A Lost Atlantis in South Jersey

by KATHY DEACON

The one-car train clatters along on its ancient tracks, headed for Cape May, New Jersey. The ride is bumpy and every so often the train lurches violently. Inside, the passengers, tossed around in their seats, are glugging down beer and engrossed in their card games. There is a convivial, almost jovial mood; everyone is acquainted through repeated trips, on the way to the shore after work in Philadelphia. My father awaits my mother’s arrival every summer weekend on this seashore line whose days are numbered.

He and other long-gone relatives lie in wait for me around town, smile slyly, and then turn and vanish behind parked cars. Sitting in a now-nonexistent movie theatre, I feel a sudden shiver of fear—as if we are about to be suddenly swallowed up by the ocean. Nothing ever happens right away.

Every morning my mother treks across wild, flat beaches–where seaside houses and hotels once stood–to the lighthouse in the baking sun. She’ll chat about various places and things washed away long ago by the sea. The waters off the Midatlantic are relatively cool, not conducive to hurricane development, and I don’t know what she’s talking about. I have no memory of anything here except empty beaches and marshes.

I do remember the ’62 nor’easter that tore apart the boardwalk—and seemed to wash in the Reverend Carl McIntire with his Bible college and takeover of the Admiral and Congress Hall, and other historic hotels. And an Urban Renewal movement that had the goal of developing a Victorian Village to attract tourists; and demolished actual Victorian structures to create a pedestrian shopping mall and parking lot.

“Come Down to Cool Cape May”—Can anyone seriously say that now, with Midatlantic Julys becoming more and more like tropical saunas?

On a visit in July of 2010, we can scarcely breathe passing through Philadelphia–it is over 100 degrees. But once we’ve arrived and settled on the beach, a voice on a PA system shouts, “Leave the beach now.” A severe weather system is approaching. The sky behind us is black, the crowds are streaming off the beach and back to their hotels; a tornado touches down near Atlantic City.

Forward to July 2013—The temperature is only 81. Is this some trick of nature–one last meal before the onset of global heatup? Several of my cousins are relaxing on the beach. The sun is intense and, suddenly needing to get in the shade, I end up at the mall riding up an escalator to a bookstore that is nothing like the old shabby, welcoming Kelties—with its aisles of newspapers and magazines and comic books—a place we saved for rainy days when there was nothing else to do.

I grab up a little book with an intriguing cover photo of some knocked-over mansions and railroad tracks peeking out from under the ocean–Remembering South Cape May, The Jersey Shore Town That Vanished into the Sea, written by Joseph G. Burcher, with Robert Kensalaar. Over a decade younger than my mother, Burcher spent summers there in the early 1930s.

Leafing through, I discover that on land now set aside as a Nature Conservancy preserve there was once a neighborhood known as Mount Vernon, named after a 432-room beachfront hotel, a world-class place—with a 25,000-square-foot dining room—said to be the largest hotel in the world. Made entirely of wood, it was destroyed by fire in 1854. Mount Vernon’s distinctive landmark was a 40-foot high building in the shape of an elephant.

Today the shoreline there recedes into a huge meadow inhabited solely by migrating birds–as if a gigantic bite had been taken out of a beach that used to continue in a straight line all the way to Cape May Point. Summer visitors from the cities would disembark from their steamships there and transfer onto an electric trolley running every 20 minutes alongside the ocean all the way to Cape May City.

Stephen Decatur Button—an architect who designed dozens of Cape May’s most famous landmarks–the Abbey, the Mainstay, the Seven Sisters, and the Windsor and Lafayette hotels—built beachfront homes in the 1880s alongside this trolley route–reminiscent of the Abbey and “notable for the departure from Italianate leanings into Gothic design.” A second wave of simple shingle-sided buildings by the architect Enos Williams typified a popular counter-trend to Button’s highly ornamented Victorian style.

The area was officially incorporated as the borough of South Cape May in 1894. But a major development scheme was halted when storms swept through in 1897, submerging houses and the trolley tracks, followed by blizzards and more storms. Plans in 1899 to build a seawall were abandoned, and by the turn of the century tracks and homes were wrecked by nor’easters. Some of the elegant structures were simply picked up and transported whole by their owners to West Cape May.

And then there was a lull in storm activity for several decades. But by the ‘20s Cape May had fallen out of fashion. Atlantic City—an easy trip from Philadelphia and New York with the arrival of the car—took its place as the trendy Jersey beach resort.

And once more, in the 1930s, there were hurricanes. South Cape May residents made a serious effort to develop a storm protection program, drawing up detailed plans for a bulkhead and jetties. They attributed the erosion of their shoreline to the Cape May Inlet jetties built by the Army Corps of Engineers at Wildwood Crest in 1913. Burcher cites recent studies that strongly suggest these citizens were right–the jetties at Wildwood Crest, as well as smaller ones put in place along the Cape May beaches by the ‘30s, did cause dramatic erosion and ultimately helped bring about the demise of South Cape May.

He recalls the nor’easter of 1936, when “the raging seas came over the streets. . . . That was the beginning of the end of South Cape May . . . and that’s when people started abandoning efforts to save anything. Newspapers described “’mountainous seas’ raking over the streets.”

During the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944–a Category 3 storm–the eye, passing just offshore during high tide, unleashed 50-foot tidal waves, flooding South Cape May in a matter of minutes, and marooning Cape May Point. South Cape May “officially ceased to exist.” The military buildup along the coastline during the Second World War provided needed manpower for the cleanup of Cape May; the boardwalk had been torn apart and tons of sand deposited from the beaches onto the streets; tourism was dead for over a decade. (I realize in a flash that’s why I spent my early childhood summers in the 1950s vacationing in Wildwood Crest—and not Cape May.)

“By the mid-1950s, there was nothing much left of the borough of South Cape May in its original location but the bits and pieces of abandoned properties still in the meadow or at the bottom of the sea. We used to see parts of the buildings well into the 1960s—boards, bricks from chimneys, pipes and even toilets.” The remains of some of the cottages—such as those belonging to Burcher’s family—were picked up and moved far inland west of Sunset Boulevard.

Today, what is left of the area–popular with ornithologists–looks quite beautiful in its current state.

By a stroke of luck Cape May was spared the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. (Its brand-new Convention Hall, completed in 2012 at a cost of $10.5 million–suspended on a pier–was denied FEMA coverage and had no flood insurance.)

Since 1990, the sea level rise from Boston to Cape Hatteras has been three times the global average. Cape May’s low-lying evacuation routes could be easily inundated by the storm surge of even a Category 1 hurricane. A mandatory evacuation order preceded Irene’s landfall in 2011.

Since 1970, weather disasters (wildfires, cold/heat waves, drought, storm surge, flooding) have been steadily increasing decade by decade—all exacerbated by climate change. But until recently the Northeast hasn’t really seen the type of hurricane Burcher describes—which makes it hard for all but the very oldest residents to comprehend what happened in the past—or could happen in the future.

Much of the late twentieth century quiescence might be attributable to the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation—an approximately 70-year cycle that amplifies or mitigates regional sea surface temperature independent of anthropomorphic climate change–and alternately obscures and exaggerates the temperature increases due to global warming.

The number of tropical storms and severity of hurricanes in the Atlantic is greater during warm phases of the AMO.  A 30-year cold phase ended around 1995, and we are now well into the warm phase—with a corresponding increase in the number of storms and intense hurricanes such as Katrina and Sandy. The current peak may be similar to the mid-twentieth-century peak from 1930 to 1960 (surrounded by cold intervals of 1900-1930 and 1960-1990).

A consensus seems to indicate climate change may give rise to fewer but much stronger Atlantic hurricanes–the storms feed off latent heat, hurricanes intensify faster, and extra water vapor in the atmosphere makes them wetter; rising sea levels exacerbate storm surge. However a slowing of the jet stream due to warming of the poles may bring about an increase in wind shear—conducive to severe storms and lightning but sometimes inhibiting hurricane development. The worst manifestation of the stalling of these giant waves in the atmosphere for the East and Southeast may be a doubling of violent severe storms rather than cyclones. And the tornadoes are getting wider and longer. It’s all awful uncharted terrain. In the end everyone will become an amateur climatologist.

But what am I doing indoors? Today is a perfect day (at least when you’re resting in the shade). Summers were generally nice like this when I was a kid—oh well, maybe a bit cooler. Hello, young cousins once and twice removed, who sit apart and talk among yourselves—I forgot to bring you Burcher’s book. But here I am anyway, your living history, full of anecdotes about my late relatives—your ancestors–funny stories–some better left unspoken—stories that will die with me and may not have much relevance with so many new careers just underway and babies about to be born. It’s nice to see you, if only briefly.

Kathy Deacon is a free-lance writer living in New York.

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