Environmental, Feature Article

Gone with the Waves

“The storms go back virtually to the very beginning. On January 30, 1891, when the first homes were still under construction, the Star of the Cape reported, ‘One of the unfinished houses of the Mt. Vernon settlement was blown from its foundation in the storm of last Saturday night.’”

Remembering South Cape May: The Jersey Shore Town that Vanished into the Sea by Joseph G. Burcher and Robert Kenselaar (2010, The History Press)

Proposed development of South Cape May. Rendering from “Cape May Point: The Illustrated History: 1875 to the Present” by Joe J. Jordan.

In those few words are both the preface and the epitaph of a borough that all but vanished in the mid-twentieth century. Time and again over the course of half a century, South Cape May was battered by hurricanes and nor’easters that blew off rooftops, submerged roadways, and compromised the foundations of homes and rooming houses.

The Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 was the last hurrah. What was left of the town virtually washed away, and by 1950, most residents of the area had fled—some taking their homes with them.

In 1945, the borough was officially dissolved. South Cape May was no more.

Halcyon Days

But in author Joe Burcher’s memory, the two-square-mile beachfront town is still alive and vibrant. The 93-year-old retired college professor spent many a summer in South Cape May. He knew every stick and stone in the community some have called “the Atlantis of South Jersey.” Eventually, he wrote the book on it, with the help of his son-in-law Bob Kenselaar.

Remembering South Cape May chronicles the two-square-mile strand from its early days, when the Kechemeche tribe of Lenni-Lenape hunted turkey and even bison there; to the early years of development, which included a hotel promoted as one of the world’s largest; to the town’s incorporation as South Cape May in 1894; and finally, to its watery demise in the mid-twentieth century.

The memoir also recounts, in uproarious detail, a boyhood filled with wild adventure—complete with gun-toting rum runners, German submarines and oh yes, the occasional life-threatening natural disaster. Just six years old at the start of the Great Depression, Joe lived in a hardscrabble world of work in which children were not spared. He and his 11 siblings hustled for their daily bread—even when they were at the beach.

“Summer vacation?” he says. “Are you kidding? There was no vacation. Our mother wouldn’t allow it.”

Joe is the son of a Berlin, New Jersey ironwork engineer, Edgar Francis Burcher Sr., the last borough clerk of South Cape May. At one point the family—including Joe’s grandfather, a Civil War veteran—owned three homes in the vicinity. Every year, as early as May, Joe’s mother Tess “would pack us kids into a big Buick” and head to the shore, a trip that then took four or five hours.

“All we could take with us was whatever would fit into a pillowcase—so basically, a wool bathing suit that itched like hell,” says Joe. “We mostly didn’t live in the house. We lived on the beach. At 6 o’clock in the morning my mother would say, ‘Get dressed, eat your oatmeal and get out there.’”

The kids’ job was simple: scavenge anything they could to keep the household going. Old lumber that washed ashore from freighters became boardwalks or even building materials. Discarded towels and shirts were repurposed as diapers.

“If we saw it on the beach and nobody was near it, we automatically took possession,” says Joe.

He peddled newspapers, purloined clams, hawked fruits and vegetables for local farmers, and collected cast-off fish from the fleets that served Cape May’s restaurant trade. That was a bit of artful larceny: Joe and his brother Franny would wait, nets poised, as the fish were delivered from the decks to the dock. They scooped up the fish that slipped out of the nets, then went door to door, selling them for 10 cents each.

In those days, “You learned entrepreneurship,” he says. “And you had to be in with the cops.”

“You loved your childhood,” says Joe’s daughter, Bonnie Kenselaar, addressing her father at his Moorestown home. “It was a hard life, but a childhood with a lot of freedom as well. You were almost like Huck Finn, out there on your own with nobody supervising you.”

“We were mature thinkers, we weren’t nine-year-old kids,” Joe agrees. “I look at my grandchildren and they don’t know how to tie their shoelaces. My life had experiences they will never be able to replicate.”

South Cape May “wasn’t a large community; there were about 40 houses built there over time, but by the 1940s, only half of them were still there,” says Bob Kenselaar. “There weren’t many year-round families. It was a mix of working folks and some who were a little wealthier.” That latter included a vice president of Standard Oil, as well as Samuel Bailie, a very successful Philadelphia wholesale sugar merchant.

“I saw Norman Rockwell painting on the beach,” Joe says. “He lived nearby for a while.”

Noted architect Stephen Decatur Button, who designed the Stockton Hotel, Cape May’s “Seven Sisters” on Jackson Street, as well as other notable structures, designed some of the houses here.

The Best of Times

Joe remembers with special delight the bootlegging era, when rum runners made nightly excursions to the beaches near his family home. From their upper-level bedrooms, Joe and Franny had a bird’s-eye view of the action.

“We’d hear these tomato trucks come out onto the beach, then the oar locks of somebody bringing in the booze by boat,” Joe recalls. “My mother would say, ‘I don’t want you up on the second floor looking—those bootleggers will kill you.’”

The brothers were undeterred. Occasionally, when the trucks got stuck on the sand, they’d run to the rescue. “We’d help them jack up their cars or trucks and get boards for underneath” to provide traction, he says. “You could smell the alcohol, and I’m pretty sure my brother Franny sampled a few bottles.”

During World War II, a new danger materialized: German submarines that prowled the coastline. “The reason was the shipping out of Philadelphia, which supplied the war effort,” says former Cape May City Mayor and local historian Robert W. Elwell, Sr., who wrote the book’s foreword. “The Germans could have blown up tons of munitions and petroleum products on the tankers coming down from distilleries in Philadelphia or the oil ships that were going back up. Cape May and the Delaware Bay were sitting ducks there for a while.”

By then a teenager, Joe Burcher worked in a local bowling alley, and didn’t get home until the wee hours. One night, he headed to his bedroom and turned on a hanging overhead light, forgetting to draw the shade in keeping with wartime blackout orders. Within moments, he recounts in the book, the Coast Guard crews that patrolled the beaches were pounding on the door. Guns drawn and cocked at Joe and his mother, they accused the boy of sending signals to the enemy.

“I just got home from work!” Joe protested. “I forgot to pull down the shade!”

“They still had their guns pointed at me and commanded me back upstairs, telling me to reenact the whole thing,” he writes. Eventually, the Guardsmen left, satisfied that the New Jersey teenager was not an enemy collaborator. Joe never forgot to pull the shade again.

“My mother was adamant,” he says. “She said, ‘Get those goddamn curtains dropped before they shoot us.’”

Bootleggers and Nazis aside, the biggest and most consistent threat was bad weather. Whenever a big storm hit, South Cape May residents had one destination: Mrs. Kelly’s boardinghouse, which was considered sturdy enough to withstand high winds and surging tides. Joe remembers his grandmother being carried to safety in a storm by two of Mrs. Kelly’s burly boarders.

“When a hurricane was coming, the Coast Guard would come along and holler, ‘You better evacuate because it’s going to be a bad one!’” he says. “We either ignored it or went to Mrs. Kelly’s house. It seemed like hundreds of people would cram in there. It was kind of foolish, because if that thing had been crushed, it would have been the end of South Cape May.”

Was he scared? “We would sing songs,” says Joe. “We were only kids. We gloried in the excitement.”

Sea Changes

Beachfront communities have always been vulnerable to the whims of nature. High tides, floods, erosion, and coastal storms are the price people pay for living on the water. But the vulnerability of coastal communities never stopped investors. In the 1800s, entrepreneurs saw a potential goldmine in the beachfront spit first called Mount Vernon (though it was flat as a crepe) and later renamed South Cape May.

One of the area’s first major developments was the Mount Vernon Hotel, built in the mid-1800s for the then-staggering sum of $125,000. The hotel—hailed in newspaper accounts as far away as London—had a dining hall with 40 gas-burning chandeliers, and was to have had hundreds of guest rooms. But before it could be completed, the roof blew off in a severe storm. In 1856, the hotel burned to the ground. A newspaper account of the time described “one vast sheet of fire that illuminated the surrounding space for miles.”

The possible arson fire, which killed the proprietor and four of his children, was linked to a disgruntled former servant who had threatened to “send them to hell” over unpaid wages of $4.50.

The land near the demolished hotel was then acquired by Irish-American investor and banker Mark Devine, who accumulated some 200 acres of marshes and meadowland on the peninsula. Transportation of the time included a side-wheel steamboat to the Cape.

In the 1860s, entrepreneur Theodore M. Reger believed new rail service to the area would bring tourists in droves and spark residential development. He bought the rights to “Lucy” in Atlantic City (now Lucy the Elephant in Margate). Also known as “Light of Asia,” locals soon took to calling the structure “Jumbo.”

The economy was booming, and Reger sold a number of lots and houses. But a recession in 1891 and the Panic of 1893 were followed by bank runs and closures. Businesses failed, and many property owners, particularly farmers, lost their land. The economic crises put a halt to development for a number of years.

Starting in 1913, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers launched a project to build jetties along the Cape May beaches to protect the coastal communities from storms. According to the Corps of Engineers website, “This type of work mainly involved beach erosion control, shoreline protection, navigation improvements and beach replenishment. Municipalities and private interests in New Jersey began looking at the problem in earnest after a series of hurricanes and other tropical storms battered the shore, all during a period of unprecedented and rapid growth in coastline development.”

But Joe Burcher’s book points to the jetties as a cause of erosion, not just in South Cape May but along the beaches of Cape May City and Cape May Point. A study by the Rutgers Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences suggests the groins or small jetties on local beaches were “responsible for the severely receded shoreline in South Cape May.” It all took place by the early 1930s, setting the stage for the devastation to come.

Author Witmer Stone, in his book Bird Studies at Old Cape May, wrote of the area in 1937: “Beach after beach, along the coast with the surf rolling in just as it does today but in place of the lines of hotels and cottages the boardwalks and electric lights, fishing piers and throngs of bathers we see only an endless stretch of gleaming strand flanked by sand dunes capped with beach grass.”

Today, most of South Cape May is underwater, and the remaining land has returned quite literally to the garden. In the 1970s, the Nature Conservancy took over, creating a refuge for migratory birds, restoring dunes to keep back the sea, and allowing a freshwater wetland to form. Few clues remain of the once-thriving town. But occasionally, an old wooden rail will poke through the sand along paths that once were trolley lines, and sharp-eyed people still find bits of plates, glassware, and other household goodies.

“When the 1944 hurricane came along, there was no protection,” says Bob Elwell. “It was a direct hit that took out most of the wooden boardwalk in Cape May, as well as the trolley tracks that ran from South Cape May out the Point. When I was a kid, at low tide with the erosion you could still see the pilings that held the track. We’d go out to play and see some foundations and some fireplaces left.”

Then as now, Mother Nature proved that she was boss.

The End

At the close of Remembering South Cape May, Joe Burcher considers an alternate fate for the beach town he loved. In the 1920s, local city officials considered a plan to consolidate Cape May City, Cape May Point, West Cape May, and South Cape May, and then build seawalls to protect their combined eight miles of beach.

According to The Summer City by the Sea, an illustrated history of Cape May by Emil R. Salvini, supporters of the plan said merging the four communities “from harbor to the bay” would create a “Florida of the north”—as if that were a desirable option. It also meant safety in numbers. But voters rejected the idea, preferring autonomy over security and economy.

Had the plan gone forward, Joe Burcher writes, “The stately homes of [early settlers] John Lonabaugh, Peter Day, Samuel Bailie and others would still be there, facing the ocean, right on the beach. The Rutschmann and Kelly houses would still be alongside them, fully intact. By today, hundreds of other beach houses would also be there. There would be a mix of Victorians, Cape Cods, and maybe here and there an odd A-frame, as we see at the Point. Instead what we have is wildflowers, bullfrogs, hummingbirds, egrets and piping plovers. And for me, plenty of memories, too.”