In 1866, Cape Island had 22 hotels, including an African-American hotel on Lafayette Street. That same year, Jacob F. Cake was brought up from Washington, D.C. to manage Columbia House. He later moved over to Congress Hall. Congress Hall, wanting to keep up with times, added a new wing onto the hotel at Perry Street. Civil War hero Henry Sawyer became the proprietor of Ocean House in 1867. Eight years later he built the Chalfonte Hotel on Howard Street.
The Era of Reconstruction had begun for the nation and Cape Island was no exception. Prominent Philadelphia and South Jersey entrepreneurs spent the post-Civil War years acquiring as much property and as many cottages as they could, among them, William Sewell, Richard D. Wood, John Wanamaker (co-founder of Sea Grove in 1875, later renamed the Borough of Cape May Point), and E. C. Knight. This consortium of businessmen founded a yacht club in 1871 and encouraged President Grant to make Cape Island his summer home. Grant instead opted for Long Branch but 18 years later, Wanamaker was more successful in luring another president, Benjamin Harrison to Cape May Point for the summer.
On August 31, 1869 a great fire took the steam out of the bustling island community. The fire, thought to have been started by Peter Boynton, the proprietor of the Oriental Shop on Washington Street, began at 2:30 a.m. located on Washington Street between Ocean and Decatur streets. The conflagration destroyed everything in the two block area of Washington Street, from Ocean Street to Jackson Street, including the United Sates Hotel, built in 1852 and the site of its own suspicious fires over the past decade or so. Also destroyed was the New Atlantic Hotel. The United Sates Hotel was never rebuilt but the Atlantic Hotel was. It reopened in the summer of 1870.
So strong was the railroad’s influence that Cape May rebuilt itself without skipping a beat and by the summer of 1870. One reason for the speedy recovery is that with the railroad came outside investors and new money to rebuild. The fire of 1878, however, would be a whole other story.
“The railroad continued to drive the boom and it would take more than two-city-block fire to slow it down. Cape May was fast becoming a city that was owned by outside cottagers and investors. The majority of the citizens was pleased with the railroad expansion and saw no end to the boom. The West Jersey Railroad gained more and more control of the ‘island’ as regular visitors referred to the resort.”
In the summer of 1870, 25 more cottages were built as well as the 4-story high, New Atlantic Hotel. Built at a cost of $100,000, it operated under “strict temperance principles.” The summer season proved to be a successful one, helped by a heat wave that oppressed city dwellers forcing to buy an excursion ticket to Cape May island so they could preamble the city and see what changes had come from the 1869 fire.
Also in 1870, the State Legislature appointed a special board of commissioners to represent Cape May’s railroad interests. The board of commissioners acted completely independent of elected city officials. City Council, resenting the power of the board, spearheaded a special election in 1872 designed to “throw the bums’ out.” Unfortunately for them, the election had the opposite result. Not only did the commissioners keep their seats, in the next city-wide election, the two council members who opposed the board were themselves thrown out.
From 1870 to 1875, when the commission was abolished by an amendment to the city’s charter, railroad interests shaped the landscape of Cape May.
In 1873 the failure of several important banks on the east coast drove a financial panic through the heart of the investment sectors and railroad boom came to a crashing halt. Investment money dried up therefore new construction stopped. This, plus the devastation of the Great Fire of 1878, led to the demise of Cape May as a top-ten destination spot. Anyone who did have venture capital invested it in Atlantic City, which, in the late 1870s, had become South Jersey’s new crown jewel.
One exception to that was the construction in 1876 of a new and improved Summer Station, called Grant Street Station. Winter Station was at the intersection of Jackson and Lafayette streets. In 1876 the cost of an excursion ticket was $2.50. For a family servant, it was $2.00 and a season ticket could be purchased for $50.00.
In 1876, railroad executives, fearing competition not only from the up and coming Atlantic City but also the 1876 Centennial Exhibition which was to take place in Philadelphia that summer, printed a brochure singing Cape May’s praises and distributed it among exhibition visitors in an attempt to lure them down to the resort for an excursion.
The summer of 1878 was one of Cape May’s busiest. The wealthy were flocking to the seaside resort to escape the ravages of a yellow fever epidemic which had hit the cities, ultimately claiming over 14,000 lives. Train depots in Cape May were even busier than ever.
“When the trains arrived, dozens of hotel coaches would greet passengers as they stepped onto the depot platform. Confusion reigned as the coach drivers endeavored to out shout each other and the steam locomotives calling out the names of the hotels that had hired them to pick up boarders who arrived both with and without reservations.” – Summer City by the Sea, Emil R. Salvini
Construction on the west side of town was flourishing because of the success of Summer Station. One of the new kids on the Grant Street block was The Arlington House (now The Hotel Alcott). This historic property, Cape May’s second-oldest operating hotel, debuted in 1878 as The Arlington House. The 55-room facility was considered a first-class resort hotel and attracted many of the summer guests due to its proximity to the railroad station and the beach. Just as an aside, Louisa May Alcott, summered in Cape May with her family from Germantown, PA. and, as the legend goes, stayed at The Arlington House. The season ended as happily as it had begun. By November most cottagers and hotel proprietors had already gone home for the winter and were looking forward to the summer of ’79.
The Great Fire of 1878 began on a very windy, November 9 morning at Ocean House on Perry Street – located just one-half block from the beach. By the time the fire was contained nearly 12 hours later, about forty acres, situated between Congress on the west, Washington on the north, Ocean Street on the east, and the beach on the south of property was destroyed. The total loss was estimated at about $400,000 and included the destruction of Columbia House, Ocean House, Congress Hall, Centre House, Atlantic House, Merchants House and reduced Cape May’s count of hotel rooms from 2200 to 200 in a single night. This time around, railroad money could not save Cape May from a downward economic spiral. The fire marked the end of the large hotel era and the beginning of a more intimate cottage-style architectural trend – and almost 100 years later this surge of construction in the middle of the Victorian era helped land Cape May its current National Historic Landmark status.
“The fire of 1878 coincided with and probably contributed to the steady economic decline of Cape May City as a major resort during the 1870s. The Star of the Cape reported that many ‘idle men’ roamed the city, unable to find employment. In response, W.B. Miller, a former mayor and large hotel owner, called a citizens meeting to discuss the resort’s decline, particularly in comparison to the continued prosperity of Atlantic City. The citizen’s meeting blamed local government for levying high taxes and refusing to grant liquor licenses to hoteliers such as W. B. Miller. The citizens group also faulted the West Jersey Railroad for not granting free passes…or low excursion rates…” Cape May County, New Jersey: The Making of an American Resort Community, Jeffrey M. Dorwart.
On the opposite side of the argument was the temperance organization. Temperance members blamed all the city’s woes on liquor. Antiliquor sentiments resulted in the founding of Sea Grove (later Cape May Point) in 1875, the county’s third oldest resort community behind Cape May City and Beesley’s Point. Founded by Philadelphia businessmen and Presbyterian leaders Alexander Whilldin and John Wanamaker, the Sea Grove Association drew up a code of conduct which banned all liquor and amusements. But meanwhile, folks who lived in that isolated part of the island needed to get back and forth to the city.
The primary form of public conveyance was the horse-car railroad. Owned by Whilldin, the Cape May City Passenger Railroad Company serviced Sea Grove to Cape May and ran along a track which followed the Cape Island Turnpike (now Sunset Boulevard) for a fee of 10-cents, round-trip 15-cents. All monies went to the turnpike company.
By 1879, horses were out, steam was in. This coincided with the launch of the elegant sidewheel steamer the Palace Steamer Republic, which took six hours to cross the Delaware at a cost of $1. Its maiden voyage was in March of 1878. Although she retired in 1903, upstaged by the swifter and more frequent railroad transport, in her heyday she transported on average 2,500 passengers across the bay in sheer luxury. Jonathon Cone, owner of the Republic, therefore, demanded a more sophisticated mode of transport once the Republic anchored. The Delaware Bay and Cape May Railroad (owned by Cone), took over Whilldin’s operation in 1879 and chose a more scenic and less expensive route for his high-toned clientele. The new steam car ran along the beach from Sea Grove to Cape May City. In addition, the train ran along Lighthouse Avenue down Lincoln Avenue, along Chrystal to Alexander at a mighty 10 mph.
By 1882 the DB&CM Railroad merged with Sewell’s Point Railroad. Tracks were laid all the way from the steamship landing to Sewell’s Point (Poverty Beach).
The following excerpt from Joe Jordan’s book Cape May Point –The Illustrated History: 1875 to the Present articulates the evolution of intra-island transportation.
“It’s 1879, and Cape May Point is getting a new steam-driven trolley. Everybody is happy. No more horse manure and no more slow motion, the four-year-old horse-car railway is a thing of the past. From now on it is steam all the way….It’s now 1892, and Cape May Point is getting a new electric trolley. Everybody is glad to say goodbye to the old-fashioned steam trolleys. After all, they were jerky, noisy, and dirty – all those coal cinders getting in your eyes and throat. …The fare is cheap, schedules are frequent, service is better – everybody is pleased with this brand new ultra-modern local transportation, the electric trolley.
Now it’s 1908, and nobody is pleased. The schedules are erratic, trolleys don’t meet the trains, and the tracks in Cape May Point are downright hazardous.”
Storms were the main problem. Tracks laid along the beachfront sounded promising. The view was spectacular but those very same tracks were constantly being derailed prompting the railroad companies to send hundred of men out every time it rained to repair them. Nor’easters were a problem. High tides were a problem. Flooding was a problem. By 1916, Cape May Point’s commissioners petitioned the State Public Utility Commission to force the Delaware Bay, Cape May, and Sewell’s Point Trolley Company (which had merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1901), to fix the tracks, fix the trolleys and guarantee prompt service. They didn’t or they couldn’t and by 1917 public transportation into the city came to an end. The final run was made on October 14, 1916.
Meanwhile the big railroads – The Reading and the Pennsylvania were, from the get-go, involved in a knock-down, drag-out fight to finish for domination, often running parallel lines along the same route – or ripping the tracks out. The result? The two lines merged in 1893 to become the Philadelphia-Reading Railroad which immediately formed the Philadelphia and Seashore Railroad under the guidance of businessmen Logan Bullitt of Philadelphia and James E. Taylor of Cape May.
The merger, however, was just a signal of what was yet to come. The emergence of the car as a new mode of transportation soon led to the extinction of the train as the primary mode of transportation. In 1926 the Ben Franklin Bridge opened and it was downhill. In 1933 another merger took place and the Pennsylvania Reading Seashore Lines was the result.
But before World War II, city folk still took the train to get down to Cape May just not as frequently. June 28, 1930 saw the arrival in Cape May of the first “Sun Tan and RA” Special from Philadelphia. The first all-rail route from Philadelphia was greeted with great fanfare in Cape May. Queen May Sea II, Sally Lou Ludlam presided over the events in which railroad engineer Edward Perkins of West Cape May, and conductor Harry Steer of Rio Grande were honored upon arrival.
“My grandfather Edward Perkins was an engineer on the line (The Sun Tan Special) from Cape May to Camden. His brother was a conductor. Unfortunately I did not get to know my grandfather as he died about the time I was born. His photo is in the book from Cape Savings (Cape May County: A Pictorial History by Herbert M. Beitel and Vance C. Enck) His brother was Charles Perkins and they both lived in West Cape May.” – William Thawley, railroad enthusiast and the pharmacist at Central Pharmacy (now the site of Cotton Company).
Young people who did not drive or did not own a car especially loved the train.
As a teenager, “I’d get on the train in Camden on a Friday afternoon after school with my friend Jimmy and we’d take the train to Cape May. Sometimes we’d go back in the baggage car and play tennis. I stay with my aunts who lived above the movie theater. Sometimes my parents would come down on Saturday.” – Karl Suelke, whose grandfather and father owned The Liberty Theater, a movie theater at 506 Washington Street Mall.
In the late 20s and 30s, 17 trains a day came in and out of Cape May, including the Sun Tan Special, which served champagne and wine during prohibition and the Fisherman’s Special, which came in and out of Schellenger’s Landing servicing the charter boats waiting their arrival.
Thawley said he has timetables from the old Pennsylvania Reading Seashore Line dating back to 1941 when seven trains a day came through Cape May Philadelphia and Camden. One timetable shows a one way fare to the Broad Street Station in Philadelphia cost $2.95. During the spring of 1949, there were only three trains to Camden and Philadelphia and the one-way fare is now 3.60 to Broad Station one way. By the fall of 1956, there were still three trains a day and the one-way fare was $2.93. By October of 1963 only one train came through a day and the fare was $3.73 one-way to Camden. The next summer service was curtailed to three trains per week, five into Cape May on Friday and Saturday; three trips out of Cape May on Sunday and the fare, on-way to Camden was still $3.73.
“I remember the first year I stayed in Cape May past September which turned into my first winter here. That was in 1976. If it wasn’t for the train, I don’t think I would have stayed. But I always knew I was only a train-ride away from the real world (Philadelphia or New York). And the Friday night card games in the back car – you made sure you caught the early train (out of Philadelphia) on Friday and got a seat in the back car where the most sociable people sat and where spontaneous cocktail parties almost always happened. I don’t know if I would have stayed here that winter if I didn’t know I could take the train when I needed to.” – Vickie Tryon
Rail service, south of Tuckahoe, ended on a Saturday morning October 10, 1983.