Throughout its history Cape May has had more than its share of strange, bizarre, eccentric or, to be charitable, unique or curious people and places. It’s a fact that Cape May takes pride in its eccentricity and uniqueness which is felt to be a major factor in the town’s charm.
Perhaps Cape May was destined from the start for such status. Consider that the first three major figures in Cape May’s history never set foot here. Our discoverer, Henry Hudson, never even made it past the rips (shoals) to enter the bay in 1609. The explorer who gave us our name, Cornelius Jacobson Mey, never landed in 1620, being content to look from the bay. The man who established the first European settlement here in the 1670s, Dr. Daniel Coxe, never set foot here.
Those first European settlers were whalers of Pilgrim descent. Their 35 families, plus a few more that quickly joined them, dominated Cape May life for 300 years until the mid-20th Century. They account for another Cape May fascinating fact: We have the highest percentage of Pilgrim descendants of any place in the nation outside New England.
Joining Hudson, Mey, and Coxe among the curious Cape May characters is Peter Paul Boyton, a.k.a. the Pearl Diver. He was simultaneously Cape May’s most famous and infamous lifeguard. Actually from Philadelphia, he claimed to be a veteran of pearl diving in the South Seas. He had a shop of “exotic mementos” allegedly from there on Washington Street. In an era (c. 1850-70) when lifeguards were hired privately by families or hotels, he was greatly in demand and saved several people. In 1869, a fire started in his shop which eventually consumed several blocks, businesses, and hotels. Locals blamed it on him and ran him out of town. Some historians speculate the real arsonists were local lifeguards trying to rid themselves of unwanted “outlander” competition. Boyton went on to international fame as an aquatic daredevil under P.T. Barnum.
And then there’s the enormous elephant on our beach from c. 1884-1900. Erected to draw customers to newly developed South Cape May, its remains are under the waters of the Cove today. Forty feet tall including the howdah on its back, it -- like South Cape May itself -- was a victim of erosion. Its official name was The Light of Asia but locals called it Old Jumbo. One of its siblings still exists outside of Atlantic City.
Another Cape May classic curiosity was The Fun Factory. What a great name for an amusement park! Erected in 1912 by Peter Graves as part of an effort to promote another real estate development, this time in East Cape May, it stood at Sewell’s Point. Never a success, like East Cape May, it became part of a naval base during World War I. It was destroyed by a mysterious fire at war’s end in 1918.
Then there was The Windmill. It was built as part of the Cape May Casino in 1912 (also by Peter Graves). It was a tribute to our dubious Dutch heritage (remember Hudson and Mey never landed). The name “casino” is a bit quirky itself. The Victorians used it to designate a social club, entertainment venue and/or country club. It stood at the intersection of Beach and Howard.
The story of Cape May’s Magnesite Plant has strange aspects, not the least of which is its legacy of a near-desert at Cape May Point. From 1941-1983, it occupied several acres north of Sunset Boulevard near Sunset Beach. All that remains of it is part of a parking lot and its water tower. Magnesite is a vital component in making refractory bricks for steel ovens. During World War II, most of our supply from the Mediterranean Sea area was cut off. Scientists discovered how to make it by combining mainly a type of limestone called dolomite and magnesium chloride, which was extracted from sea water. The site at Cape May Point was selected because it had the East Coast’s highest concentration of magnesium chloride and was reasonably close to a supply of dolomite in Paoli, Pennsylvania (which was brought in by railroad). The process was expensive, noisy and polluting but there was a war to be won. Alkaline ash coated much of the area, stunting the growth of the acid-loving local vegetation and ruining paint of homes and autos in Cape May Point. The vegetation still hasn’t fully recovered. The magnesite plant closed in 1983. It had helped win World War II and brought Navy jobs to the area, somewhat compensating for the wartime blow to the tourism and fishing industries.
Appropriately symbolic of Cape May’s bizarre history is the seal of the city. Cape Island was established in 1848, Cape Island City was created in 1851 and became Cape May City in 1869. Yet our official seal bears the date 1857: Bizarre and curious, indeed!
A retired history teacher, school administrator and university professor, Dr. R.E. Heinly writes a weekly column on the Victorian Era in the Cape May Star & Wave. He is MAC’s Director of Museum Education and portrays our own Dr. Emlen Physick.