This article originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Cape May Magazine. Vintage map and postcard courtesy of Robert W. Elwell, Sr.
Cape Island received its name because it was separated from the mainland by a small creek.
In 1691 a map by Thomas Budd showed that Cape Island was a little spot on that map of Cape May County. The spot was at the south end of the map, which showed a peninsula. On a later map, dated 1850, by Nunan which was more distinct and better drawn, one can see clearly the area called Cape Island.
An island is, by definition, a tract of land completely surrounded by water, but not large enough to be called a continent. The area that showed Cape Island on the Nunan map was surrounded by a small creek, hence Cape Island. Later, the small creek was named Cape Island Creek. The area named Cape Island would become the City of Cape May in 1851.
Most people believe that Cape May City was named after Cornelius Jacobsen Mey and, in a way, it was. Captain Mey (the Mey was later anglicized to be spelled with an “a” – May) was a Dutch sea captain who explored the Delaware Bay and River in his ship Glad Tidings. He was appointed the first director of New Netherland (most of New Jersey) in 1623. Captain Mey named the peninsula after himself with the “Cape” being the peninsula and the “Mey” being his last name. So in essence he really named the area of Cape May County.
Nunan’s Cape Island was an area of land surrounded by a creek or ditch. It was said to be about three miles long with its broadest part about one-half mile wide. The boundaries of Cape Island started at the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape May Inlet – which was formerly known as the Cold Spring Inlet. Going south, the boundary continued about 3,500 feet past what is now the Third Avenue jetty at the south end of Beach Avenue. Around this point there was another small inlet which dumped into the Atlantic Ocean, which is now filled in. This was part of Cape Island Creek, which ran to what was called Mt. Vernon Bridge on Broadway, near Grant Street.
The boundary ran from Mt. Vernon Bridge up Broadway to West Perry Street, making a turn east to where Cape May Miniature Golf Course is located today at West Perry and Jackson streets. There, Cape Island Creek picked up again and ran northerly somewhat parallel to Lafayette Street until it reached Schellenger’s Landing. The first little bridge one goes over going out of town is called Cape Island Creek Bridge. The Cape Island boundary follows the creek past the Lobster House and the channel back to the starting point of Cape May Inlet and the Atlantic Ocean. Thus, it is Cape Island Creek that made Cape Island and, by law, the name was changed to the City of Cape May in 1875.
The next reference to Cape Island after the Budd map of 1691 was when George Eaglesfield, in 1699, built a causeway connecting the island with the mainland. The first legal reference to Cape Island was in 1796 when a law was passed to make a road on which boats could be stowed. The History of Cape May County, New Jersey, published in 1897 by Lewis T. Stevens, does not name the road and I can only guess that it may have been Lafayette Street which was a cow path in the early days. Later it was a convenience for wagons and finally adopted as a street.
Where is Cape Island? In simple terms it is where the City of Cape May stands today. In 1848 the village of Cape Island adopted a borough organization form of government. In 1851 it became incorporated as the City of Cape Island with Isaac M. Church as the Mayor. Two other charters were subsequently procured as necessity arose, one in 1867 and another in 1875, when the name of Cape Island was changed to the City of Cape May.
To the average person, boundaries mean very little. But amateur historians around Cape May cringe when they see references in the newspaper or other print to Cape Island when it is not in the confines of the old Cape Island boundaries. For instance, West Cape May’s slogan says it is in the “heart of Cape Island” when, in the true sense, they are not in the historic Cape Island boundaries. One of the reasons for much of this confusion is that in the early days of World War II the military cut the Cape May Canal through from the Cape May Harbor to the Delaware Bay in order in enhance military operations for the Navy. As a result, many people hearing the phrase Cape Island and crossing over the waterway coming into the Cape Mays think of everything south of the Cape May canal as Cape Island. When, in reality, it was Cape Island Creek that separated Cape Island from the mainland and made Cape Island an island. Hence its name.
Even if you “Google” Cape Island on the computer, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, has Cape Island all wrong. It says it is “a man-made island at the southern tip of Cape May County” which is totally incorrect. It also says “it consists of Cape May, Cape May Point, West Cape May, and portions of Lower Township.” In reality, Cape Island is made up of only Cape May City. Wikipedia also says that “Cape Island Creek, for a while, was the divider between the mainland and the (smaller) island, but it was mostly filled in and only a small part remains.” This is totally wrong – all of Cape Island Creek is intact except a small portion where Cape May City borders the Township of Lower (at South Cape May beach). Again, this misconception stems from looking at the Cape May Canal which additionally separates the lower end of Cape May County from the mainland. Cape Island is really an island within an island and has been since World War II.
Today, knowing that Cape May thrives on its history, several businesses use the words Cape Island to give their name an old-time feeling. For instance: Cape Island Appraisals, Cape Island Bicycles, Cape Island Campground and Cape Island Gardens. The only institution that can use Cape Island authentically is the Cape Island Baptist Church since it dates back to when the City of Cape May was Cape Island. Some of Cape May’s best history comes from when Cape May City was Cape Island. Whether we call ourselves Cape Island or Cape May, the fact remains that we are the “Nation’s Oldest Seashore Resort.”