As revolutionary novelist Søren Kierkegaard once stated, “Life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward.” What better time to truly get in touch with our area’s history than a lazy, rainy day? We here at DoTheShore have decided to outline a few of Cape May County’s historical landmarks that are worth a visit so you can learn about our rich past, thus gaining a better understanding of our looming future.
Cape May County Museum
504 Rt. 9 N., Cape May Court House
www.cmcmuseum.org, (609) 465-3535
Established in 1927, the Cape May County Museum has been our county’s foremost advocate for the acquisition, preservation and display of local history. Housed in three historic buildings, the museum is a treasure trove of exhibits showcasing county life from Native American times through the 21st century. The 1704 Colonial period home, 1830 Federal period addition, carriage shed and barn offer a fascinating look at how life in the county has evolved. The museum also houses an outstanding genealogical and research library for the serious historian. Check with your municipality to see if your Cape May County town has its own history museum!
Cape May Lighthouse
215 Lighthouse Ave., Cape May Point
www.capemaymac.org, (609) 884-5404, (800) 275-4278
The Cape May Lighthouse is at the tip of Cape May, in Lower Township’s Cape May Point State Park. It was built in 1859 under the supervision of U.S. Army engineer William F. Raynolds, was automated in 1946, continues operation to this day, and is said to be the second oldest continually operating lighthouse in the U.S. There are 199 steps to the top of the lighthouse, where you can enjoy the best panoramic views of the Atlantic in all of Cape May County. The view from the top extends to Cape May City and Wildwood to the north, Cape May Point to the south, and, on a clear day, Cape Henlopen, Del., to the west. On the way to the top, visitors can view interpretive exhibits about the lighthouse’s history, the lives of the former keepers and other maritime history of the Jersey Cape.
Emlen Physick Estate
1048 Washington St., Cape May
www.capemaymac.org, (609) 884-5404, (800) 275-4278
Attributed to the renowned architect Frank Furness, this 18-room mansion is one of the finest examples of “Stick Style” architecture in America. The Estate was designed for Dr. Emlen Physick, descendant of a wealthy and famous Philadelphia family, his widowed mother, Mrs. Ralston and maiden Aunt Emilie. Although Dr. Physick followed the family tradition and completed his medical training, he never practiced and rather lived the life of a country gentleman in Cape May.
Cape May is reputedly one of America’s most haunted towns, and the 1879 Emlen Physick Estate has well-earned the reputation of Cape May’s original haunted house. For years, MAC’s staffers had felt they were not alone in the house, but it was not until medium Craig McManus began his investigations into the town’s paranormal activities that those who were not regular members of the MAC staff were identified. Most prominent among them is Dr. Physick’s Aunt Emilie, who has great energy and a vibrant smile. Another resident is Isabelle, or Bella, Mrs. Ralston’s invalid younger sister, who died in 1883, shortly after the family moved into the mansion. Also among the unique spirits that McManus has reported are several of Dr. Physick’s dogs.
Hereford Inlet Lighthouse
111 North Central Ave., North Wildwood
www.herefordlighthouse.org, (609) 522-4520
Historic and picturesque Hereford Inlet Lighthouse, a beacon of safety and assurance to the 19th century mariners, has become a cherished landmark for residents and visitors of this seashore resort community. The lighthouse is situated on the south side of the Hereford Inlet in North Wildwood. First used by the 17th century whalers to haul in and butcher their catches, the Inlet’s use as a haven to mariners greatly increased as travel and shipping along the coast became more prevalent. Strong currents and shifting sandbars near the entrance to the Inlet caused frequent groundings and shipwrecks. Because of this, in 1849, a Life Saving Station was constructed along the south bank of the Hereford Inlet. As the use of the Inlet and coastal shipping continued to increase, so did the number of shipwrecks. It became obvious that a lighthouse was needed to mark the mouth of the Inlet. Construction began on the uninhabited barrier island on Nov. 8, 1873 and was completed on March 30, 1874. This wood frame residential style lighthouse was designed by the Lighthouse Boards Chief Draftsman, Paul J. Pelz. His Victorian era design is referred to as “Swiss Carpenter Gothic” and also “Stick Style.” The Hereford Inlet Lighthouse is the only lighthouse like it on the East Coast.
Historic Cold Spring Village
720 Rt. 9 S., Cape May
www.hcsv.org, (609) 898-2300
Historic Cold Spring Village is an early American open-air living history museum that brings to life the day-to-day activities of villagers living in Southern New Jersey during the “age of homespun,” 1790 to 1840. Thirty acres of shaded lanes include: gardens and farms where heritage crops are grown; 27 restored historic buildings housing historically-clothed interpreters who educate and entertain visitors about the lifestyles, issues, trades and crafts of yesteryear; and a children’s activity area where they take part in a variety of projects such as trying on period clothing, participating in hands-on crafts and playing games of the 18th century. The Village’s mission is preserving New Jersey arts, history and culture.
J. Thompson Baker House
3008 Atlantic Ave., Wildwood
(609) 522-0060, (609) 522-3639
Built in 1904 to replicate the White House, it once was the private residence of the first mayor of Wildwood, J. Thompson Baker, and his family. Baker, along with his two brothers, was a founding father of Wildwood and Wildwood Crest. He was elected the first mayor of Wildwood as well as one of the first congressmen in Cape May County. The Baker family built this historical home as a refuge for relaxation from city life in Philadelphia. Now home to the Wildwood Civic Club, the J. Thompson Baker House is proud to announce the availability of private guided tours through the historical residence. Appointments are required for all tours.
Naval Air Station Wildwood (NASW) Aviation Museum
500 Forrestal Rd., Cape May Airport, Rio Grande
www.usnasw.org, (609) 886-8787
Naval Air Station Wildwood (NASW) Aviation Museum is a nonprofit museum located at the Cape May Airport inside historic Hangar #1. Commissioned in April 1943, NASW served as an active dive-bomber squadron training facility during World War II. Today, Hangar #1 has been restored and transformed into an Aviation Museum that houses a number of aircraft, engines, special exhibits and educational interactive displays. The museum’s mission is to memorialize the 42 known airmen who perished here while training during World War II, educate the public and restore Hangar #1. The museum invites visitors to explore aviation, New Jersey, military and WW II history through “hands-on,” fun and educational activities for the entire family!
Sunset Beach, Cape May
S.S. Atlantus is the most famous of the 12 concrete ships built by the Liberty Ship Building Company in Brunswick, Ga. during and after World War I. The steamer was launched on December 5, 1918, and was the second concrete ship constructed in the World War I Emergency Fleet. The war had ended a month earlier, but the Atlantus was used to transport American troops back home from Europe and also to transport coal in New England. After two years of service, the ship was retired in 1920 to a salvage yard in Virginia. In 1926, Colonel Jesse Rosenfeld purchased the Atlantus for use in the creation of a ferry dock. The Atlantus was repaired and towed to Cape May, N.J. On June 8, 1926, a storm hit and the ship broke free of her moorings and ran aground 150 feet off the coast of Sunset Beach, N.J. Several attempts were made to free the ship, but none were successful.