Excerpted from “The First Resort“, by Ben Miller, published by Exit Zero
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By the year 1832 Cape Island had grown into a fully-fledged resort town. The island’s population had risen to nearly 5,000 people, with a number of small guest houses and three hotels. Visitors had their choice of Atlantic Hall, Congress Hall or the new Mansion House. The Mansion House was constructed in 1832, between Jackson and Perry streets, along the north side of Washington Street. It was the talk of the town due to its large stature and the modern accoutrements it offered, mainly separate rooms for all guests, along with plastered and lathed walls. Like its predecessors the Mansion House did not include exterior paint, though it did offer finished interior walls.
The hotel was built by Richard Smith Ludlam, who also had the distinction of establishing Washington Street. When Ludlam constructed the hotel he planned the street to create a new commercial district and connect his hotel with what was the commercial town center of Jackson Street. The first Washington Street ran approximately six blocks, at a width of 50 feet.
Cape Island continued to garner attention through Thomas Hughes, a United States Assemblyman and the owner of Congress Hall. Hughes took office in 1829 and served until 1833. While in office, he was present when the notion of a state seceding from the union was first brought forth by Robert Y. Hayne, a senator from South Carolina.
The debate between Hayne and Senator Daniel Webster from Massachusetts caught the attention of the country. The two senators argued over the merits of protectionist tariffs that were enacted after the war of 1812, during the presidency of John Quincy Adams. The tariffs were designed to promote American products over those made by the British.
The arguments were of particular interest to Hughes because Cape Island sailors were being accused of circumventing the tariffs by smuggling in foreign goods. In addition, Hughes had become friends with President Adams, who was elected to congress following his presidential term. Hughes and Adams listened intently as Hayne and Webster argued over the tariffs and the right of a state to leave the union.
It was only after the situation took a turn for the worse, when South Carolina passed a law to ignore the federal tariff law, that Hughes was forced to publicly take a side. South Carolina not only defied the federal rule, they authorized a state militia to stop federal troops from enforcing the tariffs.
Their actions created a constitutional crisis that required the immediate response of the federal government. Hughes voted to side with the American Union, a position that was widely supported in Cape May. Congress then passed a bill that authorized the president to use the US military as a means of enforcing the tariffs in South Carolina.
Luckily, the South Carolina legislature repealed its rebellious law against the tariff in 1833 and a crisis was averted. Congressman Hughes was able to return to Cape Island at the end of his term and spread the news that a civil war had been averted and that the American Union remained strong.
Meanwhile, on Cape Island, summer tourism continued to grow and the official season for vacationers began on July 1 and ran through September 1. An increase in visitors called for the construction of new hotels and, in 1832, the Ocean House was built.
Situated along the eastern side of Perry Street, the Ocean House was conceived by Israel Leaming. Some history books have mistakenly claimed that the Ocean House was built in 1856, but period accounts of the hotel and vintage news articles have proven that to be incorrect. The confusion most likely stems from a substantial renovation and enlargement of the Ocean House that was completed in the mid-1850s.
The Ocean House was three-and-a-half stories tall, with a wraparound balcony on the third floor, a handful of attic rooms and another balcony on the roof. Its location across from Congress Hall’s expansive front lawn meant that visitors to the Ocean House would be treated to panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean.
In 1837 the death of England’s King William IV paved the way for a new era in Great Britain and a change in the empire’s stature around the globe. Since King William had no surviving children, his 18-year-old niece, Princess Victoria, was chosen to succeed him.
Princess Victoria became Queen Victoria and her ascension to the throne marked the beginning of the Victorian Era in Cape May and all around the world. Much has been said about Queen Victoria’s rule, but history records that for the first half of her 64-year reign she lived a life of seclusion and relative unpopularity.
On Cape Island, residents welcomed the construction of another large hotel in 1840. The Centre House was built on Washington Street, opposite the popular Mansion House, and next to the Ocean House. By that time, Washington Street had blossomed as the city’s commercial district and other small businesses had been established near the hotels.
The Centre House was designed to merge the early-American style of architecture with the Second Empire look of Congress Hall. It was also the first boarding house on Cape Island to be painted – the owner chose an earth tone shade of brownish-yellow.
The Centre House was the largest of Cape Island’s hotels, with the ability to accommodate 400 guests. The building spanned the whole block from Perry to Jackson streets with immense three-story columns adorning the hotel along Washington Street.
The next boarding house to be constructed in the budding seaside resort was the New Atlantic. The original Atlantic Hall had been purchased in March of 1839 by two brothers from Philadelphia. When Captain Benjamin McMakin and Captain Joseph McMakin bought it, they also purchased land across Jackson Street with the intention of expanding their business.
In 1842 the McMakin brothers had the New Atlantic built on that parcel of land and increased their lodging capacity by 300 beds. Their new hotel spanned 100 feet along what would later become Beach Drive and rose four stories tall. It featured large porches in front and a third floor balcony that wrapped around the building.
One of the most prominent features of the New Atlantic was its dining chamber. Patrons were welcomed into a gigantic hall that encompassed the full first floor of the hotel. Rather than occupying separate tables, as today’s diners would expect, guests of the New Atlantic were seated at one of four long tables that ran the length of the hall.
The Cape Island hotel surge continued with the construction of the Columbia House in 1846. The Columbia House was built by a Delaware River captain named George Hildreth on a large plot of land between Decatur and Ocean streets. The parcel was nothing more than swampland when Hildreth bought it, so he hired laborers to fill in the bog with dirt and sand from the northern section of the island.
Hildreth’s Columbia House was four stories tall and was considered the most elegant of the Cape Island hotels. Both interior and exterior walls were plastered and painted, with elaborate piazzas that followed the 180-foot length of the hotel. The Columbia House was later expanded into an L-shape, similar to Congress Hall, which doubled the number of rooms and made it the largest boarding house on the island.
The year 1851 brought the construction of yet another boarding house, the United States Hotel. Built by A. W. Tompkins the hotel was a huge four-story structure that sat on 10 acres spanning from Decatur to Ocean streets, along Washington Street. The United States quickly became one of the most popular hostelries in town, with its wide, sweeping verandas, panoramic ocean views and evening entertainment that amused guests and locals.
Cape Island was presented with the grandest spectacle of all in 1852 when construction began on the Mount Vernon Hotel, designed to be the largest in the world and including features that no Cape Island hotel had ever offered before or, for that matter, ANY hotel. The Mount Vernon, according to the London Illustrated News, was the first in the world to offer en suite bathrooms.
The building was purported to accommodate up to 3,500 people, a number that was unheard of in the early Victorian period. Plans for the hotel were elaborate and called for running hot and cold water, a pistol-firing range, bowling alleys and gas lighting in every room.
The hotel was funded by a number of investors in Philadelphia and New Jersey who teamed with a gentleman named John West and founded the Mount Vernon Hotel Company. The amount of work required to build their fantastic hotel was so great that it had to be undertaken in phases. This was done to allow the completed portions of the hotel to accommodate guests while the rest was still under construction.
Four years after building started, the Mount Vernon was able to accommodate a little more than 2,000 people. But, as the craftsmen were finishing up work on the last section of the hotel in September of 1856, tragedy struck. The hotel was empty, with the exception of the innkeeper, Phillip Cain, his four children, and a housekeeper, Anna Albertson. All were asleep on the second floor, when an unknown person broke in to the building and set it the fire.
Only Phillip Jr escaped, though he suffered severe burns and died the following afternoon in the United States Hotel. Before he passed, he was able to describe the scene in his family’s apartment, as they realized they were trapped by the flames and tried to escape by jumping off the balcony or running through the flames.
Authorities suspected the fire to be arson almost immediately and one of the family’s former housekeepers was arrested for the murders. It was surmised that her reason for setting the fire was a money dispute with Phillip Cain. The housekeeper was also accused of stealing money from the hotel before she ignited the deadly fire.
The early Victorian period was especially important for the infrastructure of Cape Island, with the first local government being established in 1848. On March 8 of that year, the New Jersey General Assembly passed an act that officially incorporated Cape Island.
A temporary leadership chain was created with James Mecray named Chief Burgess and a small staff selected to help him run the new borough. Two years later, the General Assembly amended their previous designation and incorporated The City of Cape Island.
A new government structure was established with a mayor and six councilmen, along with an alderman and recorder. Isaac M. Church was the City of Cape Island’s first mayor and the council comprised James Mecray, John G. W. Ware, Joseph Ware, Aaron Garretson, James S. Kennedy and David Pierson.
The city’s alderman was Walter B. Miller, and Joseph S. Leach was the recorder. Cape Island’s new leadership team met for the first time on March 15, 1851 in the Cape Island schoolhouse on the corner of Lafayette and Franklin Streets. Relatively little was done that evening in the way of legislation, but the foundation was laid for a strong city government.