Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Railroad Comes to Cape May

As many of you know if I have a more detailed story or wish to post images in higher res I will use my blog and post a link on Facebook.

This is such a story. I received an envelope in the mail yesterday from Germany. It contained an item I have searched for years to add to my collection.. an original stock certificate from the first railroad to connect Cape May, NJ to the outside world.

Germany ? Go figure but I found it on Ebay and it is a genuine certificate. It is often easier to locate Jersey Shore items out of state where they are not valued by collectors as they would be in say a boardwalk flea market.
The actual certificate was issued in 1863 during the Civil War and the investor purchased two shares at $50 a share. This was no small amount in 1863 and the railroad was attempting to raise $300,000.

Here is the story:
Cape May was the first resort established on the Jersey Shore because of its water transportation monopoly. In the era before railroads and reliable roads existed, sailboats and later steamboats, would drop people off at Cape May on the trip from Philadelphia, down the Delaware River, and around the Cape May peninsula and pick them up on the return voyage. It was a perfect arrangement.
Records indicate that before the American Revolution wealthy families were summering in the fledgling resort. Further north the second resort to take advantage of a water monopoly was Long Branch, the Duchess of the North Shore, where massive steamboats would use piers as landing docks to disembark vacationers from Manhattan.

This arrangement worked for generations until a group of savvy investors decided to build a railroad, the latest transportation technology, to connect Philadelphia to the Atlantic Ocean. They looked at a map and decided the shortest route east took them to a desolate area known as Absecon Island. The new resort was a brilliant railroad scheme. They bought up the land between Philadelphia and Absecon Island, and it's value grew exponentially once the resort was completed. On July 1, 1854, a train full of investors, newspapermen and Philadelphia bigwigs arrived in the resort the railroad created; Atlantic City. Cape May was clearly in the cross hairs of Atlantic City developers and through years of political maneuvers were successful in slowing down a railroad connection between Philadelphia and Cape May. America's Playground began to take vacationers and revenue from the older established resorts.

Why take a steamboat to Cape May when you could now travel to the beach and back in one day. Cape May became the destinations for long-term visits and the railroad made Atlantic City the most successful resort on the coast.
The Civil War had taken a toll on Cape May and almost overnight they lost the families that came from points south. Many of these families never returned after the war with words like Shiloh, Fredericksburg, and Antietam, and thoughts of the thousands of men that lost their lives in these bloody battles were etched in the nation's collective memory.

Clearly the railroad represented the future of Cape May.

Charters were renegotiated, political deals were cut and almost a decade after that first train arrived in Atlantic City, local Cape May resident, Amelia Hand wrote in her diary in 1863, " We at last have a railroad from Cape Island to Philadelphia, and August 26th the cars made a trip for the first time..the route was performed in three and a half hours, quite an improvement over our old way of going to Philadelphia which took the most part of one day..."
She cautiously noted that two trains a day, "...bring us as near to a large city as one need wish be..." Perhaps she was clairvoyant.

The railroad she was referring to was the Cape May and Millville Railroad. Town elders like the ever-vigilant newspaper editor of the Cape May Ocean Wave, Joseph Leach, warned the citizens of the city that the long-awaited railroad and its promise of prosperity required a commitment from the island's citizens. He wrote that the city must provide "proper inducements to attract them ( tourists), and render their stay pleasant." He went on to say that Cape Island was fifty-years behind the times.

The citizens and entrepreneurs responded, new hotels were opened and the older establishments were renovated.
Cape May would never surpass Atlantic City as the #1 resort on the New Jersey shore again but in the end the Queen of the Seaside Resorts had the last laugh. Atlantic City ruled until travel modes changed again and the railroads were replaced with automobiles and air travel. Built for the railroad AC was not automobile friendly and as the years went by tourists used the Garden State Parkway to pass it by for destinations north and south.

A renaissance eventually took place in Cape May. While their competitor to the north dealt with urban decay and required legalized gambling to revive it, a new generation of families discovered the charm of the sleepy victorian resort that time and the wrecking ball had spared.