History on the harbor

Bob Elwell, of Cape May, looks over the harbor at Schellenger’s Landing. Elwell will start the series of Harborside Chats presented by the Nature Center of Cape May this week with a talk on Cape May Maritime History and Schellenger’s Landing.

The Nature Center of Cape May starts up its popular, annual series of Harborside Chats again Thursday with a talk by Bob Elwell, a former mayor whose family has a long history around Cape May.

And that's helpful because Elwell's topic in his talk will be local history - particularly the maritime history of the Cape May area.

Elwell says he plans to focus especially on the history of the Schellen-ger's Landing area - which is probably fitting because this inaugural Harborside Chat will be right in Schellenger's Landing, instead of in the series' standard home across the harbor.

The Nature Center has a construction project going on in its Charlotte Todd Education Hall, where it generally welcomes people into these Harborside Chats - which can range from history programs to talks by artists on their art to presentations by the Jersey Cape Beekeepers about what they do to local winemakers discussing their profession and products.

The organizers have several "more they're lining up, but they don't have them set in stone yet," says Mark Allen, of South Jersey Marina, where the new Saltwater Cafe will host the first two Harborside Chats. "It will go on easily until Thanksgiving, but a lot depends on the crowds they get."

The Saltwater Cafe is the freshly redone restaurant at the South Jersey Marina, in Schellenger's Landing, just on the Lower Township side of the Cape May city line. The marina was hit by a major fire in August of 2012, and the former Dock Mike's restaurant was burned out.

The marina's owner, Rick Weber, switched from leasing the restaurant space to running it in-house, with the expertise of popular local restaurateurs Debbie and Phil John. The Saltwater Cafe also has started displaying art exhibits, in cooperation with the Gail Pierson Gallery in Cape May, and the first artist in the marina's new gallery will be the second speaker in the Harborside Chats series on Sept. 26.

She is Kathy Fallon, a photographer from Scranton, Pa., who is represented in Cape May by the Gail Pierson Gallery.

"She does lots of nautical, marine and environmental photography, so she's a good fit for the Saltwater Cafe," says Allen, adding the cafe will host an artist's reception after Fallon's chat.

That devastating fire at the South Jersey Marina adds to the long maritime history of Schellenger's Landing, which Elwell says takes its name from early settlers with that name - although there are variations on the spelling.

"It started out when the first Schellengers came to the area," said Elwell, 71, a retired Cape May County detective who also has done Harborside Chats on other local-history topics." There were lot of them - it wasn't just one family."

Elwell says the story is the Schellengers "were following the whales down here" from Massachusetts. "A lot of them were related to the Pilgrims, actually. I guess they got down here and the whaling industry kind of faded out ... or they found something a little more lucrative and just stayed."

There were Schellenger-owned lumberyards and general stores and many more businesses in Schellenger's Landing.

The earliest railroad line to Cape May had a stop at Schellenger's Landing - an area that is on both sides of the Cape May/Lower Township line.

"And once they dredged the harbor, which made it a good body of water to come in off the ocean, it really set things going in the Schellenger's Landing area," Elwell said, adding dredging was finished in 1908.

There had been commercial fishing in the area before that - thanks to ice, local fishermen were sending their catch out of Schellenger's Landing in those railroad cars in the 1800s. But the dredging created a fishing boom, and Cape May's lucrative fishing fleet is based in Schellenger's Landing, which also is the home of the popular Lobster House restaurants-and-fish-market complex.

Elwell has much more maritime history to pass on, and the Nature Center - just across the harbor from Schellenger's Landing in Cape May - will bring in many more speakers when its hall reopens next month. The Harborside Chats are free, but the Nature Center welcomes donations to its education-hall rebuilding project.

The Jersey Cape Beekeepers program, on Oct. 3, is a natural fit for the return to the Nature Center - because the group now has a working beehive at the Nature Center, which is an arm of New Jersey Audubon.

So Allen promises people who go to that session should be able to see actual bees being busy as the humans in the beekeepers group talk about their hobby, and their passion.

"But the hive is on the outside," Allen added. "You have to make that clear. There won't be loose bees in the building - you can watch the hive work through the glass."

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If You Go

The Nature Center of Cape May Harborside Chats series begins 6 p.m. Thursday when Bob Elwelll talks about Schellenger's Landing's maritime history at the Saltwater Cafe in South Jersey Marina, 1231 Route 109, Cape May. The series is scheduled to continue at the same time Thursdays, but switch Oct. 3 to the Nature Center's Charlotte Todd Education Hall, 1600 Delaware Ave., Cape May. For more details, call 609-898-8848.