unfavorable conditions. Henry Ford did not put in an appearance. Christie’s machine was not in perfect condition. Louis Chevrolet’s car was out of kilter.
Only Campbell, with his 80 hp Darracq (Red Devil) was in shape to race. Campbell, to please the crowd, went the kilometer distance in 25.8 seconds (86.51 mph) and 25.2 seconds (88.57 mph) His last trial was only one-fifth of a second behind Christie’s American record. However, had he beaten Christie’s record, it would not have counted officially. Christie, who was a favorite of the spectators, went the distance in 26.8 seconds (83.28 mph) and 26 seconds flat (85.85 mph) with a disabled car.
Cape May was proud of the officials of the Cape May Automobile Club who showed they were capable of handling the biggest events that had ever come to Cape May. According to reports “there were no problems throughout the city except for the rain that fell yesterday afternoon which prevented the breaking of the established speed records of the mile and kilometer.” All persons interested in automobiles said Cape May was destined to be the established home of the sport because the stretch of beach on which the trials was held was the finest in the country.
Due to the sponginess of the track on August 25, the $1,000 Cape May trophy was not offered, but would be up for grabs the next day. Just prior to the races on the 26th, Chadbourne went over the stretch of beach accompanied by a representative of the Daily Wave. It was apparent that the heavy rains also caused “many inequalities to appear,” but those involved in the race decided not to risk disappointing the great crowd assembled.
Campbell, with his Darracq machine, may have proved to have had a slight advantage in the heavy sand. His was said to be the best mud machine and would go best under these conditions. When Campbell’s remarkable time of 38 seconds was announced, a wave of approval swept along the two miles or more of boardwalk that was crowded with spectators.
Later in the race Henry Ford with his Six Cylinder Wonder was going at a terrific pace. Campbell, who pressed him for the lead, had a narrow escape from an accident that might have cost him his life. As the story goes, both were in the stretch of the second heat. Campbell intended to pass Ford on the ocean side. About this time his wheels slipped in water and the machine ran on one set of wheels momentarily, leading many to believe he would flip over. The crowd held its breath, but Campbell skillfully recovered control of his racer. As soon as it was obvious that Campbell was out of danger, racing enthusiasts lining the boardwalk gave him a hearty applause as he returned to the starting point.
In speed trials before Saturday’s race, repeated efforts by Christie and Ford met with disappointment, when they failed to break the time record for the mile. Louis Chevrolet made one effort in his 120 hp Fiat, but his car was disabled in the first heat in which his time was 40.6 seconds.
A Philadelphia newspaper man praised Henry Ford, “This man is a student of speed as well as a demonstrator. He has involved a racing car that has every appearance of having much greater speed than it showed yesterday (August 25, 1905). It takes a car some time to get tuned up. His new machine just fresh from the factory, had been run over the beach less than a half a dozen times before it was called upon to go against the time. When it gets to working right/well autoists expect great things of it.”
As Henry Ford had promised, he gave Dan Focer who most in Cape May called “Uncle Dan” the nation’s first Ford agency in 1908. Focer took J. Mecray as a partner who later opened a Ford Agency in Ocean City and one in Cape May Court House. Alec Lyle was told these facts by Dan Focer when he went to work as a car salesman in October of 1921.
In 1908 Ford produced the famous Model T and five years later it became the first car to be mass produced by the moving assembly line system of manufacture.
A local newspaper reported in 1908 that Dr. Emlen Physick sold his 400 acre farm just north of Schellenger’s Landing to Henry Ford of Detroit, Michigan. At the time Ford thought of having a branch manufactory of automobiles. Later he sold the farm to the United States government where Camp Wissahickon was built in 1917 as a Naval Training Station during World War I. This location would be around milepost “0” of the Parkway.
As you walk the promenade on a summer night and if you should happen to be near Madison Avenue it might not be unusual to hear, over the sound of the breaking waves, the ghostly shouts of the crowds egging on the racers driving their new machines – the apparitions might be the likes of J. Walter Christie, A. L. Campbell, Henry Ford, and Louis Chevrolet.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more than a few ghosts hanging around Hangar One. It is, after all, not your typical museum. It is a work in progress. Parts of planes are always coming in or going out of the large hangar doors. And on a weekday afternoon in March, the place is so quiet, it’s eerie. I hear the door slam behind me. The sound of my feet on the concrete floor. The rustle of my coat as I get my camera ready to shoot.
I hear a sound of movement and look about me. It’s coming from atop an F-14 Tomcat fighter jet -– the kind Tom Cruise piloted in the movie Top Gun. I look closer. It is a gray tabby cat. I later learn that his name is Huey. He sees me as well and decides he must take it upon himself to show me around the place. And, I am very grateful for his company because walking into the Naval Aviation Museum on a weekday afternoon in March is a walk back in time – war time. And you can feel the history wrap itself around you.
Hangar One is located at the Cape May County Airport and has been restored to honor the 43 airmen who perished while training there during WWII. It was designed for one hundred and eight officers, twelve hundred men, and seventy-two planes. I can almost hear the strains of The Andrew Sisters singing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
As you might suspect, it is a museum mostly composed of fighting planes and helicopters. They aren’t replicas but the real deal. Planes that have seen great tragedies. Planes that have caused great tragedy. Planes that have made history. Planes that have changed history.
The Civil Aeronautics Bureau built the site early in the summer of ’42. They approved construction of three runways to be used by the Army and Navy for use in the war. Before it was turned over to the Cape May County Board of Freeholders to be used as a county airport, Naval Air Station Wildwood (NASW) served its country for 36 months. Except for the two hangars and the control tower buildings, everything else was auctioned, dismantled, and reassembled at other locations in Cape May County.
Huey stops by a glass display. I look in it and find that NASW not only trained pilots but served as the overseers of a POW camp for German prisoners. The walls are decorated with old WWII posters. A woman is pictured with the caption “I Want You For the Navy.” A snappy young sailor is pictured holding a little boy’s hand with the caption “Heritage.” A Rosy the Riveter kind of a gal is pictured – a soldier is in the background – the caption reads “The girl he left behind is still behind him. She’s a WOW” (and in small print) “Woman Ordinance Worker.”
I then follow Huey into a room filled with the memories left by those who were enlisted and those who were prisoners here at NASW.
There are pictures of the POWs and their guards. Guard Jerry Gentilini is pictured by the Prisoner of War Convoy. The picture is dated 1944. And I wonder is there any relation to the Gentilini family that owns Gentilini Ford in Woodbine. The German POW Camp was located in what is now the Cape May County Mosquito Commission on Rt. 47. Four German POWs are pictured digging utility drenches, or picking tomatoes for local farmers.
To the right as you walk in, there is a replica of an army office complete with filing cabinets, a desk and a teletype machine. There are pictures of young men in uniform waiting to be shipped out, waiting to fly out. There are pictures of Cape May during the war years. We are told that dances were held at the Navy-operated Admiral Hotel, Convention Hall on the Boardwalk, Arnold’s Café Club, and the Jackson Street USO and that the Liberty and the Pier Theaters were gathering places for off-duty navy personnel.
And the memories of some of the Navy men and women who served at NASW have been written out so others can get a glimpse of what life must have been like then.
Billy Bush remembers that “It was not unusual for some of the members to thrill the spectators (at the Wildwood Boardwalk) by buzzing the theme park and performing dramatic maneuvers. Wildwood was where the action was. Cape May was more reserved. Perhaps that’s why Jim McGee and I usually went to Cape May.”
“While the wives were at Wildwood or Cape May beaches – pilots would do some ‘flat hatting’ flying ten or so feet off the waves, two hundred yards off the beach, past the bathers.” Tim Hutchinson
“Since the entire east coast was on a strictly enforced brown-out, no light visible from the sea was allowed…for night flying, which was an essential part of pilot training. Night flying was always a nail biter for all concerned. The service runway was outlined with ‘smudge pots,’ about 30 feet apart, enough to see to land and take off but hardly visible seaward. When the last aircraft landed everyone breathed easier.” Larry Smith
“The entire class was awarded a three week leave upon graduation, but those were the days when travel was by bus or train. There wasn’t time for me to get back (home) to California and back across the whole country and have any time to visit, so I saved my three weeks for later and came directly to my assignment. That is how I can to be the first WAVE in Ship’s Company, in support of the CASU-24 Unit at Wildwood Naval Air Station, and remained the only WAVE at the base for two whole weeks. During my first two weeks, I could not bring myself to go to meals at the enlisted mess hall. I just couldn’t. All the sailors treated me with courtesy, really, but being the only woman amidst those hundreds of men was just too much.” Imogene Gluck
“You fly in formation, you climb up, I guess it’s about 12,000 feet. And at 12,000 feet, they have a spot they’re supposed to aim at on the ground with a little miniature bomb. And they’d pull a 70-degree dive, basically straight down. And the plane, I mean, it jumps and bounced all over the place. It’s amazing, you wouldn’t believe it. But it’s a moving thing. When they pull out, if you’re not prepared and have never done it before, it just pushes you down in the seat. You pull, you get gray. You don’t black out, but you get grey [sic]…it was wild, it was interesting.” George Ashton
“Crash Crews were always on duty. They were headquartered in a building near the administration building. Fire engines and crash trucks were kept there. A flotilla of crash boats was located on the bay side ready to speed out in case a plane crashed in the water.” Bernard Graebener
Huey and I meander back into the hangar to look at the planes and helicopters. A thermonuclear bomb is on display. Lent to the museum from The National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque, NM, it is a not too subtle reminder of how WWII finally ended.
“If you need any help or have any questions just call me.”
I must have jumped ten feet out of my skin. Was Huey talking or did I imagine someone talking? No, it looks like a person – a man. Let me try saying something.
“Where should I call you?”
“Just holler. I’ll hear you.”
Yes. I think he must be real. OK. Huey and I move over to the center of the museum and we seem to have entered the Vietnam War. I spend quite a while climbing into helicopters, looking into planes which I know darn well my legs would never have jammed into. Were all pilots 5-foot and under or just incredibly flexible?
I’m kind of coming to an end when the same man who spoke to me earlier pops around the corner. I suspect he’s the operation manager.
“Would you like to look inside this room? It’s locked because it’s still off season.”
He points to a man dressed in jungle camouflage. That’s a North Vietnamese solider, he tells me.
“Were you in Vietnam?”
“Thirteen months. 1968. I’d just turned 19. I was a gunrunner. That’s my helicopter The Huey. The cat was named after it.”
“What’s your name?”
I laugh. “Well, I’m not likely to forget that.”
“Yeah. My dad was a bartender.”
When we walk into the small room, I know. I just know that this is Tom Collins’ room.
“Whose uniform is that?”
“Mine. I created this room myself.”
“Where did you get all this stuff?” There are weapons, knives, other uniforms, helmets.
“Half of it’s mine. Some of it came from other guys who served.”
To the left, I see a photo album and a collection of letters from soldiers to their families back home.
“Where’d you get all these pictures?”
“I took them.”
“You had time to take pictures while you were hanging out of a helicopter getting shot at?”
”Yeah. We all took pictures. We had these little cameras.”
He shows me a photo of himself with his buddies. I flip through the album. I am struck by the beauty of some of the pictures – the beauty of the countryside. And I know that someone who would take such beautiful pictures must have carried within him a sense of forgiveness and understanding about war and the things people do in war.
“It’s really a beautiful country isn’t it? Have you been back?”
“No. I’d like to go back.”
“I was in the Tet Offensive,” he says very quietly.
He shows me The Huey. He shows me where he sat and how he hung out of the helicopter, strapped in by a long seat belt device. Huey went down 8 times, once with Tom Collins in it. The helicopter was still being used ten years later, Tom came to find out.
Sigh. I just want to hug Tom Collins. I want to go around and hug all the airplanes and all the helicopters. I’m a bit overwhelmed and feel I have to leave. But as I’m walking out the door, I run up to Tom Collins who is on some kind of crane-lifty thing. Anyway, whatever it is, he’s going up in the air and I want him to come back down.
“Hey? Wait a minute. How is it you happened to find the exact same helicopter you used? How did it find its way here?”
Turns out, he found it in a helicopter graveyard. The military uses old planes and helicopters and practices shooting them down to see how they can be improved. As fate would have it, Huey – the helicopter not the cat – was unscathed and Tom Collins put the wheels in motion to get it transported to the Naval Aviation Museum.
I say one last goodbye to Tom Collins and Huey, who has gotten bored with me and is back on his F-14 perch pretending he’s Tom Cruise.
I’m kind of choked up by everything I’ve seen and even as I write this, three weeks later, the same feelings wash over me. I could never come close to understanding what Tom Collins, Billy Bush, Imogene Gluck and all the others who fought in wars before and since lived through but that’s why we have a museum like this so we can try and understand and so we never forget.
If you’ve got the time, plan a visit to the Naval Aviation Museum. It’s located in Erma on the grounds of the Cape May County Airport on Breakwater Road. You know what? Even if you don’t have the time, make the time. You won’t regret it. Maybe you’ll see some ghosts. I know they’re out there, somewhere.
You know, we’re always reading, talking and writing about the Victorians and their houses here in Cape May but what about that fascinating piece of real estate that you have to cross before you even enter Cape May City? I’m talking about Schellenger’s Landing. Schellenger’s what? You ask. Schellenger’s Landing – down at the Lobster House. Schellenger’s Landing is where the boats come into Cape May Harbor. It has a history rich with tradition.
Without Schellenger’s Landing, tourists in the 1800s had no way of reaching Cape Island proper. Because of the tourists, Cape May Harbor was constructed to open the waterways for larger steamboats and commercial fishing boats. Schellenger’s Landing is the point where the tourist and the fisherman meet to share their common love for the sea.
If you want a pictorial history of the dock, just walk into the lobbies of The Lobster House. The walls are filled with pictures of fishermen, their boats, the catch, and the dock dating back to as early as 1912.
But let’s back it up a little – who are the Schellengers?
The Schellengers were among the early settlers, or more to the point whalers, who came down from New England during the 1600s. Some of the settlers were descendents of the Pilgrims who founded Plymouth Colony – Joseph Whillden, Thomas Leaming, Humphrey Hughes, Samuel Crowell, Thomas Hand, Ezekial Eldredge and Cornelius Schellenger.
Descendents of Cornelius ended up running a general store down at the harbor.
Of course, there was no harbor in those days. Heck, we couldn’t even get a decent bridge to make a land crossing until Cape Island incorporated and became the City of Cape Island in 1851 and Lower Township formed its own board of freeholders also in 1851.
I have to tell you this little tidbit about the bridge. Cape Island was strictly a summer resort. The only people who lived here year round were Delaware Bay pilots or commercial fishermen but the stagecoach run from Dennisville to the island in the summer months was very lucrative.
An expensive stone bridge was authorized in 1832 by Middle and Upper township officials to facilitate the stagecoach. However, before the money got doled out, some of the local pilots (Wilmon Whilldin, Aaron Bennett and Joseph Higbee) got the notion that they could make a lot of money running steamboats into Cape May Point and Higbees Beach and then ferry them around to Cape Island. That pretty much killed the stagecoach run. The folks in Dennisville got miffed and stonewalled funding for the bridge with the cooperation of Upper and Middle township officials’ help for the next 20 years.
Meanwhile, the Schellengers’ general store was located right about where The Lobster House is today. It didn’t really become a harbor until the early 1900s when a group of businessmen from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, led by Peter Shields, decided they were tired of depending on a ferry to shuttle tourists to Cape May. They wanted steamships and commercial fishermen to be able to dock right here in what would be called Cape May Harbor at Schellenger’s Landing. Their idea was to develop the eastern portion of Cape May. They wanted to design a plan for housing on streets names after the states and large cities and they wanted to build a large hotel to accommodate the influx of tourists. They called the hotel, appropriately enough, Hotel Cape May. Later it was renamed the Admiral Hotel, and later the Christian Admiral Hotel. A few years back the hotel was razed to make way for luxury homes.
So, from the get go, Schellenger’s Landing was a place for tourists as well as commercial fishermen.
Chuck Bertolina, co-owner of Treehouse Antiques in Cold Spring, remembers his summers in Cape May helping out his father who ran a weekend party boat called the Jean out of Schellenger’s Landing. And by party boat, we mean as in party of 12 not as in whoo hooo party time.
“My father was a lawyer in Philadelphia,” Chuck said, “That was his full time job but on the weekends, he ran the party boat from about 1947 to 1958. Monday morning he got back on the train to Philadelphia. Of course, my sister and I had to help and we’d be up early in the morning, sometimes in the freezing cold, to cut the bait.”
Chuck remembers that the people who ran the party boats in those days were a tightly knit group of hard working captains, all of whom had day jobs. He said his father, like all the other party boat captains… No, make that all the other boat captains … thought about ways to improve his boat all year long.
“My mother and father never argued,” he said, “except about that boat. I remember one summer my dad got it into his head that he wanted to buy two brand new twin diesel engines that he bought from a motor company in Detroit. My mother wanted a new sofa and they went back and forth and back and forth until my dad won. My father had a reputation for reliability. If you booked with him, you were sure to get to the dock safe and sound.”
Turns out the engines were lemons and every time he took a party out that summer, he had to be towed back in. Even though Chuck’s father was a lawyer, he wasn’t pursuing the matter quickly as far as Mrs. Bertolina was concerned.
“My mother got so mad she wrote to Detroit telling the manufacturer to make good on the engines or she’d put a big sign on the car and boat saying they sold defective engines. Two free diesel engines arrived a couple of weeks later and Dad was back in business.”
Life on the dock could get pretty dicey at times.
Chuck recalls, “I hated having to do all that work as a kid and I was scared as hell when we’d go out and a squall would come up. The boat rocking back and forth. Water slamming into us just like a brick wall. Lightening all around us. You just felt like a cornflake floating out there. Every time, I’d swear that if I ever lived through it, I’d never go out again. Of course, we’d be right back out the next day. I don’t know, I don’t miss any of it but I wouldn’t trade those days for anything in the world. It’s what Cape May’s about really.”
And has Schellenger’s Landing changed over the past hundred years or so?
“No,” says Keith Laudeman, CEO of The Lobster House and its affiliates.
It is Valentines’ Day night as I walk into The Lobster House Restaurant looking for Keith. I walk passed the picture galleries on the walls and into the bar. The bar is already filled with people waiting for a table and it is only 6 p.m. I am told that Keith is up in his office.
As I walk out onto the deck near the Raw Bar, the rain is beating down on the wooden planks and splashing the water where the boats are docked. I wouldn’t exactly call me a seaworthy person, so it is exciting to be out here alone in the rain so near to the water and the ghostly looking fishing boats. I walk into the office but everyone has already gone home. I climb the stairs to Keith’s office, which I notice has no view of the water. It is, like I said, 6ish and he has been here since 7ish and will still be here long after I have left on this busy night for dining out. I don’t want to take up too much of his time, so I get right to it. You mean, I ask, the dock hasn’t changed in all these years?
Shaking his head no, he says, “Schellenger’s Landing has always been for tourists. From the ‘20s on people always brought party boats to the docks and there have always been commercial fishing boats by their side.”
One thing that has changed, he says, is the number of people.
“I remember when there was nobody here before Memorial Day and nobody here after Labor Day,” he said. “But otherwise it’s the same. We packed a whole lot of fish before and we pack a whole lot of fish today.”
The Lobster House wholesale business started back in the 1920s by Keith Laudeman’s grandfather Jess. “In those days,” Keith said, “the train came right into Schellenger’s Landing. “ His grandfather bought the catch off the boats, loaded it onto the train cars where it was shipped to Philadelphia and New York to be sold to restaurants there.
When Keith’s father came out of the U.S. Coast Guard in the 1950s and joined his father’s business, he decided to open his own restaurant and that’s how The Lobster House got started.
Keith, who was a commercial fisherman himself, joined the family business in the 1980s and has added a fleet of boats to The Lobster House holdings but they still buy fresh catch from the independent fishing boats and the deals are still struck the way they always were – with a handshake.
So, the next time you cross the bridge coming into Cape May, look to your left. You’ll see a huge sign that says Lobster House, Fisherman’s Wharf. Yes, I know. You’ve eaten there a hundred times but listen take the time to look around. Check out the harbor. Walk through The Lobster House and look at the history up on the walls. Then, walk out by The Raw Bar. The large boats you see docked out there are commercial fishing boats and you’ll see party boats coming in as well. Schellenger’s Landing is a place for common ground. Where those who live by the sea and those who simply love the sea come together just as they have for the last one hundred years.