America has a First Family, a First Lady, a First State, the First Man on the Moon . . . and a First Beach.
Or more precisely, its first beach resort, which is still going strong.
I should pause before identifying it to tell you why in the world I’m talking about beaches when it’s the middle of winter at my writing perch.
I’m thinking “beach” and “warm” precisely because I just wrote about “America’s Icebox” — International Falls, Minnesota. And because I just spent four hours shoveling snow and dragging away fat tree limbs that the snow brought down. Also because I just visited this First Beach via a ferry ride from the Delaware Shore, where my son lives.
This should give you a clue that the beach I have in mind is not one of the “beautiful people” shorelines in Florida, as it would take that ferry a week to chug all the way south to Palm Beach or Miami Beach, if it made it at all.
The First Beach began operations about 140 years ago, when the American tradition of heading to the shore to relax was just catching on. You might be thinking Atlantic City, New Jersey. After all, you can collect whole drawers full of 1900-vintage picture postcards showing a packed Atlantic City boardwalk, crowded Royal Palace and Breakers hotels, and amusement-filled Steel Pier.
Nope. It’s not Atlantic City. But you’re in the right state.
America’s first seaside resort was Cape May, which sits on the tip of a little peninsula that sticks down into the mouth of the Delaware Bay at the very bottom of New Jersey on the Mid-Atlantic Coast. It’s that bay across which that ferry putters from Delaware.
The Delaware Bay, in turn, narrows into a river of the same name that wiggles up to what was, for many decades, America’s largest city — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Ship captains would stop at Cape May to pick up local pilots for the sail up the treacherous Delaware. “The wind it blew from sou-sou-east, it blew a mighty breeze,” goes an old sea shanty.
The man upon the look cried, “A light upon our lee”
They reported to the captain. These words he did say:
“Cheer up, me jolly sailor lads. It’s the light on old Cape May.”
Many of those captains fell in love with the place and built homes there. And as Philadelphia, upriver, became congested, wealthy citizens who looked for a cool, relaxing place to get away joined them in Cape May, which is named after Dutch sea captain Cornelius Jacobsen Mey.
Cape May was also a favorite seasonal haunt of rich southern planters, who traveled north to escape the sweltering heat of summer. That’s one reason you see so many grand, plantation-style mansions in Cape May — all sporting columns and verandas. (Mint juleps are harder to find, however.)
Cape May advertised in Philadelphia’s newspapers even before the American Revolution of the 1770s, inviting people to “resort” to Cape May. Philadelphians, and others from throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, have been “resorting” in this Victorian town ever since.
Victorian indeed, architecturally. This little town of just 4,000 year-round residents — which swells to 10 times that figure in the languid summertime — boasts the single greatest concentration of late-19th century wooden architecture anywhere in the world. And that includes jolly-old England.
Cape May is a time capsule from an earlier century, with block after block of brightly-painted “gingerbread”-style houses.
The term refers to the lavish — those who don’t like them would say “superfluous” — “sawn-wood” decorative embellishments that adorn the old homes and hotels. Carol calls it “fru-fru”: ornately carved latticework, curlicue brackets, gaudily painted porch posts, whimsical little pieces of molding — that sort of thing.
The Victorians, you see, had a saying, heartily endorsed in Cape May: “Decorate everything,” they said, “including the decoration.”
Yet their lively design flourishes are a bit surprising, given the propriety of the times. Don Pettifer, a former museum curator and frequent “innsitter” at Cape May’s many bed-and-breakfast inns while their owners steal some time away, told me a funny story about those days:
“There was a system using a sort of bottomless carriage that they’d wheel out into the surf, because people didn’t have bathing suits,” he said. “For modesty’s sake, it was a great way to go out and bathe in the ocean water for all its health-giving benefits. You’d disrobe in the carriage, drop down through the bottom, and then pop back up into the carriage again.”
Eventually, bathing suits were worn, beach umbrellas were unfurled, and huge hotels were built in Cape May. The Mount Vernon, with 3,000 rooms and a dining room that was said to seat — can this be true? — 2,000, was very, very briefly the largest hotel in the world.
Not yet completed, the hotel opened for business in 1856, and just as it was closing in September, a flame, perhaps from one of the dining hall’s 40 gas-burning chandeliers, set the place on fire. It burned to the ground. Nothing like it was built again — at least not in Cape May.
Other grand properties appeared, though also rather briefly. A citywide conflagration took out virtually all of downtown in 1878. But it was quickly rebuilt, and in came the truly glorious Gilded Age of Victorian homes and hotels.
And to a lot of people’s surprise, most are still around, despite our nation’s waves of “urban renewal” and severe modifications to properties in the name of popular taste. Aluminum skins on classical-style storefronts, for instance.
Hundreds of historical beauties stand to this day in Cape May because of good and bad luck.
Bad, because Cape May has gone through several economic downturns and slashing windstorms, after which people could not afford to tear down the old places and build plusher ones.
Good, because Victoriana became hot, desirable, something that set Cape May apart from other sand-strewn destinations. Old, rickety places became valuable assets that people go out of their way to visit.
In 1976, Cape May — the whole town, not just a block or two — was designated as America’s first National Historic District. Another “first” for Cape May to crow about. This put a tight clamp on rampant tacky development. In this town, anyway, there’d be no honky-tonk amusement parks and gambling casinos, so prevalent at Atlantic City and elsewhere up the way on the Jersey shore.
Since photographs from the Victorian period are black-and-white, visitors might not realize that although Cape May’s fancy properties look a lot like they did in the late 1800s, today’s are quite a bit brighter. Bruce Minnix, a former mayor and owner of the Holly House — one of the identical “Seven Sisters” Italian Renaissance cottages built on the footprint of a defunct hotel — told me that in Victorian times, “they liked ‘dirty colors.’
“You had to have four colors on your house in those days. Two that are tones of the same color, and two that are in violent contrast to everything else. The most popular colors for the Victorian houses were mustard yellow, burnt orange, maroon, royal blue, mud brown, and moss green. Now, pick four, and off you go.”
Nowadays, bright boutique colors — yellows and pinks and lime greens — are more in fashion. But the charm of the nation’s oldest seaside resort has not changed a whit. It’s a walkers’ and bikers’ and ocean-lover’s treat. . . .
. . . Except not so much right now, in mid-winter. The town is pretty well shuttered, the wind off the Atlantic is hardly conducive to a nap on the beach, and gray skies often mute the colors of the town’s “painted lady” cottages.
Like other more lively beach towns, Cape May will stir come the summer season. But more sedately. Shutters will be opened, sills and ceilings will be touched up, seasonal help will pull into town, and the tinkles you’ll hear will come not from a Ferris wheel, but from bikes hauled out of storage — including some old-timey “bicycles built for two.”
By the way, Cape May has a nickname, but it’s nothing you would ever guess. Not “Victoriana-by-the-Sea,” although unimaginative types have tested “Gingerbread Town.”
Cape May is “The Raptor Capital of North America”! There’s a public viewing platform, manned by a sharp-eyed bird expert, from which visitors watch not only ordinary migrating terns and such but also, each fall during a special “hawk watch,” sharp-shinned and red-tailed hawks. Peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and other raptors, too, by the tens of thousands. That’s not a guesstimate. The birdwatchers count them.
And believe it or not, most of these predators didn’t mean to be there. Shooting for the updrafts of the Appalachian Mountains, far to the west, to carry them south for the winter, they are instead blown to the oceanside by strong, late-fall winds out of the northwest.
Refreshingly, those prevailing winds turn and blow from the south and east off the ocean come summertime — beachwalking, boardwalk-strolling, and house-gazing season in Cape May, New Jersey.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Mint julep. A southern cocktail that Americans have come to associate with the Kentucky Derby horse race. It’s made from bourbon, sugary syrup, and mashed fresh mint. Supposedly, the drink was patterned after an Arabian concoction called the "julab," made of water and rose petals.
Ornithology. The study of birds.
Superfluous. More than is needed and, often, serving no useful purpose.