Wild parties, special finds, and mysterious happenings — Davy’s Lake has been the source of many memories… for those who know where to look.
Story by DIANE STOPYRA
They told us not to write this story. They told us not to give away the secret spot called Davy’s Lake. They even submitted a poem denying its existence. But then they threw up their hands. “Go ahead and write it,” they said. “Because no one will find it, anyway.”
And who are they anyway? The grownup versions of skinny-dipping, fox-hunting, berry-picking adolescents who whittled away summer days forging new trails to Davy’s Lake through the holly, sassafras, and scrub oak adjacent to Higbee’s Beach, on the shore of the Delaware Bay. The ones who can tell you intimate details about algae and water that tastes like cedar. The ones who can’t show you pictures of their sandy haven because they either don’t have them (“We were too busy getting the first tan of the season to worry about cameras”) or because they don’t want to share them. You see, those who’ve never been might not understand; Davy’s isn’t just a watering hole. For Cape May kids, it’s been the key piece to a collective coming-of-age.
The story begins in 1905, the year the Cape May Sand Company built a plant at Sunset Beach. “My grandfather, Thomas Stevens, owned the company,” says Bob Fite, a self-proclaimed “lifer” of Cape May and the man who owned the Coloniel Hotel before it was the Inn of Cape May. “And he shipped sand, used largely in the manufacturing of glass, all over.” This, thanks to a railroad — The Delaware Bay, Cape May, and Sewell’s Point line — which ran parallel to the ocean. In 1910, the destination was the Panama Canal, where the hard sand of Higbee’s was needed to construct the canal’s heavy locks. An area 300 yards long and 90 yards wide just north of the plant was dug out, a freshwater spring was struck, and Davy’s Lake — named for plant employees David Wilkshire and S. Walter Davis — was born.
The lake’s history is a rich one, and riddled with speculation. During World War I, the surrounding area of sand and old meadow sod was leased by the Bethlehem Steel Company and used as “proving ground” for testing ammunition. One resident found an artillery shell here in 1920 that he kept in his wood stove until his death. The US Navy Weapons Depot took possession of it then, safely exploding it… and creating a hole in the earth the size of a bus in the process.
Past president of the now disbanded Cape May Geographic Society, Keith Saeger, brought us a 1952 bulletin which says that Signal Hill, the dune just north of the lake, once served as the vantage point from which ships were signaled in the Delaware Bay. For rum-running during Prohibition, we wanted to know? “It’s likely,” said Ed Carson, branch head of the Lower Township Library. “This was an active area for that thing. The job of the Coast Guard at this time was to police the coast.”
Then, during World War II, the Northwest Magnesite Company opened where the sand plant had stood. Firebrick was needed at the front lines, the mineral magnesite was needed to make firebrick, and salt water was needed to make magnesite, so this bayside location was ideal, according to the US Office of War Production Management. It was ideal, also, for kids who were enjoying nearby Davy’s Lake. “We would walk around by the lake all night long, like wild Indians,” one local gentleman told us. “Then we’d sneak into the magnesite plant to scare people like spooks… goofy kid stuff.”
Also during World War II, Cape May dug out its Canal, from the harbor to the Delaware Bay, in order to protect ships from attack by German U-boats. Senator Charlie Sandman suggested filling in Davy’s Lake with the leftover earth, but locals like now retired Lower Township teacher Jack Sayre took action. “We raised hell,” he told us.
But it’s something altogether different for which Davy’s is remembered most — skinny-dipping.
The earliest account we could find, published in Joe Jordan’s Cape May Point: The Illustrated History 1875 to the Present, came from a story written by Bob Grubb, a Cape May Point resident who died in 2008 at the age of 90. “It was a long time before we learned that some young girls had discovered our swimming hole and one day had been watching us from the bushes along the top of the dune,” Bob wrote. “We were about nine to 11 years old and I don’t know whether the thought of having been secretly seen by some young girls was humiliating — or titillating.”
Other locals, like former mayor Bob Elwell, historian George Rea, and Jack Sayre remember the lake as a “buck bathing” hotspot, too.
Bob Elwell: “As kids, we’d like to go to Signal Hill, the highest dune on this part of the shore, where we’d roast marshmallows and hot dogs. On the way to or from it, we’d stop at the lake because it was a remote little spot, out of the way. There was skinny-dipping, yeah sure. But you think I’m going to admit to it? No way. You know how kids do things. But I’m not admitting to it.”
George Rea: “We’d skip school around Easter, when the water was getting warmer. We’d fill our canteens with it but it had this awful cedar taste — just awful — so we brought tablets to purify it. Or we’d swim to the bottom, where the spring was, take a mouthful, and come to the surface to swallow. Did we skinny dip? Sure we did. There was an area of the lake we called Duck’s Bill, because it was shaped like the bill of a duck, and it was the clearest section. I don’t know why, but the water there had a way of bleaching my hair, so that my mother could always tell when I’d skipped school.”
Jack Sayre: “Back then, there were no televisions or iPods or these things that entertain you today. We made our own entertainment. All the kids knew about it — no bathing suits allowed. We played hooky from school to go buck bathing, but the teachers didn’t mind, because we’d capture snakes we found and supply the high school biology labs.”
For high school-aged kids, Davy’s Lake was also a place to party, according to Jim Twombly, Jackie Atkins, Jane Blaszczyk, and Alexander Smida.
Jim Twombly: “My father was a bartender in the late 40s. He and his friends would bring kegs and coolers, have bonfires, and have parties all night long.”
Alexander Smida: “We’d carry six-packs to the beach in pillowcases over our shoulders. And we learned that if you took a couple of sand pikes made of PVC piping — that’s a New Jersey invention — pounded them into the sand and stuck your fishing rods in there, you could just pretend like you were fishing when the cops came around. Never mind that your cooler didn’t have squid in it. It was a good place to be bad… in an innocent kind of way.”
Jackie Atkins: “I was a summer kid, and this was a local spot, but I was lucky because the kid down the block whose family owned Collier’s [Liquor Store] brought me there. It was a magical place, so wonderful to explore. Of course, there was a lot of marijuana.”
Jane Blaszczyk: “We’d bring guitars and play music when we partied there. We were friendly with the cops. The police used to come and warn us when the police were coming.”
For some — like David Sayre, Roy Baker, and Curtis Bashaw — what makes Davy’s Lake so intriguing is the adventure of the place. Encountering the wildlife…
David Sayre: “I was almost born at Davy’s Lake; my parents were walking out there three days before I was born. I’ve spent the last four years going out there several times a week. There are swans quite often. I haven’t seen coyotes, though I’ve seen their tracks. I came across a dead porcupine once, and I think the coyotes killed it, because it was gone except for the quills and bones. No one I know has ever heard of a porcupine in this area.”
Roy Baker: “We saw red fox. And, depending on the amount of alcohol, any number of other strange things.”
Jack Sayre: “I remember the osprey nest. I used to climb the low cedar and look at the babies, while the mother would try to scare me with her big talons the whole time.”
Jane Blaszczyk: “Once, I accidentally brought a bat back with me. It had attached itself to my purse and I didn’t realize. It started flying around my bedroom, and I panicked, so I hit it in the head with my high heel.”
George Rea: “We used to shoot hawks, but the bird people got on us about that. They had a law passed. It was quite a big deal.”
Alexander Smida: “Turtles laid their eggs at the lake. You’d just be sitting there, maybe reading a book or kissing your girl, and suddenly something like that would be next to you. When the eggs would hatch, and the little guys would break out of their shells — gummy, rubbery things — you’d watch them head for the ocean.”
Bob Fite: “At Christmas time, I used to harvest holly trees at the lake, but my fondest memory? I once went fishing there with two expert fishermen and, wouldn’t you know, it was me who caught the only two fish that day.”
Jack Sayre: “We would catch frog legs, and then cook them on a fire. You say that’s gross; I say it’s the reason I’m ninety years old.”
And discovering the fauna…
George Rea: “We’d always pick beach plums there. Of course, you’d have to be careful, because when you pick beach plums, you get chiggers, little mites that itch you to death. Now you have Off and DEET, but back then, we put kerosene on our arms. With the beach plums we brought home, our mother’s would make jelly, and we’d have use it for peanut butter sandwiches.”
Roy Baker: “I remember having stomach problems, because we’d eat more than we picked.”
Curtis Bashaw: “Beach Plums were always ripe on Labor Day but, more importantly, this was a way to distract ourselves from the fact that summer was ending. You planned this elaborate activity — gathering, pitting, canning. Then, you made the jams. Sometimes, it came out too syrupy, and you’d use it on our pancakes, to warm up on a cold winter’s day. This was our transition from summer to fall.”
And creating memories that will last long after Davy’s dries up…
Alexander Smida: “We’d say we were going to watch the sunset, but that was, of course, euphemistic. This was a great make-out spot. The mosquitoes were like dive bombers, but that’s why you took the army blanket along, to cuddle underneath. It was a rite of passage, this place.”
Jack Sayre: “The most scared I’ve ever been was at the top of Signal Hill. I was camping there when a massive thunder and lightning storm rolled in. And here we were in a tent. We stayed overnight, hoping we would make it out alive.”
Roy Baker: “My family used to camp with another family there for a month every summer. It was so deserted, one of Cape May’s best-kept secrets. We hauled an old refrigerator down there, we got ice from the Lobster House docks, and that was our refrigeration system. We’d haul driftwood and cook over a fire. Oh, the joy of canned chicken. It’s evil. We had a blast.”
David Sayre: “Kids would make dune buggies. It would be a whole project; they’d take old Volkswagens, strip them down, and take them through the trails, over the dunes, whittling the hills down one trip at a time.
Alexander Smida: The abandoned Corvaire — the one with the light blue steering wheel — is one of the puzzlements of Davy’s Lake. I don’t know if anyone knows how it got there or who was driving. Now, there’s not much of it left, and there are trees growing through it, so that if you don’t what you’re looking for, you might miss it.
Roy Baker: “We wanted to see how early we could get the first swim in, so we went in February one year. The air temperature was in the upper 20s, the water in the 30s, but we dove in anyway, before walking all the way back to Seashore Road. We weren’t the brightest kids.”
But not all Davy’s Lake memories are warm and fuzzy, according to Ralph Bakely. Some are just a bit… spooky.
Ralph Bakley: “In the lake, there was an old dredge leftover from the sand plant. We used to dive off or it and play hide and seek in it. When we got tired, well, we were only a short distance from where Mr Higbee’s grave was. We used to spend some time at night, seeing if we couldn’t catch his ghost walking around.”
The coastal area between Pond Creek and New England Creek was once owned by Joseph S. Higbee — who built an inn here for weary travelers, not far from where the dirt parking lot sits today. When Joseph died in 1872, his brother, Thomas, inherited the area, and asked to be buried here upon his death, so that his neice, Etta, wouldn’t sell the land, and this is precisely what happened…
Roy Baker: “Our parents would tell us horror stories about the magnesite plant eating little kids. It was their way of ensuring we wouldn’t go places we shouldn’t. But it never stopped us from spending some time, usually around midnight, telling stories of how Mr Higbee haunts the lake. Oh yeah, I was fully convinced of a haunting. We’d sneak out, and go walking through the woods, looking for his grave, scared to death.”
Alexander Smida: “I always felt there was something compelling, yet creepy about Davy’s Lake. I’m not superstitious, but when I’m there, I experience a consciousness of people long gone, people from the 17th and 18th centuries. I loved to go back that way, sit amidst the quiet of the dunes and listen. I keep a cigar box of Indian arrowheads I found around Davy’s Lake, from 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. It reminds me of the people who were… still are?… connected to this land. I’ve never seen apparitions, but I get an odd, creepy feeling.”
Jackie Atkins: “So, there is this story about the lake. The moonlight does funny things at night, I suppose, because it sure looks as though a human head is floating on top of the water.”
Davy’s Lake was purchased by the state in 1972, and swimming is no longer allowed. “That’s our policy,” said Jeff Golden, Regional Superintendent for South Jersey for the US Fish and Wildlife Management Service. “We manage the area for habitat restoration, as it’s an especially important migratory stopover for birds.” This means there are no longer homemade buggies riding through the dunes, there are no more skinny dipping parties, and even Signal Hill seems less imposing, as decades of storms have eroded the area’s highest peak. The lake seems to grow murkier and more grown over with each passing year. Some say it’s due to sediment from ducks. Some say it’s because the spoils from a Laky Lily dredging were dumped here. Some say the 1962 nor’easter caused the bay to breach the dunes. Some say that’s just what happens when people stop swimming. And yet, the lake retains an enchanting quality. For those who’ve been, it’s difficult to capture in words what it is that makes Davy’s Lake so intriguing, what gives it that other-worldly feel we’ve heard described as “Lord of the Flies-esque.”
Steven Platt: “Maybe it’s the solitude, or the intersection of two vastly different ecosystems… Listen to the ferry while the water from the bay hits the beach. Take in the seagulls, the wind-swept trees among the dunes, and this peaceful lake. The stress of life just goes away.”
Alexander Smida: “Those of us who really appreciated what we found at Davy’s Lake are just a little bit different — and a little bit better off — because of it.”
Curtis Bashaw: “It’s a hidden gem where you can have your own moment. When you’re there, you’re discovering something new. It’s similar to what Walden Pond was to Thoreau, with just a little more grit or texture. It’s seen it all — the recklessness of youth and also the more contemplative years of adulthood. It’s a magical spot.”