In 1816 the United States was a mere forty years old. The son of a tavern keeper in what is now Cape May had a vision to build the most impressive, three-story hotel where distinguished guests from miles around would come to bask in the glow of its grandeur. Thomas Hughes built what he called “The Big House By the Sea,” where Congress Hall stands today, in hopes that he could bring people from all over the newly formed country to come and stay on Cape Island.
In the early 1800s, the new Americans caught wind of the fact that life by the seashore came with certain benefits for physical health. Following the Revolutionary War, Cape May earned popularity with wealthy families in Philadelphia, and it soon became fashionable to make the arduous, 100-mile journey that would take twelve to fifteen hours by stagecoach. When guests arrived, they quickly discovered that their journey was well worth it. As Ellis Hughes reported to the Philadelphia Aurora and General Adviser in 1801, the “slop of the shore is so regular” it was the ideal place to come and wade in the crashing waves. Visionary that he was, Ellis’ son, Thomas, noticed that these travelers were increasing in number every year. In 1816 he built the Big House by the Sea with the foresight that Cape May’s popularity would reach beyond Philadelphia and attract guests from Washington D.C., Maryland, and New York. He built a three-story hotel with one hundred guest rooms, the largest to be constructed near the ocean at that time in history.
Thomas Hughes was often times described as “the most popular man in Cape Island at the time. He was a large man and a commanding figure.” (Albert Hand Co.). Locals believed that Hughes’ “Big House By the Sea” was a terrible business decision and that demand for such an inn would not be met by the visitors that were coming to Cape May in the summer months. The Big House by the Sea was often times referred to as “Tommy’s Folly,” but it was Tommy that would have the last laugh. Soon affluent visitors were not only clamoring through the Pinelands by stagecoach, but many were hopping on steamships to visit Cape Island. By the time Thomas Hughes was elected to the House of Representatives and the Big House’s name became Congress Hall in his honor, Cape Island had earned its distinction as America’s First Seaside Resort.
In 2016, Congress Hall continues to be a place where people visit from miles around to enjoy the beautiful Atlantic Ocean. Cape May is now a sought after destination, not only in the summer months, but year-round. Visitors come from near and far not only to wade in crashing waves, but to savor delicious local aquaculture and agriculture, take in beautiful sunsets, and reconnect with family and friends. 2016 will be a celebration of all that Congress Hall has come to represent for its visitors over the years, and all that it will continue to be for future generations.