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SummerFest: Cape May Is The Nation’s Oldest Seaside Resort

CAPE MAY, N.J. (CBS)–A trip to Cape May, New Jersey is a trip back in time.

“It slows you down. It’s a place where you go to eat fudge, fly a kite, you can walk through old houses, and you know…spend an afternoon on the beach,” said Jack Fichter, said managing editor of the Cape May Star and Wave.

Inland from the impressive beaches, about 600 Victorian buildings still line the streets in and around the city’s historic district, well preserved since the area was settled by whalers and fisherman in colonial times.

“The concept of whaling as we think of it today — the large ships, sailing ships and all that — that’s not how it was in Cape May County. They actually had more of a longboat with oars that they would actually go out and chase the whales with. And that was a pretty dangerous occupation,” said Donna Matalucci, director for the Museum of Cape May County.

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Harpoons and whale teeth are still on display inside the Cape May County Museum and Geneology Library, along with the original Cape May Lighthouse Lens from 1859.

“It was at the top of the lighthouse from 1859 till it was decommissioned in 1946,” said Deborah McGuire, the museum’s marketing coordinator. “This for its time, this was state-of-the-art. This lens would sit on a chariot which would turn it. It had five burners that had to be lit each night, holding seven and a half gallons of oil, which was incumbent of the lighthouse keeper to climb the steps every night to pour the oil in to keep the light burning.”

The lens was incredibly effective, reaching 20 miles out to sea as a guide for ships, stopped only by the curvature of the earth.

“Cape May was the first seaside resort in the country. Up until that time, people didn’t even think about going swimming in the ocean,” said  Dr. Robert E. Heinly, director of museum education, at the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities.

Still standing, Victorian mega-hotels like Congress Hall–brought to life in 1816 — and restored to its original beauty in 2001. And the Chalfonte Hotel, celebrating 141 years of continuous operation.

As travelers arrived, the need for information quickly grew.

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“This is a grand tradition here,” Fichter said. “We have pictures of our editors going all the way back to the beginning. Mostly older gentlemen wearing hats and had a sign in the hat that says ‘Press’.”

The Cape May Star and Wave is the nation’s oldest seashore resort paper. It started in 1854 and is still printing papers today.

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“We actually covered the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln,” Fichter said.

Not only the inauguration but every major war the country has ever fought.

“Including Spanish-American, Civil, World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Korea, you name it,” said Fichter.

Reminders of wars fought are all over town. An American flag was hand-stitched by women in Cape May before the beginning of the Civil War. Soldiers carried the flag through battle, taking pieces of the fabric with them when guns were lowered and peace returned.

Today, Cape May is a community that embraces its past, celebrating what was, and what’s still to come.

 

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