Updated: Aug 11, 2022
Cape May is justifiably known for its magnificent Victorian architecture. But it also has two plus miles of the beach with soft sand and steep inclines to and from the beach to the waterfront.
Right now in mid-August, people are flocking in droves to Cape May. In the past several years, I've been to Cape May at least a dozen times from summer weekends to winter middays. I've never seen it this busy. Ever.
Even on a Thursday midday, the traffic is nearly gridlocked throughout the city. If you have a specific restaurant or activity in mind, plan and call ahead especially if the forecast is for rain or cloudy when all the visitors to Wildwood, Stone Harbor and Avalon head here for the day.
At the eastern or northern section of the Cape May beach is Poverty Beach, so-called because it was where the poorest residents shlepped from the fancy hotels to go swim or lay on the beach. The promenade ends much further west so there's a lot of trudging through the sand to reach this quietest area of the beachfront. The beach continues its zig-zag course past seven man-made jetties until it reaches the popular Cove at the western end of the promenade. Because of the gently sloping sand and easy-breaking waves, all kinds of surfers from novice to expert compete for long rides. Swimmers beware! See the photo at the bottom of the story.
Former Life-Saving Service Station now a Kiwanis Club
Before there was the United States Coast Guard, there was the United States Life-Saving Service. In 1848, NJ Congressman William Newell advocated for a law to establish eight unmanned lifesaving stations from Sandy Hook to Long Beach Island to provide "surf boat, rockets, carronades and other necessary apparatus for the better preservation of life and property from shipwreck".
By 1878, the volunteer life-saving role was assumed by a new federal agency, the Life-Saving Service, which refurbished, replaced or built 40-plus stations from Sandy Hook to Cape May and many more along the nation's coastlines. By 1915, the Coast Guard was created and subsumed the Service.
In Cape May, several Life-Saving Service Stations were built including the Cold Spring Life-Saving Service station on Beach Avenue. The building remained in use by the Coast Guard until 1939 when Charles “Nick” A. Swain of the Cape May Kiwanis Club bought the abandoned building from the USCG, at auction, for $120 with the idea of using it as a Boy Scout Headquarters. A condition of the auction was that the winner had to move the building off the government’s property in 30 days. The Kiwanis paid $1000 to a Wildwood House Moving Co to move the station and put it up on a good concrete block foundation where it stands today at 1041 Beach Avenue.
From 1871 through 1914, the Life-Saving Service aided 28,121 vessels, and rescued or aided 178,741 persons. It's unofficial motto: “Remember, you have to go out, but nothing says you have to come back.”
Digging the Cape May Canal to fight the Germans
For most of its history, Cape May was a peninsula. Starting as early at 1808, government and shipping officials advocated for the digging of a canal across the northern section of the Cape May to create a short cut from the Delaware Bay to the Atlantic Ocean.
That changed in World War II when the United States Army Corps of Engineers dug a 3.3-mile canal to provide a protected route to avoid German U-boats operating off Cape May Point and to become part of the Intracoastal Waterway. There are three bridges across the canal including Route 109 which is the main entry from the last exit of the Garden State Parkway to Cape May.
Report from the Coast Guard
The Coast Guard is the largest land owner in Cape May occupying a huge chunk of the island on the eastern section of the island. Walking east/northeast on Cape May's beach, you run into numerous signs -- okay, we get the point -- telling people not to go any farther. A spokesman from the Coast Guard reiterated that there are no plans to allow any access to its Cape May beachfront nor access to the Coast Guard section of Two Mile Beach on the northern side of the Cape May Inlet.
This is the only place on the entire Jersey Shore where the Coast Guard flexes its muscle on any inlet. The only other off-limits section is on the northwestern tip of Sandy Hook overlooking the New York Harbor. That's also a Coast Guard station.
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While it would be tempting to request the parts of this large section of the waterfront be open to the public, the Coast Guard's may rather focus its efforts to aid and protect commercial shipping vessels and leisure boaters. After all, the Cape May/Wildwood docks comprise the second largest commercial fishing port on the East Coast behind New Bedford, Mass.
A nod to Cape May MAC
A group of pioneering preservationists rallied in1970 to save the Emlen Physick Estate from destruction. Their fight led others to carry the the banner of preservation and stop the destruction of many of the famous painted ladies— beautifully restored and colorfully painted Victorian homes from the latter part of the 19th century.
While it’s easy to walk or drive by the Victorian homes, your understanding of Cape May’s history and architecture will be richly enhanced by taking one of the many trolley tours offered by the Cape May MAC (Museums+Arts+Culture). MAC also runs the Emlen Physick Estate, the city’s only Victorian house museum, which provides a fascinating look into the daily life of a wealthy Philadelphia family that moved to Cape May and stayed there throughout their lives.
Harriet Tubman Museum - Newest Historic Gem
Now in its first full summer of operation, the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May is more fully open and ready for touring. As your drive into the city on Franklin Street, it located on the eastern side near downtown on the block that has a long history of anti-slavery activities.
Cape May played a pivotal role in the fight to end slavery. Harriet Tubman was often at the center of those activities, having spent at least three summers in Cape May working in hotels and families as a cook, raising money to bring other African-Americans to their freedom in the north.
The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday mostly for timed admissions. For more information, click here.
How did Cape Mey/Cape May get its name?
Dutch Captain Cornelius Jacobsen Mey surveyed and named the area for himself in 1620, making it the oldest named town on the Jersey Shore. Mey name was misspelled as "May" in public records. The town's name lived on as Cape May.
Cape May calls itself the Nation's Oldest Seaside Resort. That's seems fair because in the 1700s, it was a convenient rest stop for those traveling between England and Philadelphia, the largest city in the Colonies. In addition to traveling via ship, Philadelphians also used stagecoaches and horse-drawn wagons to reach the seaside resort to escape the heat of the city.
By 1801, there were ads advertising Cape Island as a seaside resort. When steam boats started traveling the waters of the Delaware Bay, Cape May grew as a major vacation destination.
Tips for visiting Cape May
What's New: Everything is open and visitors are pouring in.
Access and Parking: The main access to the area is from the Garden State Parkway which ends at Exit 0. Go straight into Cape May proper and make a right on most streets and follow straight to the beach. Pittsburgh Avenue and Madison Avenue are wide streets with good access to the beach. Parking is a challenge throughout Cape May and mostly requires paying a meter or using Park Mobile app to park.
Amenities: Restrooms and showers are located along the promenade.
Beaches: Beach badges are required daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Full season badges are $30 for people 12 and older. Weekly badges cost $20. 3-day badges for consecutive-day use are $15. Daily badges cost $8. Badges can be purchased at the beach or via the Viply app.
Follow Jersey Shore author and expert R.C. Staab as he recounts his 2021 walk of every beach along the 139 miles of the Jersey Shore coastline from Sandy Hook to Cape May. Read all updated stories at www.JerseyShoreWalk.com.