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A Brief History of Cape May City

Cape May City acquired its name from Cornelius Mey who gave his name to the Cape peninsula on a voyage there in 1620. He was not the first to enter the bay, but he was the first to give it a definite name, Cape Mey. Captain Mey made another voyage from Holland in 1623. He brought thirty refuge families from Holland and settled with them at Fort Nassau on the Delaware River. Mey became the first director-general of the territory claimed by the Dutch (McMahon 3-4).

The first town, a whaling village existed on the cape by the 1690’s, perhaps as early as 1650. The village was generally referred to as Town Bank, although some referred to it as Portsmouth, Cape May Town or New England Village (McMahon 6).

The Town Bank whalers congregated on a high bluff overlooking the point where Delaware Bay met the Atlantic Ocean, especially during the winter whaling season. The whalers rowed out to catch the whales in wooden boats not much more than 30 feet long. They would harpoon the whale until it bled to death, then drag the carcass to shore. A whale might be 60 feet long, 40 feet in circumference and 250 tons in weight and yield 3,500 gallons of whale oil and whalebone worth at least a $1,000. It was a very dangerous occupation, but very well paid, if you lived to collect (Cunningham 38-39).

The whales disappeared from the Delaware Bay by 1700. Town Bank was abandoned. The bay claimed the land that was known as Town Bank, now, it is under water off the Cape May coast (McMahon 6).

The exact date for the founding of Cape May City is not established, but an act of the New Jersey Assembly in 1697 calls for a road between Cape May and Burlington. The report on the road says it was completed from Egg Harbor to Cold Spring in 1706 and from there to Town Bank in 1707 (McMahon 5).

Cape May referred to anything on the Cape, but by 1801, there were ads in the Philadelphia Daily Auroua advertising Cape Island as a seaside resort. The Atlantic Hotel placed ads and ran daily trips from 1806-1811. The town really took off as a summer destination after the arrival of steam powered boats, because then trips up and down the Delaware no longer had to be dependent on the tide (McMahon 12).

On March 8, 1848, Cape Island was incorporated as the borough of Cape May. Cape May City was a thriving seaside community, attracting many politicians and many wealthy plantation owners. Huge hotels were built, some accommodating as many as 2,000 guests. There were gambling casinos and horse racing on the beach. In 1850,  Sen. Abraham Lincoln and family vacationed there  The Civil War led to the 1st decline of Cape May by interrupting the normal vacationing habits of the southern plantation owners (McMahon 13-15).

(It is now, thought that the signature was of A. Lincoln, a businessman from Philadelphia.)

After the war frequent train service and savvy marketing to the Philadelphia and New York area revived Cape May as a seaside resort. A great fire in 1878 destroyed most of the city, but the wealthy vacationers did not abandon their vacation site. Nearly all the buildings in Cape May were built during this ‘Victorian Age’. Because wealthy patrons were used to coming to Cape May they rebuilt, and competed for the best "cottages".

A hurricane swept through Cape May City in 1962. It destroyed the boardwalk, convention center and most of the beachfront. Again Cape May City was rebuilt. The Victorian homes were still intact, but they built a new convention center and boardwalk. The extension of the Garden State Parkway into Cape May City, the advent of the ferry to Delaware and the designation of the City as a Historic District have led to the rise again of a great resort town. (McMahon 18)

Works Cited

Cunningham, John T., The New Jersey Sampler, Upper Montclair, NJ: 
    The New Jersey Almanac, Inc, 1964

McMahon, William, South Jersey Towns, New Brunswick:
     Rutgers University Press, 1973.

@Susan Ditmire 5/15/1999

Web Links


Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cape May Guidebook Editorial
By: Donald Pettifer

Cape May Historical Sights

Cape May Images of the Area
Both By: Cape Computer Services

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