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History

From the days in the 1600s when settlers came to southern New Jersey in search of whales to the 1950s, when Chubby Checker put Wildwood on the map with his Peppermint Twist, Cape May County has a most interesting past and an even more exciting future.

Family plots and rows of headstones in the cemetery of Cold Spring Presbyterian Church, affectionately referred to as “Old Brick,” provide an accurate and intriguing glimpse of nearly 300 years of Cape May County history — men who sailed the high seas, war heroes who never returned, families wiped out by typhoid and an amazing number of people descended from those who arrived aboard the Mayflower. In fact, there are more descendants buried here than anywhere outside of Massachusetts.

During the 1800s several Presidents summered in Cape May, often using Congress Hall as their Summer White House. John Phillips Sousa played on the lawn of the grand hotel during the era when visitors arrived in this seashore town by steamer and railroad. Located below the Mason Dixon Line, the county has often had a southern feel to it, and nowhere is that more obvious than at the Chalfonte Hotel, a bastion of genteel summer living and hospitality since the 1870s. Indeed, Cape May itself, with its collection of authentic Victorian homes, most of them built after the Great Fire of 1878, is on the National Historic Register.

Cape May Court House is a historic town of century-old homes, white-steepled churches and the old court house building, another National Historic Landmark, that gives the town its name and its identity. One of the township’s oldest homes, the John Holmes House (c. 1755), houses the Cape May County Museum, a repository of history and artifacts from the days of the Lenni Lenape tribe through the settlement of the Southern New Jersey area.

The county’s nautical history is documented by the Cape May Lighthouse, built in 1859 at the entrance to Delaware Bay, and the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse, constructed on the Atlantic Ocean side of the peninsula in 1874. Coastal fortifications from World War II, including an artillery bunker at Cape May Point and a fire control tower used to direct fire at enemy targets off the coast, are being restored.

Today, the county is dotted from Upper Township to Lower Township, from Woodbine to the barrier islands, with historic sites, old churches, one-room schools and other bits of history that continue to weave an interesting story for future generations.

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