Cape May Fire House

Cape May Fire Museum

Visit the Cape May Fire Museum to learn the fiery history of this seaside village in Southern New Jersey.

Cape May Fire House

Cape May Fire Museum

The Cape May Fire Museum has got to be the quaintest museum I have ever visited. I was inspired to tour this mini-museum in the heart of Cape May after reading A Perceived Indiscretion, by Patricia Catacalos. Her novel is historical romance fiction set in 1878 Cape May.

The Cape May Fire Museum is housed in the old fire station on Washington Street on the corner of Franklin Street, just in front of the current modern firehouse. Inside you will find historic fire equipment and photos from the many fires that ravaged through the mostly wooden structures in Cape May, along with the stories of the efforts to fight the fires.

Old fashioned fire equipment at the Cape May Fire Museum

The Cape May Fire Museum reveals a wild, wild West version of Cape May

Cape May today is an idyllic seaside escape for families. But, in the late 1800s it was quite a different place. Inside the Cape May Fire Musem there are numerous photos of fires that were started by arsonist to either destroy the building or cover up murder!

The 1878 fire that decimated more than 40 acres in seaside Cape May was started when an arsonist set fire to the Ocean House, a hotel on Perry Street. (By the way, Ethan, our leading man in A Perceived Indiscretion was staying at the Ocean House when the fire broke out!). Fortunately, no one was injured. The inferno began around 6a.m. and raged for nearly 12 hours before, with the help of a special fire engine sent by rail from Camden, it was contained.  

Some of the methods of communicating the location of a fire in Cape May are still in use today.

Earlier that year, Cape May Fire Chief Colonial Edward Lansing had begged Cape May City Council to invest funds to purchase new equipment. His request was denied. The hose available to the firehouse was defective. The townsfolk were forced to battle the blaze using buckets, pulling sea water some 300 feet from the ocean to the Ocean Hotel. Their efforts failed and the fire spread. Buildings that encompassed entire city blocks burned to the ground in less than 15 minutes.

There was no doubt that the fire was started by an incendiary. The owner of the Ocean House was blamed, but exonerated. Blame then fell to Col. Lansing. Of note, City Council rapidly approved funding for new equipment at its next council meeting.

Modern horse drawn fire equipment in Cape May 1878

Colorful Cape May houses emerged from the fire

Interestingly, it was the devastation caused by the 1878 fire that turned Cape May into the gorgeous Victorian-era homes summer hot spot that we know today. At the time of the fire, Cape May was overrun with massive hotels facing the ocean, much like Atlantic City of today. When those hotels were destroyed, some were rebuilt, but many were replaced by individual Victorian homes that accommodated summer residents.

Cape May boasts one of the United States’ largest collections of original 19th-century frame buildings still standing. After you leave the Fire Museum make sure to stroll up and down the streets. Perhaps head South toward the beach or West toward Washington Street Mall (a pedestrian only shopping zone). Nearly any direction you go will put you on a street filled with brightly colored, storybook-like Victorian mansions.

Victorian-era home in Cape May City near the Cape May Fire Museum

Visit the Cape May Fire Museum, but also say hi to today’s modern firefighters

The Cape May Fire Museum is open year round. If you are there pre-season, just knock on the main firehouse doors. One of the very nice firefighters in there will probably open the museum for you. We found them super friendly and full of information. One of the guys suggested we go next door to see the oldest surviving home in Cape May. We were delighted to discover it has a little free library out front!

Little Free Library at the oldest house in Cape May. Next to the Cape May Fire Museum.
Little Free library at the oldest house (circa 1730) in Cape May

Another firefighter let me in on the secret to why many of the houses have floor to ceiling windows in the back: During prohibition, when the cops came to the front door, the inbibers of moonshine could step right through the giant windows and escape out the back, uncaught!

Floor to ceiling windows provide a convenient escape!

Cape May Fire Museum is a must see!

All in all, I very much suggest a quick stop at the Fire Museum on your way into Cape May. If you are lucky, you’ll be able to see the vintage 1928 Fire Engine. At the time of my visit, it was out for reburishing. 

Bibliophiles and bookworms can enhance their visit with some historical fiction. The fire that leveled Cape May in 1878 is captured in the plot of A Perceived Indiscretion. The book is a fun, easy read with strong female characters. Not your normal romance saga! You can read my review here.

More photos from the Cape May Fire Museum


Visit the Cape May Fire Museum

Cost: Free!
Length of visit: <1 hour
Address: 643 Washington Street, Cape May, NJ
Family friendly–History lover’s delight

Do your bookworm friends a favor and share this literary adventure!

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