Park & Zoo History
HISTORY OF THE CAPE MAY COUNTY PARK
Cape May County Park Central is located two miles north of the heart of Cape May Court House and occupies both the right and left side of Route 9. This site was originally a southern plantation of the Matthews family.
Back in 1763, on Daniel Hand's plantation in Middletown (now called Cape May Court House), the State Assembly petitioned erecting a courthouse and jail. The petition was granted and the cost was limited to 300 pounds. In 1764, Daniel Hand gave one acre to the county for the purpose of building a courthouse.
During the same time, just north of the courthouse's land, was the Matthews' plantation. The main plantation was located below the lake and tributary waters. Just north of the tributary and small lake, the Matthews had an orchard that was set aside as a family cemetery and for the slaves of the plantation. This site still remains and is part of the park today. For a short period of time during the 1700s-1800s, this site was also used to bury the poor.
In "The 1942 Park Land Acquisition," approximately forty acres of the Matthews plantation was donated to the county to be used as a park and meeting place. Most of the land was wooded, but some was the lakes and tributary waters, and also the cemetery. At this time, very little was done to the land. Later, a building used as a laundry at Crest Haven was moved from that location and converted into a maintenance and supply building with a comfort station and a six grill brick barbecue pit was constructed. It was during this time that the 4-H department, after holding its fair in Cold Springs or the riding club grounds, decided to ask for permission to hold the fair at the county park.
The county road department and employees of Crest Haven cleared a section of the grounds of trees and brush, then seeded the ground for grass. This made a clearing for tents and booths, plus a horse ring to be used by the 4-H fair. The Telephone Company donated light fixtures and wire. Several years later, Pepsi-Cola donated a booth to be used for refreshments. This was the extent of the county park for many years.
The County of Cape May approved by referendum, in November 1962. The State of New Jersey enabled an act for a park commission of nine residents of the county, which was established on February 5, 1963. The commissioners would serve terms of 1 to 5 years without compensation. A director was appointed in January 1966 and a solicitor was appointed in 1967.
The primary function of the park commission is to plan, acquire, develop, maintain, and administer park land and the recreational facilities thereon, which provide values for the benefit of the entire county. The Park Commission assumed complete responsibility of the County Park Systems on January 1, 1967. The County Park facilities in 1967 were the same as they had been since the start of the park! Facilities included maintenance and supply building with a comfort station, a band stand, 3 shelters, 1 six grill barbecue pit, and a drinking fountain.
Park facility developments under the commission in the year 1967 were: 2 ten car parking lots, 6 group and organization barbecue pits, 40 picnic tables, 13 picnic grills, and 1 playground. In 1968, they added 1 manual pump with shelter, 2 shelters, 2 ten car parking lots, another playground, 10 picnic tables, 6 picnic grills, 2 shuffleboard courts, 3 horseshoe pitching courts, 3 swinging par benches, and 8 regular park benches. Also, they added 1 volleyball court, 1 badminton court, 1 croquet court, plus a camping area for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and a foot bridge.
In 1969, a large amount of recreation facilities were added along with some park equipment to better serve the park users. On the recreation additions: 1 horseshoe pitching court, 3 quoit pitching courts, 1 deck tennis court, 1 aerial tennis court, 1 archery range, 1 bocce court, 1 tether ball court, 1 tether tennis court, 1 hopscotch court, a nature trail, 3 swinging park benches, 2 entrance gates, 4 foot bridges, 5 parking lots, and 24 shelter picnic tables. All available to the public to use. Also, during this period, the residence of Charles W. Allen was purchased and made into an office for the Cape May County Park Commission.
It has been close to seventy years since the parks beginning, but the facility is still expanding and remains open to the public year-round.
HISTORY OF THE CAPE MAY COUNTY ZOO
The Cape May County Zoo was created in 1978 within the Cape May County Park. The dedication was on May 6, 1978.
At the opening of the zoo, it consisted of an African lion, primates (spider monkeys), various barnyard animals, and New Jersey wildlife animals.
In the early 1980s, the zoo gradually incorporated into its displays more exotic animals, such as black bears, bison, antelope, primates, and birds. All exhibits were constructed by park personnel.
Beginning in 1986, a zoo renaissance began. Donations were solicited and major reconstruction was underway. Some of the projects that were completed consisted of a complete perimeter fence, a new lion exhibit, a Bengal tiger exhibit, a cougar exhibit, a giraffe and camel exhibit, a reptile house, and a construction of a medical building and diet preparation building.
In 1989, the zoo became AZA accredited and has remained an accredited zoo to the this date.
Throughout the 1990s, renovations and new exhibits continued, with the construction of an African Savannah, which consisted of 57 acres that display giraffes, zebras, antelopes, and ostriches. Reconstruction of a reptile house replaced the original reptile house that was destroyed by fire in 1998, also a "World of Birds" walk-through Aviary was constructed.
From the zoo's beginning in 1978, the animal population was around 70 animals and today the zoo consists of 550 animals representing 250 species.
In 2007, the Cape May County Zoo received 13 flamingos from Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch.
The zoo has recently improved traffic flow, parking, and beautified the entrance to the zoo. The zoo is undergoing restroom renovations along with other amenities and necessities.
The Cape May Zoological Society added a train , and added an animal-themed carousel late in the summer of 2008.
The Cape May County Zoo celebrated its 40th birthday in 2018.
HISTORY OF PARK NORTH - CAMERON WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
This picturesque public area of lakes and woods is available to us because of the result of the site’s role in the development of Ocean City in the late 1800’s.
In 1875 the railroad extended into Ocean City. In the same year, Joseph Champion who later became the Mayor of Ocean City, purchased this land and built a railroad spur from Ocean City to this property. The sand was sought after by many businesses because of its high-quality. It was used in a cement plant at 5th street in Ocean City for the city’s early streets, sidewalks and curbs. The sand was also sent to several glass factories in Millville, Bridgeton, and Vineland, which contributed to the famous “South Jersey Glass” bottles and jars that were produced in those factories. The sand was first thrown by hand with shovels into railroad cars, then later dredged out of the property with machinery. Some areas of the lakes were dredged to more than 30 feet deep.
The Great Depression ended the thriving sand market and Joseph Champion folded up his business and eventually sold the land. William and Richard Cameron of North Carolina purchased the property in the 1930’s. They were builders of homes in Ocean City, with most of their homes built along Bay Avenue in the vicinity between 16th and 18th streets.
The gravel pits, that had then become lakes, were stocked with fish. A sluice gate system was built to allow overflow from the freshwater ponds while preventing the saltwater encroaching into the freshwater areas. The brothers enjoyed fishing and hunting on the land. They built dog pens and moved a garage from Ocean City to stay in as a camp. Later, they built additions on the building with a kitchen, living room, sunroom, and bedrooms. The house illustrates the Cameron’s love of nature with large windows overlooking the lakes. This house now serves as the Park’s Office and public display areas.
In 1988, Richard Cameron, left the property to Cape May County with the intention that it be preserved in its natural state. Often, different types of herons can be seen along the pond banks, with varieties of birds of prey flying overhead. Spring yields many turtles basking in the sun, while during the Summer months, Yellow Water-lily pads with pink blossoms grace the freshwater shallows, and early winter brings an array of waterfowl.
The County Park has added nature trails, signs, gazebos, and a picnic area, all for the public to enjoy.