Shifting Sands: Cape May's Warning

1886 map of Cape May City, New Jersey. | Image: Courtesy Rutgers Special Collections and Archives

Southern California, South Texas, and southern New Jersey: these three landscapes appear to share little beyond their cartographical locations within their respective states.

Their geologies and topographies, relative heat and humidity, and the flora and fauna that inhabit these disparate spaces could not be more distinct. Even their coastlines give definition to the three distinct bodies of water that define the nation's continental limits.

Yet the waters of the Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic, and the shores they sculpt, are what link together these seemingly diverse terrains. Just ask Captain Ginny.

She was orienting us to Jarvis Sound, a fecund stretch of bay water and salt marsh just north of Cape May, N. J. It sustains the world's largest breeding colony of Laughing Gulls; is home to countless nesting ospreys and heron rookeries, and the elusive Clapper Rail; and making their way beneath is a veritable paella of mussels, crab, fish, and shrimp.

As her husband Captain Ed skippered the Skimmer, a 40' twin-hull pontoon platform on a bright and clear July morning, Ginny gave us a bird's eye view of the eastern flyway. Asking us to imagine that we were heading south in the fall - eagle, hawk, or songbird - what would guide us to our warmer winter destination? The coastline - its sharp gradient of temperature and hue - serves as one focal point for avian navigation.

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The windflow adds its own push, she affirmed. As cooler autumn air dives south, it drives birds down to the funnel point of Cape May, where they rest and forage, building body fat before winging across Delaware Bay.

So too in south Texas: as powerful cold fronts - called blue northers - roar down the plains, their blustery force propels winged migrants to the coastal Gulf; there they congregate before making the mad dash across its bathtub-warm waters; and when Pacific lows spin off the west coast, they send raptors, butterflies, and warblers along flight paths tracking the coastal ranges.

These patterns of climate and landform also shape human behavior - birdwatchers flock to all three staging areas in the fall and spring to track, observe, and revel in the annual cycle in which millions of birds and butterflies stream overhead. We home in as they do, a shared behavior of habit and habitat.

This dynamic relationship has been complicated by another human migratory impulse - the summer vacation. More than a century before "snowbirds" began to head to south Texas and southern California to escape the cold, leaving behind the dark and damp of the nation's northern tier, Americans targeted the Jersey Shore as a place of frolic and release.

Shortly after the War of 1812, the first stages of the industrial revolution took hold, powering the rise of a middle class and even more money and luxury to the urban elite. This economic boom needed plenty of workers and capital, which spurred the creation of the dense urban corridor that stretched from Boston to Baltimore; the most intense growth occurred in Philadelphia; New York and Brooklyn (then a separate city); and the booming across-the-Hudson factory towns of Hoboken, Jersey City, Newark, and Paterson. Linking these people and places together was a thickening transportation network - roads, canals, ships, and the country's first railroads.

Americans had never been more mobile. With freshly minted money to burn, those of means used their disposable income to fund some time off. Cape May was one of the most effective places at profiting from this down time. Located at the extreme southern end of the Garden State, the town claims to be the country's "First Resort." With reason: by 1832 its 5000 residents supported countless guest-houses and four major hotels, including the multi-story Congress Hall (still operating). In the next decade, Centre House was built to accommodate what was then a staggering 400 tourists.

Mount Vernon Hotel Fire, Cape May. | Image: National Park Service via Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper/September 20, 1856
Mount Vernon Hotel Fire, Cape May. | Image: National Park Service via Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper/September 20, 1856

Dwarfing these establishments was the grandiose Mount Vernon, which investors plunked down $125,000 to construct in the mid-1850s: its 2000 guests could expect en-suite bathrooms, hot-and-cold running water, and gas lighting; for their amusement there was a pistol range and bowling alley. Alas, before any visitors could check in, an arsonist set the massive edifice ablaze.

Five years after that disaster, the Civil War erupted, slowing Cape May's development. Once hostilities ceased, and the northern economy took off like a rocket, the resort town entered its second period of rapid development. So many of the homes and hotels that were constructed at that time remain intact and protected - in 1976 the whole community was declared a National Historic Landmark.

As preserved as its streets and structures are, though, Cape May sits on an unsteady medium - sand. It is made all the more unstable due to the human impulse to move earth. In the 19th-c., developers hacked down trees, drained swamps and marshlands, and then filled them in with logs, rocks, and sand. They flattened the dunes to create panoramic vistas. Their economic calculations also led them to lay down buildings, streets, boardwalks, and trolley tracks as close to the water as possible - people paid top dollar to hear waves crash.

The thunderous surf carried a warning, however little heeded. As storms, minor and major, swept in off the Atlantic their energy piled up against the fixed structures. Erosion begat erosion: the ocean advanced, and the beaches disappeared, forcing Cape May to retreat inland. Engineers believed that bulwarks and jetties could control these surges' calving power, but this edifice complex exacerbated the problem.

Enter the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1909, Congress granted it the authority and funding to construct an intercoastal highway, from Boston to the Rio Grande River. One of the places it decided to dig was Cape May. Seeing in Jarvis Sound a protected, if too-shallow route that hugged the thin barrier beaches, it decided to dredge new shipping lanes and cut channels between the tidal marshlands and the ocean beyond. What happened next is what invariably happens: these passageways produced faster and more erosive tidal flows; and paradoxically silt built up more quickly than predicted and threatened to close off what the Corps was determined to keep open. "You'd think they would have followed Nature's path," Captain Ginny laughed. "But of course they knew better."

The 1944 Great Atlantic hurricane put an exclamation point on her insight: it slammed into southern New Jersey with such cyclonic power that it tore away hundreds of feet of beachfront, and all the structures that had been so firmly built on it. Boats seeking shelter along the intercoastal highway were splintered, as the storm used its open waters to fuel its charge up the coast. Most devastated was the working class community of South Cape May. Battered beyond recognition, churned up and swept out to sea, it ceased to exist.

At least in its former form. In 1981, The Nature Conservancy purchased the remaining 200 acres of dry land, turned it into South Cape May Meadows Preserve. In collaboration with the state and the Army Corps (it can do good work), the conservancy launched a wetlands restoration project that would offer essential wildlife habitat for indigenous and migratory species - and provide what once these natural systems did naturally, coastal-flooding mitigation.

Sam and I are watching Captain Ed sort crabs on the Skimmer. | Photo: Courtesy Ben Miller
Sam and I are watching Captain Ed sort crabs on the Skimmer. | Photo: Courtesy Ben Miller

I thought a lot about the implications of these stories as I took early morning walks along Cape May's shaded lanes. The hardscape boardwalk, rock jetties, and the white beaches offer silent testimony to the tug-of-war between what we want and what nature gives (and takes). A mid-day stroll down the broad sweep of Mount Vernon Avenue tells the same tale: it ends abruptly at 2nd Avenue, where the conservancy preserve begins, though it used to run west another 19 blocks, a key conduit for South Cape May's vanished streetscape. On the beach at sundown, grandson Sam and I watched as the rising tide carved away at a large race-car sand sculpture.

Even my reading that vacation week brought an unexpected reminder of our complicated relationship with a sustaining nature, our awkward place in its embrace.

"Maphead" by Ken Jennings

Among the pile of mysteries, novels, and children's lit that our son brought along so that our minds wouldn't atrophy in the heat and humidity was Ken Jennings' Maphead. "Jeopardy" wunderkind Jennings has had a life-long love of maps, happily suffering from a cartophilia that is intimately connected to an all-encompassing sense of his home ground, the Pacific Northwest. Should he be hooked up to an EKG, he writes half-jokingly, "I imagine my heart would look exactly like the pale contour of the Olympic Mountains seen across Puget Sound on a sunny day."

He would perfectly understand Captain Ginny's and Captain Ed's continuing fascination with the salt marshes and mudflats they call home and through whose complex web of inlets they navigate the Skimmer multiple times a day.

And he would recognize as a landsman the Philadelphia resident on HGTV's mesmerizing House Hunters - my source for all things domestic - who explained why he absolutely had to buy a house in Avalon, on the Jersey Shore. "If that's where your parents took you on your vacations, then that's where you'd return with your kids - and grandkids."

Such affective landscapes, Jennings notes, are "primary settings" on which we "imprint like barnyard fowl." He underscores this point with an epigram from Gabriel Marcel: "An individual is not distinct from his place. He is his place."

But that rootedness, as Cape May's history suggests, comes at a too-often unacknowledged cost. When we set down our roots, we alter the space around us; we transform or rough up or reorder what came before. Although all species change the landscapes they inhabit, we have a universal conception of our reach.

Our drive to "measure the sea tides" and "number the sea-sands," poet Matthew Arnold observed in "Empedocles on Etna" (1852), another of Jennings' epigrams, is engrained in our striving, hubristic imagination:

Look, the world tempts our eye,
And we would know it all:
We map the starry sky,
We mine this earthen ball

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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