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The History of The Corinthian Yacht Club of Cape May

Published on Wednesday, 18 February 2009 19:02          Print

In 1870, Cape May was very different than the one we know today - beaches free of jetties, unpaved streets and no harbor. Cape Island Sound - a salt marsh dotted with creeks - extended to what is now Pittsburgh Avenue. Creeks stretched as far as what is now known as Frog Hollow. Madison Avenue was lined with boat houses. Cape Island Creek, which runs through Schellinger's Landing, takes a turn at Spicer's Creek, runs in back of Perry Street to the rear of Grant Street and out to the ocean at South Cape May. This created Cape May's status as an island.

Washington and Lafayette Streets were the two main streets. Not until 1892 was interest created in developing the beach front east of Madison Avenue. At this time the electric railroad between Cape May Point and Cape May was extended to Sewell's Point at the end of the beach and to the entrance of Cold Spring Inlet. Located there were the Fish House Restaurant, a fish market and a dock for visiting yachtsmen. A sightseeing sailboat, the Harriet Thomas. was available for excursions and parties. An amusement center was built there in 1913 but was destroyed by fire. This land became part of the US Base # 9, which is now the Coast Guard Base.

The first sailing yacht races were started in Cape May in 1871 and were sponsored by the various large hotels. Visiting yachts were anchored off the steamboat landing in Delaware Bay where steamboats from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and nearby Millville arrived daily in the summer. The yacht races started at the end of the Iron Pier at the foot of Decatur Street. The course was to and around Five Fathom Lightship and return. Each boat had a volunteer Cape May pilot for the race. Boats from the New York Yacht Club and the Corinthian Yacht Club of Philadelphia were often the winners of these races. The races also attracted international competitors, once including the Prince of Wales' yacht, Britannia, which won the Cape May Cup in 1903.

A few large sailing boats belonging to Cape May sailors and moored at Schellenger's Landing often entered the races. In 1872, their owners banded together to form the Cape May Yacht Club. They built a lovely clubhouse on Cape Island Creek at the juncture of Washington and Lafayette Streets at the east end of town. The land was donated by Dr. Emlen Physick. This, and the Cape May Golf Club, became the social centers of the town for yachtsmen and their friends. As with many other clubs in Cape May, it was forced to close as a result of World War I. The clubhouse was bought by an entrepreneur and became the Mayflower Restaurant, which was later destroyed by fire during the Prohibition era.

In the summer of 1903, the dredging of Cape May Harbor was started. In 1907, the US Congress passed the Rivers and Harbor Bill authorizing the construction of jetties at the entrance of Cold Spring Inlet and the dredging of a channel between them. This channel was to reach a depth of thirty to thirty-five feet at mean low water. Twenty three and a half million cubic yards of sludge were pumped onto the salt marsh land between Madison Avenue and Schellinger's Landing. This additional useable land became a magnet for developers beginning with the construction of the Admiral Hotel and large beach-front homes. The Bureau of Fisheries decided to experiment. Three million small lobsters were dumped between the jetties with the intention of the lobsters using the underwater stones as a habitat. This experiment failed.

The harbor was officially opened on July 4, 1913 with much celebration by the town. Participating were the US Destroyers Jenkings, Fanning and Vixen, plus a submarine. A parade and numerous social events occurred in celebration. Cape May had a harbor!

Meanwhile, a number of members of the Cape May Yacht Club (mostly summer cottagers) withdrew their membership and decided to form the Corinthian Yacht Club and build a sumptuous clubhouse located on the harbor at the foot of Yale Avenue directly across from the present quarters of the Commander of the Coast Guard base. Inside were social rooms, a dining room and upstairs rooms for guests and staff. Surrounding the clubhouse were large verandas for viewing the harbor. A turret-like structure at one end afforded a spectacular view of the ocean and surrounding countryside. It was an imposing structure, dedicated the same day as the harbor in 1913. The first Commodore was R. Walter Starr. The Flag Officers were William Griscome Coxe and J. Wallace Hallowell. The Corinthian Yacht Club flourished until it, too, felt the effects of World War I and was forced to close as the clubhouse was requisitioned by the US Government. After World War I, an attempt to revive the Club failed and in 1925 the building was sold and became a boys' camp, Absegami. World War II brought the expansion of the Coast Guard Base and the takeover of the building again. The clubhouse was destroyed, the foundation boarded over, and it became a storage place for paints and other flammable materials.

In 1946, under the leadership of Kirby Tompkins, an attempt was made to revive the Corinthian Yacht Club at the Peter Shields House on Beach Drive. This lasted for three years and was discontinued.

The end of the war brought a renewed interest in sailing in Cape May. A small group of Lightning sailors plied the harbor. Interest escalated. In 1948, the sailors formed the Harbor Sailing Club under its first Commodore, Sandy Moon. Its headquarters were on an old hay barge moored at McDuell's Marina on the Ocean Highway. In 1952, the Harbor Sailing Club's Officers signed an agreement with the City of Cape May to use the undeveloped land - overgrown bushes, bayberries, plenty of poison ivy, underbrush and trash - at Buffalo and Delaware Avenues to be the future Club site! Members cleared the land. Each one brought his own equipment, food and boat. Noticing the volunteers working so hard raised the curiosity of passing sightseers. Interest was aroused! Moths for the younger members and Comets joined the Lightnings. The Club was on its way!

Despite the lack of a Clubhouse, the women of the Harbor Sailing Club organized many social and money raising events. Port and Starboard Balls were held at the Green Mill; fashion shows were held at Congress Hall; food (made by members) was sold at the Shack Snack Bar on the Club grounds (which reflected its name); Annual Meetings were held in what is now the Welcome Center of Cape May. Each year a formal Mid-Winter Ball took place at the Barclay Hotel in center city Philadelphia. In 1959, Marie Stuard was chairperson. Enthusiasm was great - time to raise money! During intermission, $10,000 was pledged to buy and bulkhead the necessary additional land. Within the bulkhead, concrete blocks were built embossed by members' names at $50.00 per block. The area became the dining and dancing floors when needed. It was protected from the wind and rain by cemetery tents supplied by Wally Stuard. Dinners and refreshments, cooked at members' homes, were served. Many memorable social events were held in these rather primitive surroundings.

Meanwhile, in 1959, three members of the original Corinthian Yacht Club had kept its charter alive. They were impressed by the activities of the Harbor Sailing Club and offered the Harbor Sailing Club their old charter, their meager treasury and liquor license, provided that the Corinthian Yacht Club became a surviving name. This agreement was signed under the leadership of Commodore Melville Ellis at the Merion Cricket Club in suburban Philadelphia. The New Corinthian Yacht Club joined the New Jersey Yachting Association that same year. The Club was official! In 1963, under Commodore Walter Stringer, the present clubhouse was built and dedicated. The architect was Henry Davis III of Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania and the builder was Julius Hober of Cape May. The cost was $55,000.00. Construction was financed by the sale of bonds, Certificates of Proprietary Interest and a mortgage (since burned with great celebration). The Clubhouse, to early members, was impressive. But inside, nothing but concrete block walls and a concrete floor! The interior was completed and decorated through the hard work of members themselves. In 1969, under Commodore John O'Brien, a bar and lounge were added (the first bar was in what is now the snack bar area). Under Commodore Karl Bennung, the porch was enclosed to provide more dining space. The Club has been improved and maintained by the dedication of its Flag Officers and members.

Largely through these volunteer efforts, Corinthian Yacht Club of Cape May offers, for young and old alike, a full sailing and social schedule centered around the most beautiful building on Cape May Harbor. As we continue into the future, the "Corinthian Spirit" which molded our Club remains Alive and Well!

Kathryn C. Bennett
Historian

References:
A Book of Cape May - Albert Hand Company 1937
Ho, for Cape Island - Robert Alexander
Corinthian Yacht Club Yearbook 1963
C. Wallace Stuard
Richard W. Rutherford