Monday, September 29, 2014

Jumbo and the birds: the lost elephant of South Cape May

Today it's a Nature Conservancy refuge, a popular place for birders to observe migrating and resident birds across 200 acres of marsh, grassland and beaches on a key point in the Atlantic flyway.

Who would have guessed that 130 years ago, it was home to an elephant?

To be fair, the Jersey shore was once home to two elephants, and both, while bigger than life, were man-made. The still-surviving Lucy stands between apartments and retail establishments on Atlantic Avenue in Margate. The South Cape May elephant, however, perished at the relatively young age of 16, the victim of a bad business plan.

The mid to late 1800s was a busy time for developers along the Jersey shore. Entrepreneurs were grabbing up as much waterfront property as they could, with visions of selling lots and building entire communities. Some like Alexander Whilldin saw opportunities to extend their personal ideals, while others were purely in it for the financial gain.

Among the latter was Theodore Reger, who, with partners, formed the Cape May City Land Company to purchase 225 acres just south of an already-popular vacation haven. To advertise the resort community they envisioned there, Reger and his partners took a page from James Lafferty, who'd already used Lucy to draw buyers to a similar settlement about 40 miles up the shore in Margate. They bought the rights to erect a 58 foot high elephant which they called the Light of Asia, fully expecting lightning to strike twice.

More than 13,000 square feet of tin was used to sheathe the wooden elephant, covering about a million pieces of wood, 250 kegs of nails and six tons of bolts. She was completed and opened for business in 1884. For a ten cent admission, visitors could get an expansive view of the ocean and surrounding beachfront from the Light's howdah, or seating platform, perched on the elephant's back 40 feet above the sand.

If a zoning board had to classify the Light of Asia, they might have an interesting time of it. While the howdah was a sightseeing platform, the belly of the beast was intended to hold a concession stand. Reger used another part of the structure for a real estate office. When the Cape May City company failed, he and his partners incorporated two successor ventures, the Neptune and Mount Vernon Land Companies, the latter of which was the final owner of the elephant.

Things didn't turn out as well for Reger and his partners as they did for Lafferty. First off, while the Light of Asia was an inspiring name, folks came to call the elephant Jumbo, after P.T. Barnum's popular beast. And though sightseers flocked to take in the sight of the beach-dwelling pachyderm, the number of people who paid admission to climb its legs to the platform was far below what Reger's group had anticipated. It seems that if they had any mind to get a high-up view of the area, people preferred to climb the Cape May Lighthouse for free.

Unsuccesful as a venture, the Light of Asia became a billboard for one of Reger's other local businesses, the New Mount Vernon Hotel. Meanwhile, vagrants moved into the elephant as it became increasingly more dilapidated. It was finally torn down in 1900.

A few buyers were convinced to settle in the vicinity, enough to incorporate as the town of South Cape May, but the town's history was brief as large swaths were lost to erosion and major storms in 1944 and 1950, Finally, what was left became a grazing pasture and then was converted to fresh water wetlands as the Nature Conservancy's South Cape May Meadows, host to migrating birds and resident species alike.

There's no knowing whether the Light of Asia would have withstood the storms (though I doubt she would have fared very well), but I'm rather tickled by the idea of a larger-than-life elephant standing amid marsh grass and dunes. Ol' Jumbo might have been a pretty neat hawk watch platform.

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