The Heart of Cape May: A Presidential Retreat
City dwellers, suburbanites, rural folk, working class people, the affluent crowd, and so many more from across the United States have flocked to the heart Cape May for its unique seaside town atmosphere since as far back as the 18th century. Some of our country’s most important people have also followed in these footsteps and chose Cape May as their place to relax. Five of our nation’s Presidents spent some time during their summers in office getting away from the craziness of Washington DC’s politics. If you draw a line on a map starting from Cape May and go west, you’ll hit DC, so it certainly goes without saying that it was convenient for them. With the allure of summers in America’s Original Seaside Resort, it is no wonder why some of our Presidents made Cape May their Summer White House!
The first president to visit Cape May was Franklin Pierce, the fourteenth President of the United States. Pierce vacationed in Cape May over the 4th of July of 1855. This was a time when the then-wealthy frequented the resort, frequently strolling along through the heart of town and frolicking around Congress Hall, which of course is adjacent to the present day Washington Street Mall. Cape May businessman Jonas Miller and his son Waters Miller owned Congress Hall during Pierce’s tenure. Waters, who went on to become Mayor of Cape May and a New Jersey State Senator, was never one to shy away from the spotlight, and also needed to build momentum for his family’s business. Because of this, he extended an invitation to Franklin Pierce to celebrate America’s birthday at the hotel. Pierce accepted and spent the holiday on the Cape. When Pierce was sleeping one morning, the locals got a little too excited over Pierce’s visit and set off a celebratory canon blast on the beach. This startled Pierce and the First Lady, and they were not too happy to be awakened so early in the morning. First Lady Jane Pierce was probably one of the reasons why her and her husband made a visit to the seashore. All of her children died prior to their visit in childhood, and she did not like politics. She certainly needed a break from DC. Along with the abrupt canon blast, Pierce’s visit came with some flak from the good ol’ New York Times. The Times claimed that with the ongoing conflict between the North and the South, and the President sitting back and taking it easy in Cape May, the country had essentially lost its President. They even went as far to say that Pierce “might as well be in Cape Horn” Africa instead of Cape May. Pierce’s supporters hit back, saying that the First Lady needed the cool breezes of the seaside to heal and that the President should be able to vacation “without incurring the malignant mendacity of partisan newspapers”. Needless to say, after this trip, Pierce never did return to Cape May.
Pierce’s successor James Buchanan also came to Congress Hall for a very short stay while in office in 1858 to also escape DC’s hot air (both literally and figuratively). Congress Hall actually hosted all five of the presidents who made a trip to the resort while in office. Many mistakenly think that Congress Hall coined its current name because of the fact that many prominent Washington politicians stayed there through the years. However, the name Congress Hall was actually chosen when its former owner, Thomas Hughes, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Buchanan returned to Cape May after he left office for a much-needed escape, as he had become distraught because many blamed him for the start of the Civil War. Being from Lancaster, Cape May was easily accessible for Buchanan.
Ulysses Grant visited Cape May before he became President after leading the Union to victory in the Civil War. As part of the continued celebrations after the victory, Grant reviewed a military drill on the Congress Hall lawn. Huge crowds of locals and visitors came out to celebrate with Grant. When Grant was President, he again visited Cape May for a short time with the then-Governor of Pennsylvania John Hartranft, Philadelphia newspaper owner George Childs, and other distinguished guests. He was there to view a regatta, organized by Cape May’s first yacht club. The founders of the club were hoping to convince Grant to make Cape May his Summer White House. However, Grant ended up choosing Long Branch in Monmouth County as the place to spend his summers, about 100 miles up the coast, likely because the Long Branch Racetrack (what is now the Monmouth Park Racetrack) had just opened. Grant was a big fan of horse racing.
The most forgotten US President, Chester Arthur, also visited Cape May. Arthur’s administration was not very active, likely due to the fact that his health was regularly poor. He also had a good temper, and with the tranquility of the country post-Civil War, there were not many issues that he had to deal with. Like Grant, Arthur also reviewed a military drill on the grand lawn of Congress Hall. Large crowds surrounded Arthur here and everywhere he went as he traveled by horse and carriage across the island. According to The New York Times, Arthur was very pleased with his visit to Cape May.
The president who truly made Cape May the Summer White House was Benjamin Harrison. Harrison first came to Cape May on the invitation of Philadelphia businessman John Wanamaker, who was a big supporter of Harrison. Because of this, Harrison appointed him Postmaster General. Wanamaker owned houses and property in Cape May Point, and invited Harrison to spend a week with him. Harrison and his wife Caroline thoroughly enjoyed the picturesque gardens, dunes, and beaches of the Point and dined on all kinds of seafood during their entire stay. The First Lady returned the next summer along with her entire family, where she stayed in a house built just for her and her husband by Wanamaker. The house is still standing to this day as it is currently the Marianist Retreat at the corner of Cape and Yale Avenues. Caroline had a great appreciation for not just the beaches of Cape May, but its more natural areas as well. She frequently traveled off the island to take in some of the beauty of the coastal countryside, often traveling up and down Shunpike Road in what is now Lower Township. President Harrison returned to Cape May for the summer of 1891, but this time to Congress Hall, where he and his presidential staff took up the entire first floor!
With Cape May’s seaside town atmosphere and calming ocean and bay breezes, it is no wonder why these five Presidents spent some summers in Cape May. It is even rumored that President Donald Trump once traveled to Cape May to view the former Christian Admiral hotel when it was for sale in the 1990s, thinking of buying it and turning it into a casino. However, of course, that never came to be. In any event, next time you are strolling through the heart of Cape May, think about the fact that one of America’s chief executives may have once did the same thing more than a hundred years ago.