The Ghosts of Higbee Beach

Posted on September 1, 2011

The fall is when we start thinking about back to school, back to work after vacations, and the changing seasons and upcoming holidays. Those of us who love the paranormal also start thinking about ghosts and hauntings. However, Halloween is not the exclusive haunting season for ghosts. Ghosts exist right along with the living year around. In Cape May, they seem to have found a “permanent retirement community.”

There have been reports of strange sightings on Higbee Beach for many years. However, in the past years most of those reports had more to do with naked sunbathers and lewd behavior than with ghosts. There were paranormal sightings, but they were more spread out. I must admit that for someone who has spent summers in Cape May since the early 1970s, I had never once set foot on Higbee Beach in those early days. As a kid, the bay side of Cape May did not really appeal to me. I admit I loved the sunsets and walking to the end of the jetty to watch guys fish, but Higbee Beach had very little to offer me. There were no big waves or arcades. Most of all, it was a long walk from the car! When I finally made it to Higbee Beach as an adult, I found it to be one of the most tranquil settings on the peninsula. I also sensed quite a bit of psychic energy, of the ghostly sort. Higbee Beach is an area whose history has long been forgotten by most. Luckily, ghosts have memories like elephants. They never forget. That’s why most of them are still ghosts, they are still clinging to old memories from a life long gone.

According to historical accounts the area that is now Higbee Beach and the adjoining lands were, from Cape May’s earliest civilized times, farmland. In Robert C. Alexander’s 1956 edition of Ho! For Cape Island! Alexander mentions that Thomas and Rhoda Forrest owned a tavern, from 1807-1823, on the site where the Higbee brothers would later run a hotel. Historian and friend Jim Campbell told me that the area’s namesake, Joseph Smith Higbee, purchased the farmland and small hotel on the property around the year 1823. The hotel was called The Hermitage. Higbee and his younger brother Thomas Horris Higbee continued its operation as a lodging place for Delaware Bay pilots for many years.

In discussing the old Hermitage, Jim Campbell felt that the Higbees added to an existing hotel instead of building it from scratch. I would surmise they might have expanded the Forrest’s tavern into bigger accommodations for guests. Contrary to local legend, the Higbee brothers did not live in the old “Higbee Hotel.” They instead lived in a house on Bayshore Road near Higbee Beach that still stands today.

In 1916, the Wilson family lived in the old Higbee hotel and the Wilson’s daughter Tisch Fleischauer gave Jim a complete oral history, before she died in her 90s. The Hermitage Hotel was added onto over the years, with the original structure being built without any nails―an interesting feat in those days! Tisch Fleischauer also told Jim that Tom Higbee ran the hotel while his brother Joseph worked as a Delaware Bay pilot. In the Higbees’ day the hotel sat about two hundred yards back from the beach near where the Higbee Beach parking lot is now located next to the canal. A lantern was always kept in the top window of the hotel alerting passing pilots that nightly rooms were available.

Joseph Higbee died in 1872 followed by his brother Thomas in 1879, who left his entire estate to their “niece” Etta Gregory. In his will he asked to be buried near the hotel in a grave lined with brick and flagstone. The grave was then sealed shut with a large marble slab with Higbee’s information etched into it. Higbee was not allowed to rest undisturbed as he had planned however. In 1937, upon her death, Etta Gregory’s will instructed that her “Uncle Tom,” as she called Higbee, be disinterred and buried along with her next to the Gregory plot in the Cold Spring Cemetery. The grave was to be filled with sand taken from Higbees Beach. The Higbee and Gregory plots can still be found today sitting quietly on the far right side of the old brick church. Someone however, is not at rest on Higbees Beach. I have a theory that perhaps Tom Higbee has never wanted to leave his old property overlooking the Delaware Bay. Removing his body did not stop this ghost from continuing to walk the long stretch of the beach at night. Many have reported seeing a man in a long coat, sometimes accompanied by a large black dog. The man seems to vanish as one approaches his position on the beach. He is always seen near dusk walking the strands.

Searching for the old ruins of Higbee Hotel and attempting to explore the myriad of nature paths through Higbee Beach turned out to be a futile effort, at least on the historical front. I should have heeded Jim Campbell’s words, “You can’t find the ruins in the summer, you have to wait for the winter when the foliage dies back…otherwise the place is full of poison ivy, ticks, and mosquitoes.” I felt like the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz with my companions trekking through the old woods chanting ‘Poison Ivy, mosquitoes and ticks…OH MY!’

Trying to find the old hotel in the summer was a BIG mistake…did I mention the paths going up the dunes with the buried strands of rusty old barbed wire fencing hidden under the sand? That was before droves of mosquitoes started to use my friend Kathy’s neck as a landing strip and the ticks and poison ivy chose my partner Willy as a target. I being the most paranoid of the group carefully maneuvered around anything with three leaves in our path.

Most of the paths we found looked like they were created 100 years ago. There were few markers and some paths simply disappeared into the foliage leaving the hiker with no option but to turn back and start again. The only redeeming thing about the isolated nature of the Higbees’ woods was that the dead did not mind the solitude. They seemed to rather enjoy being in the middle of nowhere.

As we meandered down one winding path, we encountered a newt or lizard sunning itself on a dead tree. The cute little reptile just stood there and seemed to give us a grin as we moved by. It seemed to be watching us and then turned away to watch something else in our path. My psychic radar came on and sensed a ghost…finally. The image of a spirit of a young girl popped into my head. She had long blond hair a la Alice in Wonderland. She was on one side of us in the woods and then vanished and reappeared on the other side of us. She seemed well dressed in period clothing from long ago. I turned on my psychic brain and sent out a line requesting some form of identification from the ghost.

From what I could make out of the response, the little girl belonged to one of Cape May’s earliest settlements that went by various names; Town Bank, New England Town, Cape May Town and Portsmouth. She would not give me a name, but she did continue to feed my mind visual imagery, something ghosts do very well. The image was of a series of small wooden cabins located on a high bluff overlooking the ocean. While I could not be exactly sure, I assumed it was the Town Bank settlement which was located north of where the present canal entrance is, on a stretch of high bluffs that has since washed out to sea. On this side of Cape May, one may encounter some of the peninsula’s oldest ghostly inhabitants. The ghostly girl soon vanished from my psychic sight.

Shortly thereafter, I sensed the ghosts of two Native American Indians. They were moving deeper into the woods ahead of us. Their presence sent a chill right through me. They were very strong spirits and they psychically let me know we were on their land. At the same time we noticed the air was very still. There were no sounds of birds or crickets, and the distant surf had gone silent. Everything around us seemed to slow in energy. It was as if time itself had paused for a few seconds. The eerie silence was enough to send us hurrying back through the woods and over the dunes to the beach, where we once again joined the living. I am not sure what caused the environment around us to go quiet, but it was unnerving to say the least.

This part of Cape May is rich in old history. It is the first part of the peninsula to be settled and has layers of history. Even though most of that history has now been forgotten by the general public, it has left its mark on a paranormal level and that energy is deeply embedded in the area. While most tourists may never have an experience, those with intuitive or psychic abilities probably will. Layers of history can hide layers of ghosts.

While various old historical accounts place settlers from New Haven at the Town Bank site as early as 1640, I think this first group settled further up the shoreline above Cape May county. It appears that the Town Bank group, whalers from Long Island and New England, began their migration to Cape May in the 1670s, possibly earlier. Historical records show Caleb Carman, one of the first land owners on the Cape, was appointed constable in 1685. Dr. Maurice Beesley points out in his research, that if they needed a constable, there must have existed a town in some form. The early settlers followed the migrating whales south from New England and the Hamptons. The first Town Bank colony was a small cluster of 15-20 timbered houses erected in close proximity.

In the 1690s, when the West New Jersey Society finally started issuing land titles in the area and the vast plantation of Dr. Daniel Coxe was sold off, more families began migrating from New England and Long Island, New York to set up whaling interests and farms in the new wilderness by the bay. Cape May’s genealogy is based on many of these early whaling families, and so are many of the haunts.

The ocean (or bay in this case) was constantly claiming pieces of the early settlements in Cape May. Today, the Town Bank site sits underwater. As the sea moved in, the people slowly moved back, spread inland and finally settled on the ocean side of the peninsula.

One of the most delightful facts, for this paranormal investigator at least, is the story about the old graveyard at Town Bank. In the early days of Cape May’s history, the idea of exhuming bodies and moving burial places was not as appealing as moving houses. Over the years I had heard stories about the headstones of the first settlers being moved to Cold Spring Cemetery, but the bodies were left behind and slowly were being washed into the surf. Fabulous. Posing that question to historian Jim Campbell, it seems that only one gravestone was moved to Cold Spring and the rest were left behind.  When the canal was dredged for ferry service in the 1960s, the dredges began to pull up pieces of headstones. Some of those gravestones, I am told, were used as decorative stones in fireplaces in Cape May. One wonders why we have so many ghosts.

A Leaming family member reports in an early Cape May diary of people seeing the graves slowly washing into the bay and noting that the graveyard and houses had eventually all but vanished. Coffins and bodies washing into the surf as the sun sets over the bay. Old man Higbee isn’t the only ghost roaming the beaches on the bay, you can be sure of that!

When I was young, my Aunt Ella and Uncle Bob had a home inland in the Town Bank section of Cape May where the government had erected HUD housing in the 1960s. Little did I realize I was so close to the original Cape May housing development!

Being nearer to the bay than the ocean beaches, my uncle would drive us to the beach next to the canal. One of my favorite things to do was to walk out to the end of the long rock jetty (pictured below.) There was something energizing about the area. One of my fondest memories of Cape May in the early 1970s is sitting on the bay side beach and the jetty, watching the sun set over the water. It was only recently, when I read an email from Jim Campbell about the canal dredging, that it all clicked into place. Those engineers were dredging in the area around where the jetty now rests. Since Town Bank would be hundreds of feet out in the water now, the jetty would basically be a bridge to that spot.

All those years, before I knew I was psychic, I would sit on the end of that jetty for hours without realizing I was probably sitting right on top of Cape May’s original settlers! That jetty is literally a walkway to the dead. Try it sometime, it’s fun.

Technically, if the canal followed the New England Creek and if we take the old map as historically accurate, the settlement was a little further north of the canal entrance, but no one really knows for sure. The map shown above that was supposedly copied from an early 1726 map of Portsmouth or Town Bank, by Russ Lyons in 1951, for the Cape May Geographical Society. According to historian and author Joan Berkey, no trace of the original 1726 map exists today.  On the map one can see the receding shoreline from 1605 to 1868. Like elsewhere on the peninsula, the high bluffs of Town Bank slowly dissolved into the sea.

If someone died at Town Bank and stayed behind as a ghost, what would they see today? Their former home is now underwater and no longer on a high bluff. My theory is some see the landscape change. These ghosts will adapt. Others refuse to admit they are dead and will cling to their final resting place or haunt where they had lived. While I have encountered ghosts on the bay side, like the little girl, I cannot say for sure if they are from the first settlement. That was a long time ago and ghosts do eventually move on.

I can vividly recall one summer boat ride with friends on the bay.  We had decided to anchor so a few of the boating party could take a dip. I remember sitting in the boat and waiting for my friends to finish. The water was deep and I decided to sit out the swim. As I waited, I felt an eerie pull from below. I was being watched — from down under.

Had we unknowingly anchored on top of the old graveyard? I started to visualize people reaching up from the bottom, as if they were trying to grab at our feet. I thought this was surely my overactive imagination when suddenly one of my friends exclaimed something had just cut his foot! Old junk? Imagination? Ghosts? Gravestones?

Higbee Beach is a great place to get away from the crowds and take a long, meditative stroll. Chances are, you won’t be strolling alone. The ghosts of Higbee Beach have been haunting the shores of the Delaware Bay for centuries. They will probably be there for a long time, and I am sure their numbers will be growing in years to come. Something about Cape May just keeps the ghosts coming back—luckily for us ghost lovers!

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