Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Under the sea: the (partially) lost resort of Sea Grove

Standing on the beach at the very tip of New Jersey during our most recent birding jaunt, my mind went back to a curious story I’d heard a while back. The quiet residential area just off the beach had once been much larger, but about a quarter of it had been wiped away, victim to erosion and a series of storms.

The Jersey shore is no stranger to destruction, as anyone who survived Hurricane Sandy can tell you. The 2012 storm was nowhere near the first round where man’s work was KO’ed by Mother Nature. As I discovered, though, the Cape May environs has gotten nailed more than a couple of times, erasing large swaths of beach developments from the map.

In fact, the very stretch of sand where we scanning gulls and terns had actually been a street called, ironically enough, Beach Avenue and the riprap jetties poking from the sand into the ocean are built essentially on what were once the cross streets. This was the southernmost portion of the town of Sea Grove, one of the many religious-themed communities founded in the years following the Civil War. Unlike Mount Tabor, Pitman Grove and Malaga, however, it wasn’t created by Methodists, nor did it come close in popularity.

Philadelphia cotton merchant and devout Presbyterian Alexander Whilldin originally secured ownership of the area, once known as Stites Beach, through marriage; his wife Jane's family had bought the land in 1712 through the West Jersey Proprietors. After first incorporating the West Cape May Land Company in 1872, he joined forces with retailer John Wanamaker and a group of real estate speculators three years later to create the Sea Grove Association, which purchased 266 acres from Whilldin for five dollars. The association’s goal, as stated in its bylaws, was to “furnish a moral and religious seaside home for the Glory of God and the welfare of man, where he may be refreshed and invigorated, body and soul, and better fitted for the highest and noblest duties of life."

Sea Grove directors claimed that while the typical seaside resort of the day focused on "lavish display, extravagant living... and consequent expense to be regretted when the apparent pleasure is past," visitors at their community would experience "good living." The temperance-minded organization forbade both alcohol and amusements, envisioning a quiet community unlike the much busier Cape May City a few miles to the north.

Taking a page from Pitman Grove, Philadelphia architect J.C. Sidney arranged the town’s main streets to radiate from a central hub, on which an 15,000 seat octagonal worship pavilion would be built. A separate corporation was founded to build houses and hotels, offering ministers $500 lots to encourage them to settle in the town. And to make it easier for potential residents to get to the remote community, the Association promised a free West Jersey Railroad pass to Cape May City for everyone who built a cottage in Sea Grove, and built an additional horse-drawn passenger train to ease the final leg from the station to their new summer home. Visitors and summer residents were welcomed to the community by an ornate gate that was meant to resemble the gates of heaven.

A 1876 "bird's eye" view of Sea Grove.
To accommodate those who didn't want to purchase property, the Association built the Sea Grove House overlooking the shore. Small shops opened to serve the community’s needs, given the distance into Cape May City.

The Sea Grove Association quickly sold out its 275 residential lots, but its salad days were few. Troubles started surfacing as early as 1879, even as other religious communities around the state were thriving. What’s for sure is that the investors took a bath. While the entire project had cost somewhere in the neighborhood of half a million dollars, the property, including the pavilion and boarding house, were sold for just $120,000 in 1881. The pavilion was removed in 1881, its wood sold as salvage, leaving a field that’s still largely empty. The Sea Grove House had a slightly more positive fate, operating as the Carlton Hotel until 1910.

Following the failure of the Sea Grove Association, the community incorporated as the Borough of Cape May Point. The intervening years brought a series of storms that severely eroded the area south of Cape May City, virtually destroying South Cape May (a story for another time) and engulfing the Point's Beach Avenue and several intersecting blocks.

Today, the community holds about 600 seasonal and year-round homes. It’s still a quiet place, with no boardwalk, no liquor stores or bars, and no motels. Its two retail businesses say a lot about the community’s attractions: a general store, and the gift shop at New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory.

And a quick glance at the part of town nearest the beach betrays none of the devastation of surf and storm. The streets that lost length to the sea have been squared off with their cross streets, creating elbows where there were once four-way intersections, with dunes piled up as protection. It's seemingly only St. Mary's By the Sea, a resort turned Catholic retreat center, that appears poised to be taken away with the next big wave. One can imagine the Sisters pray nightly for reprieve.

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