Calling itself the oldest seaside resort in the United States, Cape May City is one of a handful of cities to be designated a national historic landmark. Situated at the southern tip of the state, the city is a living museum of Victorian architecture. Over 600 Victorian buildings, most dating from the 1880’s to 1910, are preserved in an area of less than two square miles.
Named for, and by, the Dutch explorer Captain Cornelius Mey, who pronounced the area as pleasant as his homeland and claimed it for the Netherlands in the 1620’s., the peninsula was first settled by whalers. Cape May began to become well-known as a resort before the revolution, but it was not until the early 19th century, with the introduction first of regular steamship connections between Philadelphia and Cape May (1819) and later of train service (1830) that Cape May achieved its reputation as a fashionable and special place. It was so popular in the 1840’s and ‘50’s that ships from Philadelphia to Cape May ran daily and so fashionable that it liked to be known as the “Playground of Presidents”. Abraham Lincoln stayed at the Mansion House in 1849 when he was still a congressman; Franklin Pierce visited in 1855, James Buchanan in 1858, Ulysses S. Grant in 1873, and Chester A. Arthur in 1893. In the summers of 1890 and 1891 President Benjamin Harrison’s summer White House was at the Congress Hall Hotel, although he himself stayed at Cape May Point. Other noteworthy visitors included the bandmaster and composer John Phillip Sousa, who wrote a “Congress Hall March”; Senator Henry Clay who came in 1847; and Henry Ford, who in the early 1900’s staged an automobile race on the beach against Louis Chevrolet (driving a Fiat) and Alexander Christy(driving a Winton). Ford in his Ford was ahead, but a wave broke over the car and the motor stalled. To pay his hotel bill he offered stock in his company, which was refused, and he finally sold his car to Dan Focer, who opened an agencey in Cape May three years later, becoming the country’s first Ford Dealer.
Tourists at first stayed in private homes, but soon seaside hotels were built. For two seasons Cape May boasted the world’s largest hotel – The Mount Vernon, with over 3000 rooms. It burned in 1856 as did many of Cape May’s buildings over the years. In fact, the city’s present appearance is largely a result of the rebuilding that took place after a fire in 1878 destroyed most of the city’s tourist accommodations.
Although the beaches, despite serious problems with erosion, are an obvious attraction and fishing and boating are also popular, most people come to Cape May to spend time in the town. The best way to see town is on foot or bicycle. The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts sponsors walking, trolley and boat tours. The center and the city both sponsor many special events: Victorian Week, spanning two weekends and featuring tours of may private homes, in October; a music festival in early Summer; A Christmas candlelight tour; and many other fairs and tours throughout the year.
To tour on your own, stop in at the Welcome Center (Lafayette St. near Ocean St., in the bus depot; (609-884-9562), or at the information booth at the head of the Washington St. pedestrian mall, maps are available for self-guided walking tours. You can pick up a variety of brochures and information at both places. The Welcome Center is open daily 8:30-4:30; off season the information booth’s hours are irregular.