December 7, 2023 in New Jersey

Cape May: How a Tiny New Jersey Town Became America’s First Seaside Resort

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Early History

The area of Cape May has been inhabited for thousands of years. The Kechemeche tribe of the Lenape Native Americans were the original inhabitants of the area. They fished and harvested shellfish from the bountiful coastal waters.

In 1524, Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano was the first European to record discovery of Cape May. For the next hundred years, explorers from various European countries visited and mapped the area.

The first permanent European settlement in Cape May was established in 1620, when English captain Cornelius Jacobsen Mey came ashore and laid claim to the area for the Dutch West India Company. Mey named the site Cape Mey after himself. In 1623, the Dutch sent another expedition to establish a whaling colony at Cape May. However, this early colony was unsuccessful.

In 1638, the first European colonists who would permanently settle Cape May arrived from the New Haven Colony in Connecticut. These Puritan colonists established farms and built homes, formally establishing Cape May as part of New Netherland.

19th Century Growth

Cape May began its development as a resort town in the early to mid 1800s. Its location on the southern New Jersey coast, along with the advent of rail and steamship transportation, made it an increasingly popular destination for visitors from Philadelphia, New York, and beyond.

Several large hotels were constructed along the beachfront to accommodate a growing number of tourists and vacationers. The Congress Hall Hotel opened in 1816, followed by the Columbia House in the 1830s. These grand hotels offered lavish accommodations and entertainment like saltwater baths, libraries, dining rooms and ballrooms.

Wealthy tourists built ornate Victorian-style cottages and homes throughout Cape May’s neighborhoods during this period. The residential areas expanded significantly west and south of the commercial beachfront district. The distinctive Victorian architecture came to define Cape May’s visual appeal and seaside charm.

By the late 1800s, railroad service connected the town directly to Philadelphia, Washington DC and New York City via the Cape May-Lewes Ferry across the Delaware Bay. Regular steamship lines also transported vacationers from these major cities. The improved transportation links made Cape May accessible to more and more tourists.

This period of growth established Cape May as one of the earliest and most famous seaside resorts in America. The Cape May of today retains much of the 19th century Victorian architecture and ambiance that drew in so many visitors.

Prominence as a Resort

Cape May became one of America’s first seaside resorts starting in the early 1800s. Its fine beaches, balmy weather and cooling ocean breezes attracted visitors from Philadelphia and beyond. Grand hotels like Congress Hall and the Cape May Hotel provided luxury accommodations and entertainment.

Wealthy families like the Pullmans, Astors, and Vanderbilts vacationed in Cape May during its heyday. The town was nicknamed “Queen of the Seaside Resorts” and offered activities like boating, fishing, swimming, shopping and dining. The social scene flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The resort’s popularity declined during the Great Depression when tourism slowed. Some of the grand hotels fell into disrepair or were lost to fires. But Cape May remains a draw today for its Victorian architecture, sweeping beaches, and history as a former Victorian era escape for the elite.

Post-WWII Era

The post-World War II era brought significant changes to Cape May. As racial segregation ended in the 1950s and 1960s, the city began to integrate its beaches, hotels, and tourist attractions. African American jazz and R&B acts started performing at venues that were previously segregated.

During this time period, efforts also began to preserve Cape May’s unique Victorian architecture. In 1970, the city created the Historic Preservation Commission to protect its historic buildings. Large sections of the city became national and local historic districts. This helped Cape May maintain its Victorian charm even as many buildings deteriorated over the years.

Cape May’s location on the Jersey Shore also made it vulnerable to damage from major storms and hurricanes. In 1962, the Ash Wednesday Storm destroyed much of the city’s boardwalk and beachfront. More recently in 1992, Hurricane Andrew and in 2012, Superstorm Sandy caused significant flooding and wind damage throughout Cape May. But after each storm, determined residents and business owners worked hard to rebuild and restore their beloved beach town.

Fishing Industry

Cape May has a long history related to commercial fishing and whaling. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the abundantly rich waters off the coast of Cape May attracted whalers from New England. Whale oil was a valuable commodity, and several prominent Cape May families amassed wealth from the whaling industry.

By the 19th century, whaling declined but commercial fishing continued to thrive. Cod, bluefish, herring, shad, oysters, clams and lobsters were caught or harvested in great numbers off the Cape May coast. Fishing and oystering provided employment for much of the local population.

Fishing regulations increased over time, limiting certain types of fishing equipment and allowing only licensed individuals to commercially fish or harvest shellfish. This regulated access to try to prevent overfishing. Even with regulations, commercial fishing remained an important industry for Cape May into the late 20th century.

However, by the 1990s and 2000s, stricter federal regulations and declining fish stocks greatly reduced the volume and profitability of commercial fishing out of Cape May. Today, commercial fishing persists on a small scale, but tourism has replaced it as the main economic driver for the region. Some efforts have been made to support local independent commercial fishermen by promoting Cape May’s fishing heritage and culinary traditions. Overall, though, commercial fishing is a fading industry compared to its heyday centuries ago.

Notable Architecture

Cape May is renowned for its concentration of ornate Victorian homes and hotels constructed during the late 19th century. The city has one of the country’s largest collections of Victorian architecture. Cape May’s designations as a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places are largely due to these well-preserved 19th century structures.

The Victorian buildings reflect the popularity of Cape May as a seaside resort for the social elite during the Victorian era. Wealthy guests would stay in grand hotels and ornate guest houses known as “Congress Hall”. There are over 600 surviving Victorian buildings in Cape May, many of them bed and breakfast inns today.

The Historic District designation protects the Victorian charm of the city. Notable landmarks include the Emlen Physick Estate, the Cape May Lighthouse, Hotel Macomber, and the 1879 Colonel John T. Dempsey House. Strict guidelines regulate paint colors, building materials, and exterior changes to preserve the historic aesthetic of the architecture.

Ongoing restoration efforts by local historical societies have helped maintain these buildings. Local zoning ordinances prohibit demolitions and ensure architectural details are retained during renovations. Tourists flock to Cape May to admire the preserved 19th century buildings that make the city feel reminiscent of a bygone era. The Victorian structures create a quaint, nostalgic atmosphere central to Cape May’s identity today.

Local Cuisine

Cape May’s local cuisine is heavily influenced by its coastal location and heritage as a beach resort town. Seafood features prominently on menus across Cape May, with popular dishes like fried oysters, clam chowder, crab cakes, and locally caught fluke.

The influx of immigrants from various countries also shaped Cape May’s food culture over the years. Irish pub fare like shepherd’s pie can be found alongside Italian restaurants serving chicken parm and veal marsala. There’s also a noticeable Caribbean influence from West Indian immigrants, with dishes like jerk chicken and curried goat.

Some of Cape May’s iconic restaurants that showcase local flavors include The Lobster House, known for steaming lobster and drawn butter with ocean views; The Mad Batter, featuring carrot cake made from a 1940s recipe; and Lucky Bones Backwater Grille, dishing up crab imperial and jambalaya. No trip to Cape May is complete without trying the seafood bisque from the Blue Pig Tavern or the coconut shrimp from Cabana’s Beach Bar & Grill.

From fine dining seafood spots to casual eateries and ice cream shops, Cape May’s local cuisine reflects its seaside location, immigrant heritage, and popularity as a top Jersey Shore destination.

Tourism Today

Cape May remains one of the most popular beach destinations on the East Coast today. Its pristine beaches, Victorian architecture, and seaside attractions draw over 3 million tourists each year. The summer months see a huge influx of visitors who come to enjoy the sunny weather, lively boardwalk, charming B&Bs, award-winning restaurants, and shopping.

Popular attractions for tourists include the Cape May Lighthouse, the Emlen Physick Estate, the Cape May County Park & Zoo, whale and dolphin watching boat tours, the iconic Cape May-Lewes Ferry to Delaware, and more. Cape May also hosts many events throughout the year like the Cape May Jazz Festival, Cape May Music Festival, and various food and wine festivals.

The population of Cape May swells during the summer tourist season, going from under 4,000 year-round residents to over 60,000 people at the height of summertime. While tourism continues year-round, the winter months are significantly quieter in Cape May after the summer crowds dissipate. The seasonal ebb and flow of tourists and second-home owners has been a defining feature of Cape May for over a century.

Environment

Cape May is located at the southernmost point of New Jersey, where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. This unique geographic location provides habitat for a diverse array of wildlife. The coastal wetlands and beaches are home to many migratory bird species, horseshoe crabs, bottlenose dolphins, and endangered sea turtles. The wetland estuaries also serve as nurseries and spawning grounds for fish and shellfish.

Several conservation efforts are underway to protect Cape May’s natural habitats. The Nature Conservancy has preserved over 1,000 acres of coastal habitat at Cape May Point to provide a sanctuary for birds during migration. The Wetlands Institute conducts research and advocacy to conserve coastal ecosystems. Efforts are also being made to protect sea turtles by minimizing artificial lighting along nesting beaches during hatching season.

However, Cape May’s environment faces increasing threats from storms and climate change. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 caused significant beach erosion and damage to shoreline communities. Rising sea levels also increase the vulnerability of low-lying areas to flooding during storms. To build resiliency, the US Army Corps of Engineers has undertaken beach replenishment projects by pumping in sand. But longer-term solutions will be needed to help Cape May adapt to the effects of a changing climate. Overall, preserving this unique ecosystem remains an ongoing effort requiring vigilance and care.

Culture

Cape May has a thriving arts scene, fueled by its history as an artist colony. The Emlen Physick Estate has a carriage house that hosts rotating exhibits by local artists. The airport gallery displays works by members of the Cape May County Art League.

Several theater companies operate in Cape May, including the East Lynne Theater Company, which performs at a 19th century firehouse during summer months. Cape May Stage presents contemporary comedies and dramas.

The music scene includes the Cape May Music Festival, which brings classical, jazz, and pop concerts to venues across town each fall. Local bands play shows at the Congress Hall and the Rusty Nail. Singer-songwriters often perform at open mic nights at coffee shops and bars.

Annual events draw visitors and locals alike. The Victorian Weekend in October is all about the Gilded Age, with horse-drawn carriage rides, teas, tours of historic homes, and a fashion show. The Cape May County Park & Zoo hosts the Wine & Wildlife Festival each June. Cape May’s Fourth of July celebrations span a full week and culminate in fireworks over the harbor. The West Cape May Strawberry Festival in June is dedicated to all things strawberry.




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