It’s a hot summer afternoon in Cape May. Early in the day visitors drag their beach chairs 100 feet from the sandy shore to a grassy patch on Congress Hall’s Lawn. The sounds of excited children are heard from the carnival games on the veranda. The smell of charcoal mingling with hot dogs and hamburgers fills the air. The only thing that can tear ten year-olds away from the excitement of balloon animals and Skee Ball seems to be apple pie and ice cream. Families line up at the Ballroom Doors to feast on fresh lobster, and relax in the late afternoon sun awaiting America’s Birthday Festivities in Cape May. Over its nearly 200-year history, a similar scene has played out on Congress Hall’s Grand Lawn for the Fourth of July.
Congress Hall has served as the center of activity in Cape May almost as long as America has celebrated its Independence. In 1855, the pomp and circumstance surrounding the 4th of July garnered attention from the nation’s President at the time, Franklin Pierce. Pierce visited from July 4th- July 7th of that year, and was the first of three sitting presidents to stay at Congress Hall as a guest.
In the 19th century, as the nation looked towards the west to expand past the thirteen original colonies, patriotism continued to flourish. In 1896, the Secretary of the Treasury Daniel Morgan delivered a Fourth of July Address on Congress Hall’s Grand Lawn. The largest flag in the United States was raised at this celebration. Unlike the American Flags before, this one had 45stars- an extra star marking the ratification of Utah as a state earlier that year.
Reverend Carl McIntire, a religiously patriotic Christian Fundamentalist Minister and radio broadcaster, became Congress Hall’s owner in 1967. “While in years past, July 4th festivities were limited to balls and grand parties, a tradition was started in the 1960s, by Reverend McIntire. He held large picnics on the hotel’s front lawn every year,” according to historian Ben Miller. Miller remembers that the fireworks show was put on hold for several years during McIntire’s time, beginning in the late 1980s due to safety concerns for the Victorian structures that characterize Cape May. “It wouldn’t be until the early 2000s, after Congress Hall underwent a massive renovation and reopened that the fireworks would return. Owner, Curtis Bashaw (grandson of Rev. McIntire) partnered with some other local businesses and the Chamber of Commerce to bring them back to the city. They are fired from a barge, just offshore, in front of the hotel.
Miller has witnessed the evolution of July 4th celebrations from McIntire’s time through the latest incarnation of Congress Hall in 2002. “Bashaw has taken his grandfather’s idea and run with it. The picnics are grander than ever, with live music, family-oriented games, and amusements for the kids.” Patriotic anthems performed by the Congress Hall festival choir provide the soundtrack to colorful fireworks that light up the night. This year’s celebrations have expanded from July 2nd through the 5th, in anticipation of Congress Hall’s 200th anniversary, which will be celebrated in 2016.
Today, guests walking down Congress Hall’s history hallway will find rare photos of past Independence Day celebrations that give a glimpse of the Big House By The Sea’s antebellum period. The Ballroom is full of tables decked in red, white and blue centerpieces. Women and children sit in chairs on the veranda as the men flank the walls smoking and staring towards the sea. In the 21st century, visitors listen to the band strike up a Sousa march that hearkens back to the summer of 1882. That summer the military band leader played to thousands on Congress Hall’s Lawn, and wrote a song called the Congress Hall March to mark the occasion. Now this music helps to connect the past and the present, just as Independence Day connects us all to the moment where we became one nation.