Cape May


A Brief History of Cape May

Cape May, NJ, has always been a popular tourist destination given it is the first recognized resort town in the United States, But it’s also an incredibly historic place to visit, featuring Victorian architecture, remnants of the Underground Railroad, and other unique aspects.

Before traveling to Cape May, it can be beneficial to familiarize yourself with its extensive history. Not only does this allow travelers to recognize important buildings and structures, but it can also give them an appreciation of the vintage experience Cape May delivers. Learn more about the history of Cape May with Ocean Club Hotel.

Vintage map of Cape May, NJ
Captain Kidd

Cape May was first documented by Henry Hudson in 1609 as he set sail aboard his yacht, the Half Moon. However, Cape May wasn’t officially discovered until 1620, when Dutch Captain Cornelius Jacobsen Mey stepped foot on the land. Cape May got its name from the captain who discovered it, but the spelling was later changed from “Cape Mey” to “Cape May.”

Originally, the Native American tribes frequently visited the area during summers, but an official community did not form in Cape May until 1685. In 1688, the Quakers implemented a government based on their strict moral code. During this time, the whaling industry became a booming affair in Cape May, and families began migrating to the area, including some families who had first come over on the Mayflower. Cape May also became a popular site for families to move to from New England and New York.

Cape May history includes pirates, too. One of the most famous pirates to step foot in Cape May is William Kidd, or Captain Kidd. This Scottish sea captain became a popular subject and inspiration for many early English literary works. Although some of his treasure was found near the Long Island area, it is rumored that he buried other treasure somewhere in Cape May. To this day, people still hunt for the missing treasure. Eventually, Captain Kidd was executed in London in 1701, for causing the death of his gunner, William Moore.

**Excerpts of History and Photo Courtesy of Cape May Times

Black and white photo of a train

Once Cape May began constructing roads, it became a hub for travel and tourism. There originally were two railroads that led to Cape May, the West Jersey and Reading Railroad. In 1761, Cape May became the first official resort area in the United States, making it a highly sought-after vacation spot for high-class families. In addition, Cape May was one of several destinations along the Underground Railroad, where slaves were forced to sneak their way to freedom from Confederate Delaware to Union New Jersey. Some homes in Cape May still feature remnants of underground tunnels and secret rooms.

In the 1850s, Harriet Tubman herself lived and worked in Cape May for a brief period. Here, she worked various jobs to earn money to assist slaves in venturing through the Underground Railroad. She periodically left the area to rescue more slaves from Confederate states but returned to Cape May frequently. Now, Cape May is home to the Harriet Tubman Museum, which emphasizes the important history and figures in Cape May that contributed to the freedom of slaves.

In 1856, the Mount Vernon Hotel burned down, taking much riveting history with it. At the time it was built, the hotel was among the largest in the world. It became the ideal vacation resort until the Civil War, spanning 495 feet of beachfront property and measuring four stories high. More tragedy struck the small town of Cape May in 1878 when a massive fire downtown caused extensive destruction to about 30 blocks of buildings. The town quickly cleaned the remnants of the disaster and began rebuilding the historic tourist destination. This is where Cape May got its signature Victorian-style buildings and homes, as it was the popular and modern style of the time.

**Excerpts of History and Photo Courtesy of Cape May Times

Vintage homes in Cape May, NJ

After rebuilding from the fire was complete, Cape May became an extravagant, luxury resort destination for families across the United States. The beachfront hotels offered many activities for families, including fishing, croquet, yachting, and lawn tennis. Those who vacationed here could also enjoy luxury dinner parties and lavish events. Cape May eventually became a popular spot for presidents like Abraham Lincoln, Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, and others. This is why Cape May was known as the President’s Playground.

During World War I, the Hotel Cape May was used as a hospital for injured soldiers. Later, the Navy turned the hotel into a naval base which was later given to the Coast Guard in 1925.

As cars became popular and railroads began to lose their efficiency, Cape May needed a way for families and travelers to visit via automobiles. To make it more convenient and accessible, the Garden State Parkway was built. This allowed families to get to the area more quickly than before. The Parkway opened to the public in 1957. By 1976, the town of Cape May was named an official National Historic Landmark. Since then, the town has made a tremendous effort to preserve the remaining structures and ambiance of the vintage time.

In 2022, a coastal storm revealed the Cape May ghost tracks, old railroad tracks that trail along the beach under the sand. These tracks periodically reveal themselves after some storms, but there’s no way to tell when they will wash up. These tracks were originally used to collect sand and glass, and for various purposes during WWI. Eventually, the sand whipped around from storms covers the tracks up again.

**Excerpts of History and Photo Courtesy of Cape May Times

Ocean Club Hotel & Nearby Historical Visits

Located near historical locations like the Cape May Lighthouse, the Emlen Physick Estate, the Cape May historic district, and Sunset Beach, travelers can expect a luxury stay at Ocean Club Hotel. Cape May, NJ, has always been known to provide a high-class experience for families, and we aim to mimic the same level of comfort. With stunning ocean view accommodations, including private poolside and sundeck cabana rooms, and delicious dining options, Ocean Club Hotel is ready to make your Cape May visit memorable. To learn more about the many nearby destinations related to Cape May history and activities like Cape May ghost tours, contact us today.