Schellenger’s Landing: 100 years of fishing in Cape May

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.