Take Exit 0 for America’s Oldest Seaside Resort

Cape May

Cape May beachAs numerous comedians have pointed out, in New Jersey we often refer to where we live by our exit number (I’m 151). The Garden State Parkway runs the length of the state and if you hit Exit 0, you are as far south as you can go. At the southern tip of the state is Cape May, a town of less than 4,000, which on a summer weekend may be home to as many as 40,000.

Cape May beach

Cape May is generally considered the country’s oldest seaside resort. Visitors, mostly from Philadelphia, began arriving there in horse-drawn wagons in the 1760’s. They came in larger numbers by the 19th century as two railroads began serving the Cape.

The heyday of Cape May as a resort was in the mid-1800’s. It attracted visitors from the northeast corridor between New York and Washington and its reputation was enhanced by visits from prominent Washingtonians. A parade of presidents including Lincoln, Grant, Arthur, Buchanan and Hayes all spent some time there.

In 1878, a five day long fire destroyed 30 blocks of Cape May including the large beachfront hotels which were the primary destinations of 19th century beachgoers. As the town was rebuilt, these large-scale resorts were often replaced by smaller inns and cottages. Built in the style of that time, this reconstruction is what gave Cape May its reknowned Victorian character.

Cape May Victorian

Cape May Victorian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cape May VictorianCape May street

 

At the beginning of the 20th century Cape May was eclipsed by Atlantic City as the playground of the rich and famous. What evolved was a greener and quainter beach town. A resort with an historic look and a small-town feel.  In the 70’s it was named a National Historic Landmark City, the only whole city to have been designated as such.

 

 

Congress Hall

Congress Hall

In two years Congress Hall will celebrate its 200th anniversary. Built in 1816 it was originally called Big House by its proprietor Thomas H. Hughes. The locals thought it was too big to succeed and called it “Tommy’s Folly,” a name that currently adorns the hotel’s coffee and gift shop. Hughes later was elected to the House of Representatives in 1828 and it was then that he re-christened the hotel Congress Hall. Presidents Buchanan and Grant stayed there and during the administrative of Benjamin Harrison it was known as the Summer White House.

Like the other 19th century beachfront hotels, Congress Hall was destroyed in the 1878 fire. It was replaced by a brick structure that reopened in 1879.

The hotel had its ups and downs in the 20th century. Plumbing was installed in the 1920’s but it was closed during the Great Depression and fell into disrepair later in the century. New owners embarked on an extensive renovation that was completed in 2002 and it is once again a truly grand destination.

Congress HallCongress Hall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cape May Lighthouse

View from a porthole inside Cape May Lighthouse

View from a porthole inside Cape May Lighthouse

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This is the third lighthouse to be built at Cape May Point. The first in 1823 was sucked up by beach erosion. A replacement was built in 1847, but not very well, and it crumbled. The current structure, built in 1859, is solid as a rock and its beacon is still used as a navigational aid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

World War II army bunker built in 1942 as part of Harbor Defense Project. In Cape May Point State Park

World War II army bunker built in 1942 as part of Harbor Defense Project. In Cape May Point State Park

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26 Responses to Take Exit 0 for America’s Oldest Seaside Resort

  1. What a fun place to explore and the Victorian houses are quite dashing. I’m more of a mountain and desert person, but do like getting to the ocean now and again.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, I’ve never heard of Cape May but I love the beautiful houses. I’ll bet there’s all kinds of fascinating history to discover – and it’s seaside as well? Bonus! Lighthouses have always fascinated me, imagining what those days must have been like …

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  3. Thanks for the history lesson of Cape May. It looks lovely! I however am never that far up east but I hope to be one day.

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  4. Tim says:

    Looks like San Francisco by the beach with all those Victorian era houses. Cape May looks like a gorgeous little town with an accordion-like population. Thanks for the history; always fascinating.

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  5. Lenie says:

    I love the Victorian era houses – they seem to have so much character. I bet the people in Cape May look forward to the tourist season to bring in the big bucks which they can then enjoy once the tourists leave and life returns to the calm of a 4000 population town. Loved the lighthouse story – I’ve read about other ones and they weren’t always easy to build – glad they finally got it right.
    Lenie

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  6. Have to admit I haver never even heard of Cape May before. Looks like a nice place to visit.

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  7. jacquiegum says:

    Wow! I have never heard of Cape May, but the Victorian architecture does remind me of the San Francisco area. Love the light house! What an interesting history.

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  8. Donna Janke says:

    I want to visit Cape May after reading this post. I love the Victorian houses.

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  9. Arleen says:

    Love going to Cape May. We stay at Angel of the Sea. There is also a real good restaurant walking distance from the hotel. Victorian style at its finest. Glad to see that there are others that appreciate New Jersey which gets a bad rap

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Cape May looks fabulous! And the Victorians are fantastic. Very much like the Gorgeous Victorians in San Francisco. It’s funny how history effects our lives in the present day- if it had become the town it was destined to be originally before Atlantic city took over, what a loss it would have been.

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  11. Leora says:

    Oh, I love Cape May! We went there on vacation several years ago. Tried to convince my family to go back again, but no interest. If I go back on my own or with my husband, I’ll spend a lot of time in the nature areas and watching the birds. It’s a major world stop for migrating birds. Your lighthouse photos bring back memories.

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  12. andleeb says:

    Cape May seems to be a beautiful place. I really liked Victorians houses and the story of light house .Cape have so much to offer…. Everything has its importance but I always love to visit sea.

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  13. Beth Niebuhr says:

    It looks like a great place to visit. Fabulous colors on those old houses. I enjoyed Victorians houses when I lived in San Francisco

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  14. Meredith says:

    Cape May sounds much more like my kind of place than Atlantic City, from how you describe it. Love the history and architecture. Is that army bunker open to visit and go into? It’s kind of jarring and intriguing in the middle of that beautiful beach.

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    • Ken Dowell says:

      You can walk up to and around the Army bunker but you can’t go in. It’s not really set up as a tourist attraction. The army bunker, lighthouse, beach and the bird sanctuaries are part of Cape May Point State Park.

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  15. Welli says:

    Lovely place Ken, I particularly find Victorian architecture and especially that Cape May Lighthouse is quite breathtaking especially the view through the small window. Classic picture that one.

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  16. TheRecipeHunter says:

    I have never had the pleasure of visiting the NE coast but would absolutely love to! Cape May sounds like the kind of place I’d love with lots of history, architecture and not so many people! I would love to do a lighthouse road trip too and visit the many along the eastern seaboard. Loved your pictures.

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  17. Remodels and rehabs are my favorite things about old architecture. I’ve never been to a lighthouse. It sounds like a great way to spend some free time.

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  18. Tatia says:

    Hi Ken. Cape May sounds a lovely place to visit! I’ll need to add it to next summer’s getaway list.

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  19. Oh I do love those Victorian houses. It would be so much fun exploring them with my camera. I used to live very close to the beach and took every opportunity to go and enjoy the wildlife, walks and the views. This really makes me miss the fact that it isn’t as close as it used to be.

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  20. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks. Fascinating! I learned a lot and was thoroughly entertained. Regards Thom.

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  21. Dr. Diana says:

    Thank you so much for this fantastic post with pictures. I love to go beach and enjoy the picnic. ❤

    Like

  22. jbutler1914 says:

    Cape May seems like a nice place to visit. Some of the pictures reminded me of Hilton Head SC a little bit.

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  23. maxwell ivey says:

    Hi Ken; thanks for sharing all this great local history with us. it sounds like they went through the same thing that happened here in galveston after the hurricane of 1901. the area has a lot of victorian structures and hosts one of the more elaborate dickens on the strand fairs I know of. It lasts for two weeks during the christmas season. and I’m told you could just imagine old ebeniser roaming the streets. thanks again and take care, max

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  24. Wow I want to visit after reading your post x

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