Known for its quaint Victorian cottages and pristine beaches, Cape May, New Jersey has been a seaside destination for generations. In fact, it is widely recognized as the oldest seaside resort in the country. Wealthy Northeasterners and several Presidents have summered here and the area is home to a rich architectural and cultural history.
But Cape May, nicknamed “the Queen of the Seaside Resorts,” is much more than just beaches, baubles and gingerbread-styled buildings. In 1976, the entire city of Cape May was declared a National Historic Landmark. Possessing one of the country's largest collections of 19th century framed buildings, the historic district features many styles of Victorian architecture—second only to San Francisco in volume.
Behind the History
According to Harry Bellangy, president of the Greater Cape May Historical Society, Cape May is named for a 1620 Dutch captain, Cornelius Jacobsen Mey, who explored and charted the area somewhere around 1620, and established a claim for the province of New Netherland. "Mey explored and charted it, though he did not actually settle here," says Bellangy. "He never overtly set foot on ground. Henry Hudson [did that] first when he ran aground out on the Delaware Bay. But neither one of them really settled here, although Mey claimed it for the Dutch, but the Dutch did not settle. It was settled by New Englanders who came down from New Haven. It was originally formed as the borough of Cape Island by the New Jersey Legislature in March of 1848, and reincorporated as Cape Island City March 10, 1851. It finally became Cape May City March 9, 1869."
Prior to European settlement, the area was a forest, occupied by members of the Lenni Lenape tribe, says Bellangy. Once Europeans came onto the scene, "Farming, fishing and whaling for a period of time—until all the whales were wiped out—were the primary industries here. In fact, Cape May was kind of the Lima bean capital of the world for a while, and West Cape May has a lima bean festival every year celebrating that."
The city began hosting vacationers from Philadelphia in the mid-1700s and its popularity grew so much during the 18th century, that it was soon considered one of the finest resorts in America.