The Excursionists: A Ticket to Success

Imagine this. It is July, 1863. Philadelphians have just heard the news of the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg increasing their optimism that the war will soon be over and people can get on with their lives. It is blistering hot in the city and the wealthy are looking for a cool respite. Along with the news of the war, the headlines also include word that the final railroad tracks running all the way from Philadelphia to Cape May have finally been laid. Work on the project started in 1852 but politics and fights over land rights and route alternatives kept the tracks from becoming a reality. Meanwhile, the war broke out and although the conflict between the states has had an adverse effect on many, Philadelphians now find themselves armed with money from a newfound industrial- wartime economy and they are anxious to spend it. It is a perfect marriage for the island and entrepreneurs are lining up to cash-in on the opportunity.

   “In the summer of that same year (1863), the first train puffed into Cape May City. For this momentous occasion, a fifteen ton locomotive was brought by boat to Cold Spring Landing where, under its own power, it carefully crept into Cape May over temporary tracks that had been laid just a few hours before the event.” Cape May County: A Pictorial History – Herbert Beitel and Vance C. Enck, authors

   The Civil War finally came to an end in 1865 and with it came the opening of new hotels in the City of Cape Island to accommodate the influx of tourists arriving by rail. Although some hoteliers thought their Southern patrons would return to the island, which was not to be. Southerners, put off by Cape Island’s pro-Union stance did not return. Cape Island lost forever the southern presence which once occupied its shores, but with the end of the war and beginning of rail lines, the city had a whole new pool of tourists and investors from which to draw.

   “The following establishments were open for business for the 1865 season: Congress Hall, Columbia House, The United States Hotel, Atlantic Hotel, Ocean House, Centre House, Washington House, Delaware House, La Pierre House, Metropolitan Hotel, Tremont House, Commercial House, Tontine Hotel, Surf House, Ocean Breeze Hotel, Greenwood Cottage, Cottage by the Sea, Merchants Hotel, Considine Hotel, Continental Hotel, National Hotel and White Hall.” The Summer City by the Sea – Emil R. Salvini, author

   The arrival of the railroad into the City of Cape Island brought with it the Cottage Era and the “Excursionist,” all fueled by railroad money. Investors connected with the West Jersey Railroad (WJRR), which took over the Cape May & Millville Railroad in 1868 consolidating the lines to Philadelphia. They were instrumental in developing the island and in having our name changed from the City of Cape Island to the City of Cape May by an amendment to the city charter in 1869.

   WJRR powerbrokers feared competition from the rail line to Absecon Island which was completed in 1854 and incorporated as Atlantic City the next year. The line was constructed in the first place to persuade New Yorkers and Philadelphians from coming to Cape May. It was too far south, they said. Why travel all that way, they said, when you stop off here. To counteract the threat, Cape May hoteliers and WJRR investors advertised heavily in the New York papers, hoping to attract northerners to the newly revitalized Cape Island. They did so with great success because it seems that in the summer of 1868, tourists couldn’t get enough of Cape Island.

   Travel by rail was faster, cleaner and far more pleasant than tourists had ever before experienced, so more trains were added to bring more tourists into town. That phenomenon brought about a new kind of traveler called the ‘Excursionist” or “Day-Tripper.” Locals had a nickname for the Excursionist – that being one who did not stay overnight, did not spend any money in town and did not eat in any of the restaurants but, in fact, brought his or her lunch in shoe boxes – they were called “shoobies.”
   Railroad executives, however, loved shoobies thinking correctly that they would come by the thousands in the summer months. Anticipating the success of daily excursion trains, West Jersey Railroad investors decided that the day-trippers would need a place to change into their bathing attire, to recover from their day and to refresh themselves before taking the train home. The West Jersey Railroad, therefore, built the Sea Breeze Excursion House in 1868, which fronted the beach between Broadway, about 300 feet west of Congress Hall. The Sea Breeze was built on the site of the Mount Vernon Hotel which succumbed to fire before ever opening its doors September 5, 1856.

   The Sea Breeze stood three stories high. It could easily handle 1,500 travelers and included a dining room, reception room (which also functioned as a ballroom) and drawing rooms for ladies and gentlemen. Other amenities included a washroom, laundry room, kitchen and saloon. A 25-foot verandah wrapped around both the first and second floors and for those who didn’t want to get their feet sandy, the railroad company built a wide plank that ran more than a 1000 feet long stretching from the Sea Breeze to the beach. In addition, a 700-foot railroad platform was built alongside the Excursion House making it now possible for visitors to step off the train at the Grant Street Summer Station and onto the beach with little effort.

“The shoobies could entertain themselves playing ten-pins on one of the billiard rooms. Bathhouses were a necessity in an era that did not approve of walking the streets in bathing apparel and the Sea Breeze had ore than one hundred conveniently located on the beach.” The Summer City by the Sea – Emil R. Salvini, author

  Summer Station was built by the West Jersey Railroad in 1863. Service reverted to the Jackson Street Station, also known as Winter Station, after the summer season. Freight trains coming into town also used this terminal. Present day visitors know this location as the Wawa Convenience Store.

   West Jersey Railroad executives decided to encourage further development within the city by offering the head of any family building a cottage on Cape Island an “improvement ticket” or free passage between Philadelphia and Cape May. In order to qualify, the cost of construction had to be in excess of $2,500. The free ticket to ride was a very successful promotion. Within one year – the summer of 1868 to the summer of 1869 – 50 fifty new cottages were built.

   Among the WJRR investors were John C. Bullitt, a Philadelphia corporate lawyer and counsel to the railroad and William Sewell, a Civil War veteran and director of the West Jersey Railroad Co. Together, they filled in the marshland east of the city between Gurney Street and Columbia Avenue, and built the Stockton Hotel, originally called Stockton House. The West Jersey Railroad-owned hotel opened its doors June 24, 1869 and took up an entire city block – between Howard and Gurney streets, Columbia and Beach avenues. At a cost of $300,000 to build, it could accommodate in excess of 475 guests. The dining room could hold as many as 800 people. Its construction was heralded in the Cape May Ocean Wave in a March 10, 1869 issue and its progress was reported on weekly.

   Earlier, in 1864, Bullitt partnered with Frederick Fairthorne. The two purchased Columbia House and hired Philadelphia architect Stephen Decatur Button to make the renovations. Button’s architectural stamp was to play a significant role on the seaside city. During the Cottage Era he designed plans for more than 30 buildings, including Stockton House and the Senator John B. McCreary summer cottage (now known as The Abbey).

   Part of the success of the Cottage Era was Bullitt and Fairthorne’s innovative idea to subdivide lots, namely the tract they owned across from Columbia House. Their sub-division created Columbia Avenue and Gurney Street.

   The subdivision, like all of Bullitt’s enterprises, was a huge success and encouraged interest on the part of other Philadelphia entrepreneurs. Among the new developers was Peter McCollum, who built cottages on the “speculation” that someone would turn around and buy them from him. According to Salvini’s book Summer City by the Sea, two such cottages were the Oliver Smith cottage at 705 Columbia and the John Benezet cottage at 725 Columbia. The Edward Warne Cottage at 617 Columbia, the Edward Morris Cottage at 621 Columbia, and the Samuel Harrison Cottage at 615 Columbia were all part of that same sub-division and were all three designed by Stephen Button.

   So, the railroad and its investors pretty much controlled Cape May City during these renaissance years. Those in power, including the out-spoken editor of the Cape May Ocean Wave, Joseph Leach, were all for it, the thinking being that it was in the railroad’s best interest to promote Cape May and what was good for the railroad was good for the city. In addition the main avenue – or Beach Avenue – was widened to accommodate the railroad line, a trolley line which transported commuters from Sewell’s Point to Cape May Point.

   Railroad money and the development which followed also necessitated establishing an infra-structure. Gas lights popped up all over the city. A telegraph line, sketchy at best and completely shut down during the Civil War, was re-established thanks to the prodding of Joseph Leach. A board of commissioners, controlled by the state legislature, was established. A uniformed police force came on the scene as well as a fire engine and a bucket brigade at the ready should duty call.

   Meanwhile, seeing the need to extend rail and commuter service, William Sewell also purchased Poverty Beach in 1868, currently the site of the U.S. Coast Guard Training Station. He opened a horse-trolley line across the beach to Cold Spring Inlet where he built the Fish House restaurant on Sewell’s Point. According to Jeffrey Dorwart, author of Cape May Count, New Jersey: The Making of an American Resort Community, Messieurs Bullitt, Sewell, and a Cape Island carpenter Joseph Q. Williams, who was later elected mayor, controlled city government through a state-legislated commission. The commission gave the West Jersey Railroad syndicate the authority to grant the Cape May City Passenger Railway Company the monopoly on inter-island rail travel.

   In the coming years, the railroad would see the city through some tough times, including a major fire which would break out in 1869. In the 1900s, leading up to WWII, the Excursionist would morph into the Commuter, again making it possible for families to enjoy a summer by the sea.

   The influence of the railroad and its investors on the island, its architecture and its character is felt right up to the present. And it all began with a train chugging into the city in the summer of 1863..

   Editor’s Note: Next month, in Part Two of The Excursionists: A Ticket to Success, we’ll see how the continued presence of the railroad encouraged even more development on the island, despite a major fire in 1869. We’ll also take a look the pre-WWII commuter heydays and the eventual decline of the railroad.

What held up the railroad?

It took eleven years of political maneuverings to finally get a railroad line into the City of Cape Island. Not so for Absecon Island. A charter was issued by the State of New Jersey in 1852 when South Jersey glass barons and Philadelphia investors started the railroad project connecting Camden with the Atlantic Coast. The rail line to Absecon Island was completed in 1854 and the new community which formed as a result of the railroad line incorporated as Atlantic City the next year.

   Two things held up Cape May’s progress. One was the fight for land use. Big money was to be made depending on where the tracks were laid. The other issue was talk of an impending war between the North and the South. Plans for running a railroad line from Camden to Cape May began in 1853 when the Cape May-Millville Railroad Co. incorporated.

   A committee of southern New Jersey state legislators, including Joshua Swain Jr. of Cape May County, held the power to decide where the railroad lines from Camden City through Cape May County would run. The committee hired William G. Cook, an engineer for the Camden-Amboy Railroad, to run a survey through the county.

   In 1852, Cook proposed three alternative routes. The first was a straight course through Millville. The second route veered west through Salem. And the third, (which Cook favored) went further west linking Camden City with Gloucester, Salem and Cumberland and Cape May counties. Because the later was the most costly of the three, the committee favored the second route. However, the decision was left in limbo for the next 11 years because the New Jersey General Assembly in 1832 had granted two companies; the Delaware & Raritan Canal and the Camden & Amboy Railroad companies exclusive rights to railroad development in the state. Any project for a railroad line into Cape May County could not proceed without the consent of these two companies. We call that a monopoly today. Cape Island stood in jeopardy of sinking into oblivion.

      At some point the matter a deal must have been cut. For one thing, other wealthy concerns got involved with the help of Cape May County Ocean Wave editor Joseph Leach who did his best to keep the subject front and center in his fledgling (1854) paper. In an 1857 editorial, he urged residents to put their hopes in a new railroad, the Glassboro-Millville Railroad Company, headed by glass barons Samuel and Thomas Whitney and Philadelphia manufacturer Richard D. Wood.

   They applied for and received a state railroad charter in 1859 and joined forces with the Cape May County railroad syndicate which included Cape Island hotel proprietor Israel Leaming, City of Cape Island Mayor Joseph Ware and Dr. Coleman F. Leaming of Cape May Court House. The Leaming family stood to gain the most from the rail line because they owned the land through which the railroad line would pass. In 1860, the consortium formed the Cape May and Millville Railroad Co. But it wasn’t until a new group of investors took over the CM and MRR, forming a new rail line called the West Jersey Railroad that tracks finally were laid into Cape May in the summer of 1863.

   While plans for a rail line seemed to be marching along, talk of War Between the States threatened to bring all commerce outside of Cape Island to a screeching halt. The City of Cape Island, and in fact Cape May County, sits below the Mason-Dixon Line and pro-North and pro-South debates began to divide the county in the late 1850s. According to Jeffrey Dorwart’s book Cape May County, New Jersey: The Making of an American Resort Community, a South Carolina secessionist flag hung in front of one Cape Island hotel. The majority of Cape Island’s visitors were southerners. Slavery had only recently been abolished in the state in 1846. Although the county tried to remain neutral, Rebel forces were moving closer to Washington, D.C. and Joseph Leach urged residents to remain loyal to the north.

   The State of New Jersey, as well as most of Southern New Jersey sided with Leach’s pro-Union stance. After the war, there were still hard feelings on both sides. Cape Island lost forever the southern presence which once occupied its shores but with the end of the war and increased rail traffic, the city had a whole new pool of tourists and investors from which to draw.

We invite any of you who were commuters (rail service into the island ended in 1983) to write us of your memories or send us pictures you may have of the train cars which came into Cape May.