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A Guide To Its Present And Past
Compiled and Written by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration for the State of New Jersey
American Guide Series

Originally published in 1939
Some of this information may no longer be current and in that case is presented for historical interest only.

Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2003

Tour 18
Junction with US 1–Woodbridge–Perth Amboy–Freehold–Lakewood–Toms River–Tuckerton–Cape May; US 9,
Cape May City

CAPE MAY CITY, 139 miles (14 alt., 2,637 pop.), dean of the Jersey shore resorts, is resting after almost a century of catering to the most prominent figures in American public affairs and society. The city does not fret over its loss of patronage; it is content to call itself the Newport of ancient times and to remember the days when Presidents and society matrons talked small talk on the spacious verandas of its nineteenth-century hotels. The three- and four-story rambling frame hotels along the ocean boulevard are in good condition, but the general architecture is of the type seen in Harper's Weekly illustrations in post-Civil War years. Tall columns and high windows are characteristic.

Inland are smaller boarding houses, markets, and the gray- and white-painted homes of the all-year residents. On the roof peaks of some of the older houses are railed platforms, the "widow's walk," where the wives of the whalers once watched – sometimes vainly – for the return of the ships carrying their men.

The FIRST FORD AGENCY, 662 Washington Ave., got its first car from Henry Ford when he lost a beach race at Cape May in 1903 and had to sell his car for railroad fare back to Detroit. The car is exhibited.

Cape May's recorded history as a summer resort goes back to 1801 when Postmaster Ellis Hughes advertised in a Philadelphia newspaper: "The subscriber has prepared himself for entertaining company who use sea bathing, and he is accommodated with extensive house room, with fish, oysters and crabs and good liquors." The "extensive house room," according to Jefferson Williamson's The American Hotel was a "great barnlike place said to have been composed of one large room, which was partitioned off with sheets into two rooms at night, the men sleeping on one side, the women on the other."

In their carpetbags guests brought their old clothes to wear as bathing suits. The modish "strip-tease" models were a thing of the future, and mixed bathing, though permitted, was carefully chaperoned. One set of debutantes came to the beach in the custody of an old Negro retainer lavishly bedecked in scarlet cloth and gilt lace, who ducked the girls and shooed off admirers.

Henry Clay, during the summer of 1847, was not so well protected. There was the time when frenzied women admirers of the "Mill Boy of the Slashes" chased him up and down the beach, finally caught him, and with their sewing scissors snipped locks of his hair for souvenirs.

To Cape May came Presidents Lincoln, Grant, Pierce, Buchanan, and Harrison. Horace Greeley, John Wanamaker, countless Congressmen, and wealthy society leaders vacationed here. Some of the descendants of these people still return annually.

The Cape, named for Cornelius Jacobsen Mey who sailed past in 1623 – 14 years after Henry Hudson – was purchased in 1631 by Samuel Godyn and Samuel Blommaert. Into the waters surrounding the Cape came whaling boats, British men-o'-war, and pirates all attracted mainly by the fresh water supply of LILLY POND, 0.8 miles S. on the Lighthouse Rd. to Cape May Pt., a 10-acre sheet of fresh water beautifully dotted with creamy white water lilies. Captain Kidd filled his water casks and supposedly cached part of his treasure near the pond. Col. William Quary unsuccessfully pursued Kidd to this region in 1699. During the War of 1812 British warships watered here until exasperated residents dug a ditch from the ocean to spoil the sweet water. The ditch was filled in after the war and the water gradually became fresh again.

Commodore Stephen Decatur, one of the resort's visitors, measured the rate at which the ocean was eating away the point. His survey indicates that 3 miles of land have been lost within historic time, including that holding two lighthouses. The present LIGHTHOUSE on the Point is a gray tower 170 feet high, with a 250,000-candlepower lantern visible for 19 miles.

Many vacationists carry away geological souvenirs, the "Cape May diamonds" found on the beach. These are bits of pure quartz, rounded by action of the water. They are samples of the vast deposits, of glass sand underlying the district.

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