The Cape May Canal

North versus South. This ancient conflict has played out on battlefields and athletic fields across the span of time. It’s how some people, Americans included, define themselves – a southern belle perhaps, or a damn yankee. The rules of membership can be rigid – one does not become a “southern gentleman” by simply buying a house in Georgia – and the distinctions can be significant, such as whether one calls the violent period of the 1860s the War of Northern Aggression or the Civil War. Bullets may no longer fly at Gettysburg, but North v. South is still an enduring theme here in the land of purple mountains’ majesty.

 While we New Jersey-ians are an educated, refined and sophisticated bunch, North v. South is a subtle force in the Garden State. North Jersey is a completely different animal from South Jersey, right? We South Jerseyians are way hipper than those northerners from Newark, Paterson, Rockaway and North Cape May.

 North Cape May? But that’s only across the canal?

 And so the line in the sand is drawn. OK it’s not a line in the sand and maybe I’m being dramatic, but if you hang around Cape May long enough, you’ll find an enduring riff among the locals as to what exactly is a “local.” And the Cape May Canal is one of the dividing lines.

 The Cape May Canal is a man-made, three-and-a-half mile stretch of water built during wartime to facilitate the safe flow of maritime traffic along the Intracoastal Waterway. But it’s a local landmark that’s become the Cape May equivalent of the Mason-Dixon line.

 It’s all there in green and white. A small sign, no more than one-foot by one-foot, bolted welded, glued, taped, Velcro-ed and nailed to the guardrail in the center of the canal bridge on Seashore Road (Route 162): South Jersey<>North Jersey. One might think that North Jersey began somewhere up around, I don’t know, the Raritan Bay. But it seems that North Jersey, at least for one or two truly stubborn locals, begins on the north side of the Cape May Canal.

 “There’s a man in West Cape May – a real local, born and raised,” began Peggy Peterson, a native Cape Mayan who traces her roots in America to the Mayflower (Peggy was recently honored by the NJ Society of Mayflower Descendants but that’s for another time). Peggy went on to explain that this gentleman is not exactly fond of the summer folk who grace us with their presence every year between Memorial Day and Labor Day. In fact he’s so proud of his local roots and his lifelong residence south of the canal, he now chastises others who have fled “north,” even if it’s a mere 100 feet north of the canal, like Peggy.

 “He put that sign up and the county took it down, so he put it back up,” said Peggy. “He teases me that I’m not a native anymore because I moved north of the canal. Hey, I grew up down here!”

 But Peggy takes the gentle ribbing for what it’s worth. She’s a lifelong Cape Mayan who grew up swimming in, boating on and picnicking next to the Cape May canal. Now she enjoys the quiet hum of boat engines floating off the canal and through her windows on a warm summer night.

 “My father had a 16-footer he kept at Breezy Lee on Ocean Drive. My mother would pack the picnic basket and we’d have a picnic lunch on the edge of the canal. We stayed off the beaches, there were too many people.”

 Completed in December 1942, the Cape May Canal is today an integral part of Cape May life. It connects the Intracoastal Waterway so boaters don’t have to pass through the treacherous waters around Cape May Point and it provides an ideal spot for fishing, walking the dog or just watching the boats go by.

 “You don’t really notice the canal most of the time, but when we sit out on the screened porch, we can hear the Flamingo or the Sightseer go down the canal. You can hear them playing music and here them giving the talk. We can see the sailboats too, but just the tops.” My friend Spanky Concannon tells me that sailing through the canal is prohibited; sailboats must be under power and motor through the canal. It’s OK to let out the mainsail but the motor has to be running.

 The canal was built by the Army Corps of Engineers during WWII so that maritime traffic wasn’t exposed to German U-Boats that may have been patrolling near the coast. Instead of trying to navigate “the rips” off of Cape May Point, the dangerous stretch where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, boats could slide through the canal in a fraction of the time. There’s currently (July 2006) a neat little traveling exhibit at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal about Cape May’s active roll in WWII. The exhibit is sponsored by the Mid Atlantic Center for the Arts on Washington Street in Cape May ( MAC also runs a WWII trolley tour that includes the canal, the famous concrete bunker, Fire Tower #23 and plenty of hair-raising stories about Cape May’s coastal fortifications, German U-Boats and German troops landing on the beaches of Cape May. You can also obtain a copy of Cape May Magazine’s premier edition for more stories about Cape May during the war years.

 Now, I know what you’re thinking, what was to stop the German U-boats from just coming into the canal themselves? There’s a pronounced bend near the mouth of the canal that my friend Skip Hoffman claims was built into the canal to thwart subs from entering.

 In 1996 sections of the canal bank were refurbished and a modular Gabion system, composed of rocks encased in wire mesh, were installed to help prevent erosion. Today the canal is filled with boaters of every stripe and fishermen line the banks near the ferry terminal. The ferry terminal is quite lovely with a nice restaurant, an outside bar, shopping and a miniature golf course (  – I took the ferry to Lewes for some tax-free shopping last year. Loved it).

 The canal may provide easy access and some great fishing spots, but many people take it for granted. Most of us just accept it as apart of the landscape.

 “It’s something I take for granted,” said Tom O’Connell, a Philadelphia boy with a house in Del Haven. Tom was spending an overcast Saturday fishing from the rock groin adjacent to David Douglass Rotary Park, which is adjacent to the ferry terminal. “It’s something I drive my boat through to get to the ocean. Right now I’d just like something to bite on my line.”

 Back in the day, the canal was a favorite swimming and sunbathing spot for locals (including those who lived both north and south of it) – no beach tags, no crowds no hassles and no problems.

 “When I was growing up, the bridge was an old wooden draw bridge. I remember it because when you drove across it, it went ‘clack clack clack,’” said Peggy. “My girlfriends and I would get fishing poles and sit on the pilings under the bridge and fish. We never caught anything but we had a good time.”

 And it seems that swimming across the canal was a test of one’s courage. “The water was always calm and clean. It was a big deal to swim the canal,” said Peggy, “and I can say I did it.”

 There’s a great deal of boat traffic on the canal these days (and according to my observations, many don’t understand the concept of a “no wake” zone) and there is a current in the canal. The water is probably not as squeaky clean as 40 years ago, so please don’t swim in the canal.

 In certain areas, access to the banks of the canal is limited. Near the West Cape May bridge, access is limited to the south side, where one can park the car at the end of Bayshore Road (should I be revealing this?), scamper down the sandy banks and walk the dog. Knowing the tide schedule is essential is you intend to do this and I really don’t recommend it for the uninitiated.

 On the north side, access is limited to those whose back yards butt against it. I don’t know anyone who lives there so I can’t comment on what it’s like to have the Cape May canal in your backyard but judging from the umbrellas and Adirondack chairs lined up near the edge, it must be nice. Sigh.

 In addition to the two bridges used by cars there’s a third bridge. Cape May Seashore Lines operates a train service between Cape May Court House and Cape May City that crosses an old drawbridge just east of the Rt. 162 bridge. Now I’ve never taken the Seashore train ( but I’ve heard great things about it. Plus I really like the train bridge. It’s a drawbridge, but not the kind that goes up. It swivels around a pivot point. When not in use, it faces up and down the canal but when the train needs to cross it spins on its trellis and connects. Pretty cool.

 According to the information I could find, and there’s not a plethora, the canal is 12 feet deep by about 100 feet wide. Since it is part of the Intracoastal Waterway, it is maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I hope we can trust them to keep it up nicely. I mean, after all, their office is in Philadelphia, which is, you know, north of the canal.