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Cape May, a Beach Town With Waves of History

A visit to a small city in New Jersey that is celebrating its 400th anniversary. Transcript of radio broadcast:

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA. Many cities around the United States are proud to have historic buildings that are recognized by the federal government. But in the state of New Jersey, a whole city is listed as a national historic landmark.

The little city of Cape May lies at the end of a narrow piece of land with the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Delaware Bay to the west. Now, Shirley Griffith and Steve Ember tell us all about Cape May as the city celebrates its four hundredth anniversary this year.



Cape May officials say their city is the oldest seaside holiday place in the United States. The first visitors were Native American Indians. The Indians spent summers hunting and fishing in the area. In sixteen twenty, the area was named by a Dutch ship captain, Cornelius Jacobsen Mey.

Twenty-five years later, settlers formed the first government of Cape May. The settlers were members of the Quaker religion. Other people came from the eastern New England states, New York state and Britain.


The first industry in Cape May was whaling. It was successful for many years. But as early as the middle seventeen hundreds, Cape May began to be known as a place to visit in the summer. Most people traveled to the area by boat. In the early nineteenth century steamboats came from the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and from the nearby state of Delaware.

Steamboat travel led to a huge increase in visitors. More people began coming up to Cape May from the southern coastal states. The city had to deal with these large numbers of people. So, a new hotel was built right on the beach.

The Mount Vernon hotel was the largest in the world when it was built in eighteen fifty-three. However, it was only used for three years. The hotel was built of wood. Gas was used to light the building. This combination led to a huge fire that destroyed the hotel in eighteen fifty-six.



People still arrive at Cape May by boat. A ferry crosses the Delaware Bay from the town of Lewes Delaware to Cape May and back several times every day. The ferry takes people and their cars. A one-way trip takes about an hour.

Passengers on the ferry can see beautiful views. To the west is the Delaware Bay. To the east stretches the Atlantic Ocean. Leaving port, passengers can see two sets of sea walls built hundreds of meters from shore.

The walls are designed to protect the land from the powerful waves created by storms. The sea walls break the waves before the land does.

The two sea walls look very different. One was built by the hands of many men before there was industrial building equipment. The job was very difficult and dangerous. This early wall has a smooth and solid look.

The other wall was built during this century. Many machines were used to place the uneven rocks and other building materials together to form the wall. This wall may work as well and last as long but it is not as pleasing to look at as the one built by hand.


The first thing a passenger sees on the Cape May coast is the area’s famous lighthouse. The simple structure rises about sixty meters from the ground. It is in the Cape May Point State Park. Visitors can see the ocean, the bay and surrounding communities from the top of the lighthouse. However, the only way up is to climb almost two hundred steps.

Cape May also has a sea wall. Passengers can see it as the ferry pulls into Cape May Port. This sea wall is built right into the hills of sand that make up the coast. The wall is made of equal-sized blocks of building material. The long, brownish red wall protects the white sand and coastal grasses from the sea.


When passengers leave the boat, they can drive their cars eight kilometers into Cape May. There is only one road into the city. In the summer, that road is filled with cars.

Hundreds of thousands of people visit Cape May each summer. Most of them bring cars. It can take more than one hour to drive from the ferry to the center of town. And, it can take more than another hour to find a place to park your car. However, the crowds of people in Cape May decrease as the fall season begins. The city is much slower and quieter throughout the fall and winter.



Other kinds of visitors come to Cape May in the fall. Tens of thousands of birds stop in the Cape May area on their flight south for the winter. The Cape is a great feeding and resting place for the birds.

Visitors can see bald eagles, peregrine falcons and ospreys. And many bird lovers come to watch the show. More than two-hundred kinds of songbirds also stop in Cape May on their way to Central and South America. Other beautiful creatures also fill the air in Cape May during the fall. Monarch butterflies stop to rest on their way south for the winter.

The state park protects many hectares of land for the birds and butterflies. However, people are welcome to come and observe the nature. Some people choose to walk alone. Others take part in group explorations led by bird experts. Bicycle trips through the park and surrounding nature areas are also popular.



There are several good ways to see the city of Cape May. There are bus and trolley rides through the city. There are also walking tours. Guides tell about the homes and businesses along the road. The guides also discuss the history of Cape May.

The main reason to go on these tours is to see the famous houses of Cape May. There are more than six hundred houses of nineteenth century Victorian design in the city. The houses are made of wood. The borders on each part of the house have different edges. The edges are cut with extreme detail.

Some are wavy, or have a flowery style. Others have sharp points, rows of cut-out circles or designs like snowflakes.


Victorians used interesting colors as well as design. The true Victorian style of house requires many different colors of paint. The Victorians used one color for edging, another for the outside walls, another for decorative pieces connected to the house.

The Victorians liked colors linked to the fall season. Deep and dark reds, yellows and browns were popular. You see many such houses as you walk or ride through the streets of Cape May.

However, there are also many houses that are all white. Cape May guides say it became popular to use white paint in the twentieth century. The general desire was for a more moderate style.


Among the hundreds of Victorian houses in Cape May are the houses that are called "Painted Ladies." These houses have many different colors like traditional Victorians. However, these colors are intense pinks and purples or bright shades of green, yellow and blue. These different styles of house painting create some exciting streets to look at throughout the city.

Many of these late nineteenth century houses would not have been built had it not been for a major tragedy. In eighteen seventy-eight, a huge fire began in Cape May. It burned for a day. The fire destroyed the center of the city. The city was left with few hotels. But summer homes for families became popular as a result.



In the twentieth century, Cape May became a less popular place to visit for the summer. Cape May guides say it was costly to care for and repair summer homes near the sea. They say the increasingly common automobile made travel to other holiday places easier. There were not many visitors to Cape May for most of the last eighty years.

Then, in the nineteen seventies, the city was given the National Historic Landmark award. Major rebuilding and repair projects began throughout Cape May. Small business owners came to the city. Many people bought and repaired the old houses. They turned the houses into special places for visitors to stay called bed-and-breakfasts. These B-and-Bs are extremely popular now.

Cape May now is as popular a summer holiday place as it was at the turn of the century. Maybe that is why the city’s saying is "Our Future Is Our Past."



Our program was written and produced by Caty Weaver. The narrators were Shirley Griffith and Steve Ember. You can find transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs at Please join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.