Cape May, New Jersey's Battle Against Nature

by |June 20, 2011

The John McCreary House in Cape May, N.J. 1977. Photo by Jack Boucher via WikiCommons

A visit to Cape May, N.J. is about as close as anyone can get to taking a trip back to the 19th Century. Colorful Victorian homes line Beach Avenue opposite a low concrete seawall. Beyond the seawall lies the vast, moody expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. Both beach and water lend to the brand the coastal village sells to hundreds of thousands of visitors every summer, but on the storm-battered Atlantic Coast, nothing is permanent. What lasts–whether roads, buildings or beach–is fought for in a constant battle against the elements. Salt from ocean spray attacks wooden trim and metal fixtures. Aggressive storm waves pound the beach, causing the sand to slip timidly away. But for half a century, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has commanded the front lines in this war against nature, building fortifications to protect a thriving beach community. But with the federal budget likewise under attack (albeit by other forces), the Corps’ decidedly expensive role combating coastal erosion may be in jeopardy.

2005. Image by Jim Irwin via WikiCommons

Perched on a finger of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the mouth of the Delaware River, Cape May is America’s oldest seaside resort, and the only American city to be designated, in its entirety, as a National Historic Landmark. Vacationers from Philadelphia began visiting the hamlet in the mid-18th Century, and owing to the area’s pleasant weather and scenic beaches, haven’t stopped coming since. A broad marsh and a spacious harbor stretch to the west of the town’s center and the lighthouse on the peninsula’s southern tip. The U.S. Coast Guard operated cutters out of Cape May Harbor during Prohibition, and throughout World War II, the U.S. Navy used it for anti-submarine patrols. Today, the navy is gone, but the coast guard has several cutters stationed there, and its recruit training facility is sandwiched between the harbor and the ocean. In recent years, the marsh’s plethora of wildlife has attracted increasing numbers of birdwatchers and ecotourists.

Beach erosion is a perennial challenge for coastal communities, but in Cape May, man began accelerating the natural process in 1903. That year, dredges began scooping sand and muck out of the small harbor, expanding it to its current 500 acres. By 1911, a pair of massive stone jetties were completed to protect the mouth of Cape May Inlet. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lengthened the stone walls during World War II (when it also built a three mile-long canal across the peninsula from the exposed harbor to its less submarine attack-prone western side), and today, they protrude nearly 4,500 feet into the ocean. They’re so long that you can watch a fisherman pick his way along the rocks for 15 minutes before he reaches the end to cast his line.

But while the long jetties do an OK job keeping the inlet open, they’re also good at blocking sand that normally makes its way south along the coast toward Cape May Point. Sand no longer deposits naturally on the beach adjacent to the south jetty, and ebbs quickly during rough weather. By the 1980s, there wasn’t much sand left along many once popular Cape May Beaches, leaving little space for sunbathers and exposing an important regional bird refuge to imminent inundation. The Corps of Engineers responded by designing and implementing a long-term beach nourishment plan to bolster beaches and preserve several sizeable wildlife habitat areas. Between 1991 and 2004, the Corps deposited and graded 3.7 million cubic yards of sand dredged from offshore (with plans to deposit nearly 14 million cubic yards more over the coming years), widening the beach. According to Corps reports, about $143 million had been spent on the project as of 2009, with costs shared unevenly by state and federal agencies. It is important to note that taxpayers across the nation all chip in on the larger federal portion.

The lighthouse at Cape May Point guards the mouth of the Delaware River. 2010. Photo by Paul Lowry via WikiCommons

The Corps’ beach nourishment program, which has included regular touch ups from sand deposited by truck or dredge every two years, seems to be holding up fairly well. But Cape May’s jetties, groins and seawalls still cause erosion to occur quickly, and it only takes one hurricane to wipe out large swaths of beach. I’m not an engineer, but I worked as a surveyor for the dredging contractor during the 2004 replenishment. In that role, I was responsible for making sure the Corps’ design was executed correctly. We performed the job adequately, but I noticed a few problems. Along the stretch of beach closest to Cape May Inlet’s south jetty, the current was so strong that deposited sand wouldn’t stay put long enough to keep the newly built slope in place for more than an hour or two. We couldn’t even survey that stretch correctly, because swift water made it impossible to record an accurate elevation (a guy holding a pole in neck deep water can only withstand so much current before he drifts downstream). Much of the new sand was washed downshore and beachgoers complained about the steep dropoff as they entered the water.

Further south, offshore from the picturesque St. Mary by the Sea Convent on Cape May Point, lies an 80 foot-deep hole. Presumably, currents swirling around the peninsula’s tip had something to do with its creation. The result was that sand deposited on the beach had a tendency to slide into the hole in very short order, never to be seen again by our surveying instruments. So sure, the beach is wider, but I have to wonder how many of the buildings now balanced so close to the edge of the coastline will someday end up in the hole.

One afternoon, and old gentleman walking down the beach watched the bulldozers as they pushed and graded sand coming out of a big pipe connected to one of the dredges. He shook his head, explaining that after the jetty was lengthened in the 1940s, he noticed that the beach south of the jetty had disappeared pretty quickly. He muttered to himself as he shuffled down the beach toward home, wondering aloud if the immense stone structure had anything to do with accelerated erosion down by the convent, more than six miles to the south.

A company of recruits at the U.S. Coast Guard's Cape May training facility. 2005. Photo by Tom Sperduto via WikiCommons

When considering costly coastal protection schemes, one question always comes up: How much does the project cost in relation to the property value and revenue potential it is designed to preserve? Cape May’s economy is almost entirely dependent upon tourism, so preserving a usable beach is a priority for the state and local governments there. Behind the beach, the rows of pretty houses and bird habitat also add to the town’s appeal and its economic potential. After all, cuteness is a commodity.

So how do the city’s goals mesh with the Coast Guard’s need for long jetties at the inlet’s mouth? Is a 4,500-foot passage necessary or is it counterproductive in the longterm struggle against the sea? The Corps’ plan for coastal preservation has already been drawn up, but funding is granted by Congress on a year-to-year basis. Who knows how long the federal budget will remain as bleak as it is now. At some point, if the Corps is forcibly withdrawn from the coastal management equation through lack of funding, beachfront communities like Cape May could be faced with making tough decisions regarding whether or not to allow the ocean some room to eat up coastline. Dubbed managed retreat by some, the process of moving buildings and infrastructure away from the shoreline to allow a wider storm buffer is controversial. It creates a wider beach, but real estate is inevitably sacrificed.

Who knows, with enough time historic structures could be moved, much like the ligthhouse at Cape Hatteras, N.C. was. Whatever happens, we can only hope that if storm protection funding slips away like sand from a storm-washed beach, Cape May won’t suffer a fate similar to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Cape May beachgoers, c. 1880. Photo from the New York Public Library's Robert Dennis stereoscopic collection

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One thought on “Cape May, New Jersey’s Battle Against Nature

  1. West Chester Homes says:

    I was there last year and it is a great beach town. I hope mother nature does not end up destroying this great beach.

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