New Jersey's Atlantis
Updated: Sep 20, 2021
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald
Welcome to the 4th segment of Laura’s Library- an exhibition of the research materials I poured over while preparing my historical fiction novel, Thicker Than Water.
Part companion reading, part fun facts; it’s shore to become your go-to destination for all things vintage New Jersey.
Before we begin our investigation into this ghost of town, you should know that this post is deeply personal as is, indeed, the majority of my literary journey.
In choosing South Cape May as one of the primary settings of my book, I’ve pushed myself to come face-to-face with some of my own ghosts; the final product a testament to their memory.
Nearer, My God, to Thee
Talk about love at first sight. Sometimes we’d go for ice cream only to end up strolling Washington Street Mall for hours. Or, we’d wander the historic district, enjoying the iconic splendor of her painted ladies.
My grandparents never missed Victorian Weekend, often staying at the Marquis de Lafayette Hotel (yes, Hamilton fans- named after the same guy). In her later years, she happily spent her birthdays at the Angel of the Sea.
When she died in 2015, she took a piece of my heart with her.
And so, on a cool May morning, I found myself on the Parkway charging toward Exit 0 to chase down her spirit. I parked at Sunset Beach and wandered the trails behind the World War II bunker through Cape May Point State Park. Grief stricken, I walked and walked until I found myself alone on a stretch of beach opposite the lighthouse.
It was so peaceful there. So quiet. Just the soft rush of the waves and the call of the gulls. I pulled a blanket from my knapsack, sat down, and stayed there for hours. I wasn’t sure how to say goodbye, I only knew that I didn’t want to.
The tide was coming in, the small puffs of sea foam at the waterline reminding me of the root beer floats we enjoyed on all those ice cream dates, and I finally found my strength.
Rising, I wrote her a message in the sand and watched in solemn silence as the waves swept it away.
Much akin to my own love affair with the shore, family is at the heart of Joseph Burcher’s book. Co-written with his son-in-law, Robert Kenselaar, it's a fact-based memoir of his own summers by the sea.
Truth be told I read it several times over- the first as a rental from my local library for research and again as a Kindle download for my own nostalgic amusement.
As mentioned, Burcher was a South Cape May native- that’s him on the back cover. His voice comes across as clear and friendly, which is fitting considering that he was also a former teacher. From swimming out to the schooner Polly Page to bowling on the pier that used to run along Decatur and Beach Drive, Burcher’s descriptions are a touching slice-of-life into yesteryear.
Perhaps most fascinating are his first-hand accounts of the rumrunning during Prohibition. Given South Cape May’s isolation, it was a perfect landing spot. The bootleggers would park huge Chevy trucks next to the beach to rendezvous with the contact boats from Rum Row, just off the 3 mile limit. The cargo was unloaded into wheel barrels then pushed up the sand to the vehicles.
Burcher and friends would build fires in the dunes from driftwood, lighting cat tails to ward off mosquitos, and lie in wait. Occasionally, they’d get to see Charlie Roseman and the U.S. Coast Guard battle it out with the smugglers, firing 5 inch shells in an effort to stop them or landing beach patrols to smash any lingering cargo.
A Civilization Gone with the Waves
The Mount Vernon Hotel
The scene- 1841: a traveler to Cape Island for 4th of July describes the island as “a narrow strip of land less than half a mile in width, bounding on the sea…in many parts not more than ten or twelve feet wide.”
A tiny village dotted the landscape, approximately 50 dwellings, 3 or 4 boardinghouses, along with a few hotels one of which stood out- the “Mount Vernon House.”
Flash forward a decade and a group of investors created the Mount Vernon Hotel Company to build what they touted as the largest hotel in the world.
Situated in the same vicinity as the Mount Vernon House, construction began in 1852. Sadly, it was lost to fire on September 5, 1856, with casualties including one of the proprietors, Philip Cain, 4 of his children, and a housekeeper.
Arson was originally suspect with an Irish servant arrested for reportedly demanding “a balance of four dollars and fifty cents that was due her,” and threatening “to send them to h-ll,” [sic]. The woman was later released due to lack of supporting evidence.
The Light of Asia
Built in 1885 to capitalize on the success of Lucy (located just south of Atlantic City) and Elephantine Colossus (on Coney Island), the prodigious pachyderm was the brainchild of Theodore Reger and Philadelphia architect Nathan Culver who obtained the patent from James Lafferty.
Locals quickly dubbed her “Jumbo” after P.T. Barnum and Bailey’s Circus.
One entered the hotel via the structure’s hind legs, up a spiral staircase. Similar to Lucy, the eye’s served as windows as did other parts of her abdomen, while the observatory on her howdah offered guests sweeping views of the Atlantic.
A platform under her belly shielded guests from the sun while they enjoyed refreshments.
Burcher recalls the tale of another historian, John Alexander, who told of a local youth and his friends climbing through a loose board at the end of Jumbo’s trunk to avoid paying the 10 cent admission fee.
Regrettably, due to the brutal Northeast winter weather and poor upkeep she deteriorated and was ultimately demolished by the turn of the new century.
Ongoing Storm Damage
Storms ravaged the coast year after year, perhaps none so catastrophic as the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944. With winds upwards of 90 miles per hour, it decimated the once thriving village. The Cape May Star and Wave reported:
"the boardwalk completely destroyed, Convention Hall wrecked, virtually every beachfront cottage and hotel damaged by the impact of (the) storm-tossed wreckage and mountainous waves. The majority of buildings throughout the city damaged to some extent either by wind or water."
A tidal wave built up offshore during the midst of the storm and when the wind shifted, "the full force of the mass of water was unleashed against the beach."
Now known as South Cape May Meadows, the area is world renowned as a bird watching utopia. Burcher found it a paradise too, rebuilding his own cottage on Sunset Boulevard in the 1950s.
Burcher's fondness for the island matches that of my own. His vivid prose and vintage photographs put you at the heart of the doomed seaside town.
Right in the same spot where I found myself that fateful May afternoon.
Gone does not equate to forgotten. Indeed, the past lives on in the present.
When developing some of the settings for my novel it was only natural to turn to a place so hauntingly familiar.
It was easy for me to imagine the bungalow (left) as the Culligan's early residence and the hotel (right) as Shannon's boardinghouse during the war years.
In reality, the cottage actually belonged to the Burcher family and was located on what was once Eighth Avenue in South Cape May, whereas the hotel operated as the South Cape May Hotel during the 1920s.
In addition to Burcher's book, which you can purchase here, the works of Emil Salvini proved invaluable to recreating in my mind's eye what the island looked and felt like a century ago. These include: Historic Cape May New Jersey, the Summer City by the Sea and Jersey Shore- Vintage Images of Bygone Days. Ironically, I purchased Jersey Shore for my grandmother as a coffee table book long before I ever dreamed I'd embark on a novel about the treasured location. Salvini also runs a fascinating page on Facebook - Tales of the Jersey Shore. Trust me, he's worth a follow.
So is Cape May Days-a fun blog about all there is to love about the island. Featuring everything from beachy recipes to local eateries, along with recommendations on where to stay and where to play, it's a wonderful resource for anyone looking to visit the region.
Cape May will always hold a special place in my heart, as it does for so many others. Sometimes I sense the presence of my ghost as I'm writing and I hope she is proud of the work that I'm doing.
As for the Culligans, can they survive the rising tide of their own storm? Only time will tell.
*photos courtesy of the following: the New York Public Library, the Cape May County Historical and Genealogical Society, Robert W. Elwell, Sr., Dorothy Burcher, and Ryan Stone.