Cape May has some of the richest history of all the towns along the South Jersey Shore. Its reputation as a picturesque Victorian era community is well deserved and based on hundreds of years of history that have added depth and character to this coastal town. In order to truly appreciate the splendor of current day Cape May – one must really delve into the past. The history of Cape May is truly as interesting and charming as the city itself.
The first group to enjoy the beautiful shores of Cape May were the Lenni Lenapes Indians who were from the Algonquin tribe. They however were not limited to the Cape May area as the frequented much of the New Jersey Shore line along with many other areas.
The Lenni Lenapes used the Jersey Shore for much the same reason that many people do today – as a summer destination, as the often made their camp their in the warmer months. The Lenni Lenapes created many paths that were the precursor to several modern day roads in Cape May.
The next group of people to enjoy the natural splendors of the Cape May area were the early explorers. In 1609, the same year that Galileo demonstrated the first telescope, Henry Hudson became the first American to discover Delaware Bay. He anchored his ship (which was called the Half Moon) right next to Cape May Point. Captain Hudson was actually searching for the Northwest Passage. It was thought that a faster trading route to Asia would make the country that discovered it very rich. Instead Captain Hudson came across what was not considered very valuable at the time – a nice coastal region. Little did he know how valuable and wonderful his discovery actually was!
It was not, however, Mr. Hudson who first settled Cape May. In 1620, the very same year that the Mayflower departed Europe, Captain Cornelius Mey visited a small peninsula along the east coast of the Americas. Captain Mey came across a tiny peninsula which was part of what was to become the State of New Jersey, in what was to become the United States of America.
Captain Mey of Holland decided that he liked the area so much that he named it after himself. He called the north part of the cape, cape Cornelius and he called the south part Cape Mey. The spelling was changed from Mey to May many years later by English speaking settlers.
Captain Cornelius Mey eventually returned to the Cape May area with around thirty families who settled along the Delaware River near Cape May. Captain Mey was eventually made the director-general of the Dutch colonies and supervised the land claimed by the Dutch – including current day Cape May.
The next group of settlers to Cape May were also Dutch but they were not explorers. This new group intended to stay permanently and to develop a thriving whaling industry. This new industry was a dangerous one. Whalers had to venture out into the stormy winter seas (as winter was whale season) and harpoon whales that were larger than the boats they were sailing in.
The whalers would then harpoon the whale with spears and wait for the whale to bleed to death. They then had to drag the large mammal onto the shore in order to process it. The whales were extremely valuable for their baleen, blubber and especially for their oil. A whale kill could provide a family with enough money to live off of for the entire year. Whaling was very profitable – but it was also extremely dangerous. Many men were killed attempting to make a living in the early Cape May whaling industry.
Eventually the whaling industry was a victim of its own success as the whale population was exploited to the point where whaling was no longer profitable. Luckily the people of Cape May had already developed their farming skills. So the people of Cape May adapted and began to farm full time in order to make a living.
It is very difficult to determine with any certainty when Cape May was officially founded. The closest we have to a specific date is an indirect reference to Cape May in the New Jersey Assembly in 1697. Cape May was mentioned as a community that was going to be affected by a new road that was about to be built. The means that Cape May was founded sometime prior to 1697. Cape May was again mentioned in 1801 in newspapers, advertising it as a great resort location.
At the turn of the nineteenth century many people traveled by boat. Cape May could be accessed by boat on the Delaware River – but only at certain times of the day. Once steam powered boats were introduced Cape May became easily accessible via the Delaware River – no matter what the level of the tide. A majority of the people who came to Cape May on these steam powered boats were looking for a summer retreat and Cape May, with its beautiful beaches, was a very attractive destination.
Cape May became such a popular vacation destination by the mid 1800s that some even complained that it was too crowded and too popular!
The decades preceding the American Civil War saw lots of growth in Cape May. Many prominent politicians and business people flocked to the city to enjoy the sun, sand and surf. This huge influx of affluent tourists meant that Cape May grew into a beautiful Victorian era sea-side resort town.
In 1859 the Cape May Light House was constructed. Today Cape May Light House is a prominent land mark and a popular tourist attraction.
The Civil War saw a decline in the number of Southern tourists as New Jersey fought for the Union side rather than the confederate side. Although the war meant that there was a dip in tourism–permanent train service came to Cape May as a result of it. This reliable and fast method of transportation would mean even faster growth for Cape May in the next few decades.
The late nineteenth century saw a hurricane and two fires threaten to destroy Cape May.
A hurricane in 1962 destroyed the convention centre and the boardwalk and did a lot of damage to the beachfront areas. The Victorian era buildings were luckily not destroyed and the convention centre and boardwalk were quickly rebuilt.
In 1869 a fire broke out that destroyed two square blocks. The fire, unfortunately, destroyed many of the oldest buildings. Among the buildings destroyed was the renowned United States Hotel.
The fire of 1869, however, was minor compared with the great fire of 1878. The fire began at seven a.m. in the attic of the Ocean House on Perry Street. The fire burned for over eleven hours – destroying some of the most valuable and beautiful property in Cape May. When the charred ruins of the city were surveyed it was determined that almost forty-acres of land had been decimated. It has been noted that Civil War hero Colonel Henry Sawyer was the person who sounded the alarm, thus preventing the destruction from being absolute.
Stiff winds and an inadequately supplied fire department allowed the fire to spread quickly get out of control. Winds at over 50 miles and hour allowed the fire to jump over roads from one block to the next. The fire department did not have enough water – as a bucket brigade stretching from the ocean to the water was their main supply. Sadly a request for more funds to buy equipment for the fire department had been denied only a few months earlier. They were finally able to put out the fire with the assistance of the near by Camden Fire Department.
Although other resorts at the time were built in a more modern fashion – Cape May decided to rebuild in the same traditional Victorian style of the hotels that the fire had destroyed. This decision has allowed Cape May to maintain a distinct romantic ambiance that is largely what makes it such a popular resort destination, even to this day.
The earlier part of the twentieth century did not see enormous growth for Cape May. Vacation was not a priority during the two great wars and during the great depression for Americans. The First World War resulted in the Navy acquiring a Cape May Hotel as a hospital and an army base. During the Second World War an enemy aircraft lookout tower and an antisubmarine surveillance station were built – and they are still standing today. Also built during the war was the Cape May Canal between 1942 and 1943.
The 1944 Great Atlantic Hurricane caused major damage to the entire eastern seaboard from North Carolina to Atlantic Canada. Cape May’s boardwalk was completely demolished and South Cape May was not reparable.
In the 1950s landscape architect and engineer Gilmore Clarke began working on the Garden State Parkway; which connected the northern part of the state (including New York) with the southern resort towns. In 1954 the Parkway was completed enough to allow people to travel to and from Cape May with relative ease. This resulted in a boom in tourism for the south shore community.
Several developments in the 1960s were instrumental in ensuring the preservation and continuation of the historic Victorian character of Cape May. Modern street lights were replaced with traditional gas lamps and several Victorian era homes were moved and restored (ensuring their preservation). Most important however, was the 3.5 million dollar Urban Renewal Grant that allowed the city to protect and preserve its unique Victorian heritage.
Despite some efforts by several developers in the 70s and 80s to tear down historic buildings in order to build contemporary hotels with modern amenities, the Victorian protectionists prevailed. Many buildings were protected because of their special historic status thus allowing Cape May to retain its unique charm and character.
Cape May has a very colorful history: from the early whalers to the more recent champions of historic preservation. One of the most interesting things about the history of this illustrious resort town is how disasters (like hurricanes and fire) are likely the reason the city has protected its Victorian heritage. If the city had not had to face disaster it would likely never have had to ask itself – what is worth keeping? What is it about Cape May that makes it unique and special? It turns out that it is the beautiful Victorian houses and hotels, that line the beautiful shore line, that set Cape May apart from other south shore communities.