A History of Cape May County

Here, we share the New Jersey Historical Commission’s record of the founding, settlement, and development of our beautiful County.

The first people to live in what would become Cape May County were the Lenni Lenapes, a sub-tribe of the Algonquins or the Delawares. It has been debated whether the Lenni Lenapes only summered in Cape May County or lived here year around, but it is known that they hunted and fished along the shore. By the 17th century there were two sub-divisions o f the Lenni Lenapes, the Tuckahoes who lived along the Tuckahoes River and the Kechemeches, who were found between Cape May Court House and Cape May Point. It is reported that contact with the Europeans was peaceful and friendly, but due to shrinking numbers many of the remaining Natives moved away by 1735.

Henry Hudson sailed up the Delaware River on the Half Moon in 1609. Although he anchored near Cape May Point and explored the area, there was never an attempt to settle the land. In 1622 Cornelius Jacobsen Mey sailed for the Dutch aboard the Glad Tiding to the Delaware Bay and New York. He never set foot on the land, but he named the south cape, Cape Cornelius (now Cape Henlopen in Delaware) and the north cape, Cape Mey. Later, English settlers changed the spelling to Cape May. Sir George Carteret, a governor of New Jersey, named the land New Jersey because Carteret had been the governor of the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel.

In approximately 1685, the first permanent settlement was established. The abundance of whales in the Delaware Bay attracted Mayflower descendants from the North (After Massachusetts, Cape May County has the second largest number of Mayflower descendants).

Their settlement was constructed on the banks of the Delaware River in Portsmouth (New England Village) or what is today called Townbank. Nothing remains of the first settlement because the land has been eroded away by the bay.

Cape May County was created in 1692 from land held by the West Jersey Society. Ferry service across Great Egg Harbor was established the following year.

Revolutionary War
Cape May County had two militias (one that fought in the Battle of Germantown) and kept a lookout in Cape May to observe British naval movements. A naval battle occurred at Turtle Gut Inlet near Wildwood in June 1776 between the Nancy and a British warship. The Nancy ran herself aground, unloaded her cargo and set a trap for the ship to explode when the British boarded.

Civil War
Militias included the Cape Island Home Guards, Seaville Rangers and a company in Cape May Court House. Early in the war, the Board of Chosen Freeholders was sympathetic with the South because of good trade relations, yet as the war progressed the Freeholders turned their sympathies to the Union.

War of 1812
During the war it was routine for the British to come ashore in order to seize provisions from farms and replenish their water supply from Lily Lake in Cape May Point. When the residents grew tired of this, they dug a ditch from the ocean to the lake. The salt water flowed into the lake and therefore made it unfit to drink.

Cape May (Cape Island) grew in popularity as a ‘seashore resort community’ beginning
in 1800. The water and clean air attracted prominent people from the North and South. In addition to fishing and bathing, Cape May offered bowling alleys, an ice cream parlor, a dance pavilion and many fine hotels that rivaled Philadelphia and New York. Most visitors traveled by steamship or by coastal schooners. Over the years, Cape May experienced its ups and downs. Fires in 1869 and 1878 greatly affected the economy, and the Civil War brought an end to the stream of Southern visitors and trade. Later Cape May would gain popularity when “summer cottages,” rather than hotels, were built.

Throughout Cape May County’s history, farming has played a vital role. Other ways people made a living included glass making, shipbuilding and cedar shingle mining. Glass making was a flourishing industry in Cape May County. Factories were built in Cape May Court House between 1901 and 1908. They produced milk and specialty bottles and other glass items. Shipbuilding in Dennisville, Goshen and Tuckahoe saw a large increase in production in the 1870s. Coastal schooners were important for shipping and were needed during the Civil War. Large ships were built in the local creeks because they offered protection. The age of shipbuilding began to decline in the 1890s. There was no longer a demand for coastal schooners and the creeks were filling with silt, making it too dangerous to launch ships. Cedar Shingle Mining. Fallen cedar trees that were buried in the cedar swamps proved to be valuable for making shingles for roofing and siding. Once the trees were found, they were floated to the surface. The trees were cut into smaller pieces, split, and shaven into fine shingles. Fishing. Fish, oysters, clams, lobsters and scallops developed as major commercial crops. Cape May’s fishing fleet is one of the top producers on the East Coast.

Improvements in transportation made travel to Cape May County more convenient. In 1802 a steam ship packet was inaugurated; it left Cape May City one day and returned the next. A steamboat service began in 1810 and nine years later a regular summer schedule was established which continued until 1913. A less desirable form of transportation was the stagecoach. The “Bridgeton Stage” ran between Cape May City and Bridgeton while the “Tuckahoe Stage” went to Mays Landing and Philadelphia. On May 13, 1863 the Board of Chosen Freeholders passed a resolution which allowed the Cape May and Millville Railroad the right to lay tracks. In 1879 the railroad was united with the West Jersey Seashore Railroad (Pennsylvania Railroad). Due to the rail service, there was a great increase in the number of people traveling to the County. In the following years, service was extended to Sea Isle City and Ocean City, Stone Harbor (including 7 Mile Island) and Wildwood. The Reading Line was also well established in the County and provided stiff competition. The two consolidated in 1933 and became the Pennsylvania Reading Seashore Lines.

Until the 1880s, the barrier islands were used by farmers to graze their sheep and were the base for lifesaving stations. These future communities included Ocean City, Sea Isle City, Avalon, Stone Harbor and the Wildwoods. A movement was formed to settle some of the barrier islands as “Utopia Societies” because they were removed from the mainland and would be free of such sins as drinking and gambling. The islands were sparsely settled until after World War II. The improvement of the roads across the wetlands, along with rail service greatly improved the popularity of the islands.

Woodbine and Whitesboro were established to settle specific groups of people.

In 1891, the Trustees of the Baron De Hirsch Fund purchased 5,300 undeveloped acres in what became Woodbine. Baron De Hirsch was a French industrialist and banker who wanted to assist the Russian Jews and establish agricultural colonies in North and South America. The Woodbine economy, rooted in farming produce and raising poultry, was supplemented by numerous factories that moved there from the nearby cities. The Woodbine Agricultural School was opened in 1897 in order to provide scientific and agricultural studies. The school produced world-renowned scientists and doctors. One graduate, Dr. Selman Waksman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for medicine in 1952 for his discovery of streptomycin (effective against tuberculosis). He is considered the father of microbiology. Although the school closed in 1917, the State opened the Woodbine Development Center on the site in 1921. Until World War II, Woodbine was the shopping center of Cape May County, but the descendants of the founding families did not remain there. Many of them went to the cities to be educated or to become businessmen and did not return.

The founder of Whitesboro, George White, was a Congressman from North Carolina who served two terms in the House of Representatives, 1897-1901. In 1901 White purchased 1,700 acres of land from Congressman Robert Hand, from S. Jersey, in order to establish a community that would attract people to come to the North for educational and business opportunities. Although his vision was never completely realized, families such as the Spauldings, Grahams, Blanks and Mitchells trace their history back to North Carolina.

This brief history of Cape May County brings us up to the early 20th century. While there is still more history to know, it is the early years that set the stage for what Cape May County would become. The County, like most places, experienced gains and declines in popularity, yet throughout the years, people have always been attracted to the Shore either as a place to visit or as a place to call home.

Avalon Museum & Historical Society
215 39th Street, Avalon, NJ 08202 • (609) 967-0090 • www.avalonmuseum.org

Cape May County Historical & Genealogical Society/Museum
504 Rt. 9 North, Cape May Court House, NJ 08210 • (609) 465-3535

Cape May Lighthouse
504 Rt. 9 North, Cape May Court House, NJ 08210 • (609) 465-3535

Dennis Township Museum and History Center
681 Petersburg Road, Dennisville, NJ 08214 • (609) 861-1899

Doo Wop Museum
Montgomery and Ocean Avenues, Wildwood, NJ 08260 • (609) 729-4000

Forgotten Warriors and History Center
504 Rt. 9 North, Cape May Court House, NJ 08210 • (609) 465-3535

Greater Cape May Historical Society
Cape May Colonial House
653 1/2 Washington Street, Cape May, NJ 08204 • (609) 884-9100

Hereford Inlet Lighthouse & Gardens
1st & Central Avenue, North Wildwood, NJ 08260 • (609) 522-4520

Historic Cold Spring Village
Rt. 9, Cold Spring, NJ 08204 • (609) 898-2300
Historical Preservation Society of Upper Township

Friendship School
859 South Shore Road, Palermo, NJ 08223 • No Phone

John Wesley Gandy House
26 Tyler Road, Greenfield, NJ 08250 • (609) 390-5656

Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum
Cape May County Airport, Rio Grande, NJ 08242 • (609) 886-8787

Ocean City Historical Museum
1735 Simpson Avenue, Ocean City, NJ 08226 • (609) 399-1801

Physick Estate, Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts
1048 Washington Street, Cape May, NJ 08204 • (609) 884-5404

Sea Isle City Historical Museum
4208 Landis Ave., Sea Isle City, NJ 08243 • (609) 263-2992

South Jersey Railroad Museum at Tuckahoe
1721 Mt. Pleasant Road, Tuckahoe, NJ 08250 • (609) 628-2850

Wildwood Crest Historical Society & Museum
Crest Pier, Heather Rd., Wildwood Crest, NJ 08260 • (609) 729-4515

Wildwood Historical Society (George F. Boyer Historical Museum)
3907 Pacific Ave., Wildwood, NJ 08260 • (609) 523-0277

For a complete map of all Cape May County historic locations and landmarks, click here: http://dotheshore.com/sites/default/files/1-Historic_sites.pdf.

*Information provided by the New Jersey Historical Commission via The Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders & The Cape May County Department of Tourism.
4 Moore Road, Cape May Court House, NJ 08210 • 1-800-227-2297 • www.thejerseycape.net