CAPE MAY — Ninety-five years ago, when the nation was at peace, thousands of vacationers flocked to Cape May during the first week of July to enjoy the annual celebration of Independence Day.
Unknown to many, however, was the news that this was not to be the every-year ordinary Fourth of July celebration. Of course there were to be marching feet to start it off in a morning parade under sunny skies, and dancing feet to end it all in a military ball at Convention Hall that lasted late into a star-studded night. And typical for that occasion in those times, there was to be a baseball game played not far from the center of what was to be identified in history as the nation’s oldest seashore resort.
But there was something new that made this a special celebration on the first Wednesday of the month in July 1923, something that still stands today after all these years of hurricanes, nor'easters and blizzards.
Waiting to be unveiled and dedicated at Columbia Avenue and Gurney Street on that day in the Roaring Twenties, just a block from the roaring ocean, was a sailors and soldiers monument and statue that stretched toward the sky and paid tribute to the men and women who served their country, and left enough space for more who would do the same.
For 40 years, even before the brief Spanish-American War of 1895, there had been talk in military and civilian circles of building and dedicating such a statue. The big roadblock was the cost, but the structure finally came to pass after the close of World War I, which then-President Woodrow Wilson described as “the war to end all wars.”
It was that war, the first of two that engulfed the world, that triggered in all probability the building and the continuance of the memorial until at least this day almost a century later. What has emerged are plaques representing every American war from the biggest to the smallest.
So caught up were the creators of this memorial that they planned a big celebration within the usual Independence Day observance. They wanted to invite President Warren G. Harding to participate, but he and his wife were preoccupied on the Fourth in Pendleton, Oregon, at a ceremony commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Oregon trail. The president was to die a month later, causing one Cape May booster to comment that if the president had come to Cape May, the climate here may have lengthened his life.
The Cape May ceremony was not without federal representation, however. U.S. Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby, a onetime Marine, dispatched several sailors from the destroyers Goghlan and Preston to replace the president. History has not recorded how the Cape May climate affected their longevity. They were joined among the speakers by Congressman Isaac Bacharach, whose surname is still prominent in medical circles in Atlantic County, and Mayor Frank Mecray.
Time marched on in Cape May, and so did the number of wars cited on the memorial, the last ones altogether on one plaque being Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, the Gulf Wars and the current Afghanistan War, adding to the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, the two world wars and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
The statue still stands, but it and its surroundings are in need of rehabilitation, say the city’s preservationists. Standing by to offer assistance are residents who are members of the city government’s bicycle and pedestrian committee and others belonging to a civic organization that calls itself The Fund For Cape May.
The overall complaint by the critics is that the statue, surrounded by roads, is not easily accessible to the pedestrian public, and the words on the plaques are not all that readable. They want to eradicate one of the roads between the statue site and the historic Abbey House and convert the land into a mini-park, with benches where people can sit and gaze at the memorial and reflect on the sacrifices men and women have made on behalf of their country.
The wheels have started rolling on the road to achieving their goals. James Moffatt, a longtime city activist, especially in the early days of Michael Laird’s Cape May Stage, is now a member of the bicycle and pedestrian committee and has addressed City Council about the improvement plans. He said he could not set a cost upon the project now, but he estimated it as being reasonable.
Meanwhile, The Fund for Cape May, headed by Curtis Bashaw, owner of Congress Hall, has begun a fundraising campaign to help the rehab in its early stages. Spokesman Tom Carroll, a retired Coast Guard captain who enjoyed Cape May so much in military life that he joined it as a civilian, has announced that The Fund, of which he is a member, raised a sum estimated to exceed $100,000 at a fundraising party in the form of its annual Ice Ball at Congress Hall. More financial help is expected to be on the way from a government agency, and soon a professional will be hired to design an improved site.
Officials cannot say when they will be ready to rededicate the memorial. Given its history, the appropriate date would be this year’s Independence Day, but time appears to be too short to meet that deadline. The Fourth of July of 2019 seems to fit better.
Whatever the date, there are hopes that no additional plaques will be required because that will mean new wars and new fatalities.