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Then & Now: Cape May Point

This week I’m back with another blast from the past.

Located at the southern-most tip of New Jersey, Cape May Point is nestled where the ocean meets the bay. The site was used by the indigenous Kechemeche tribe as well as early settlers as part of the whaling industry at the time. It was known as Stites Beach until 1875.

Enter Alexander Whildin, a Philadelphia cotton merchant and devout Presbyterian. Along with a group of investors, including John Wanamaker, Whildin (sometimes spelled with two “L”s) purchased approximately 266 acres for $5.00. Yes- you read that right- five whole bucks.

The businessmen, in collaboration with religious leaders, formed the Sea Grove Association, quickly selling 275 lots. Of particular interest to this #prohibitionnovelist, the settlement was part of a larger, nation-wide temperance movement, with liquor of any kind strictly prohibited.

Wanamaker himself built a cottage. While serving as Postmaster General, he also had one built for President Harrison, causing a bit of a scandal. Ultimately, the President and First Lady opted to utilize Congress Hall as their Summer White House.

In 1896, the area was returned to Lower Township and the name "Cape May Point", with the borough being fully incorporated in 1908. The surrounding area, with it's angled streets, remains charmingly similar today.

The Cape May Lighthouse

Standing a whopping 157 feet 6 inches tall, the Cape May Lighthouse has been guarding the coast for over two centuries.

Built in 1859, it is the third light at this location (the previous two were built in 1823 and 1847, respectively).

In 1973, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. There are 199 spiral steps to the top but, trust me friends, the view is well worth it. Tours are available via Cape May MAC. Can't make it? Enjoy a virtual tour here from the comfort of your home.

Lake Lily

Lake Lily plays host to several scenes in the Thicker Than Water series.

Sometimes spelled "Lilly", this large freshwater lake is just a stone's throw from the lighthouse. There are stories of pirates coming ashore to fill their canteens while patrolling the coast. In addition, Ben Miller writes in The First Resort, how islanders during the American Revolution sabotaged the British from doing the same. Specifically:

To ensure that the British Navy would not be able to use the pure water, small groups of patriots assembled and dug channels connecting the lake with the ocean. Once completed, the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean flowed into Lake Lilly (sic) and tainted the water supply.

After the war, the trenches were filled in.

Sadly, while the habitat was disrupted for years as a consequence, it is currently a thriving nature reserve- playing host to both migrant butterflies and birds.

St Mary by-the-Sea

The Presbyterians were not the only denomination to plant roots on the Point. Located on Lake Drive, is St. Peter’s By-The-Sea Episcopal Church. Affectionately dubbed The Gingerbread Church, services are still offered during the summer season.

And then there is the red-roofed icon otherwise known as St. Mary by-the-Sea, overseen (until 2021) by the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia.

Formerly the Shoreham Hotel, the structure was built in 1889. It boasted 150 rooms, 1200 feet of porches (every reader’s dream- pass the lemonade!), and a 200 foot lawn leading right to the ocean. Unfortunately, filling those rooms proved difficult. Consequently, the hotel was sold to the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People in 1898.

Sadly, the venture also proved insolvent and the Sisters (under Reverend Daniel McDermott) took ownership of the property in 1909. The site was temporarily leased to the U.S. Army during World War II.

Recognize this view? Formerly the community of South Cape May (the town which the Culligans reside) this stretch of beach is now known as The Cove. I picked up this original watercolor postcard by Patricia Rainey this summer from the gift shop at Sunset Beach on the bay side of the Point.

The Sisters held retreats at SMBTS for over a century. On 9/18/21, they ended their tenure in a touching closing ceremony.

After a massively successful preservation effort, the treasured building and surrounding area are being preserved. Specifically:

After much discussion and negotiation, the Sisters agreed to sell to the Science Center, an entity devoted to protection of the environment.
Cape May Point Science Center, Inc., a New Jersey nonprofit corporation, has agreed to purchase the property with conditions to respect and honor the Sisters of Saint Joseph’s pledge to the community. They intend to create an environmental center that will focus on education, research and advocacy devoted to the conservation, protection, and preservation of nature. This mission is aligned with the Sisters’ land ethic and their commitment to the ocean, climate and marine life. The agreement calls for the long-term preservation of this iconic building and, if ever destroyed by nature, the site would return to its natural ocean side habitat. Explicit Deed Restrictions safeguarding the ban on any development and possible return to nature will maintain this property in perpetuity for the benefit of the community at large.

This is a huge victory, ensuring that the site can still be enjoyed for generations to come.

Have you ever been to Cape May Point? I'd love to hear about some of your memories.

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