Home Features BONJ Series Jersey Through History: Cape May Lookout Tower and Sunset Beach

Jersey Through History: Cape May Lookout Tower and Sunset Beach

On Sunset Boulevard in Lower Township, Cape May County, there’s a slice of history dating back to World War II. Fire Control Tower No. 23, known as Cape May’s WWII Lookout Tower, is right down the road from Sunset Beach. Though hundreds of tourists pass by it each day, most don’t know the historical significance of the lookout tower.

As New Jersey’s last remaining restorable WWII tower, it was once part of an immense defense system. These days, however, it’s open daily to visitors and locals.

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Starting A Fire

Fire control towers are round-base concrete towers with flat observation decks. They typically stand between four and five stories high. During World War II, these towers were used to triangulate the position of suspicious ships and submarines. When enemy vessels were detected offshore, tower operators would help coastal units called “batteries” aim at the vessels. Then they would fire at the enemy using fixed gun batteries, including rocket artillery.

Cape May WWII Lookout Tower

Fire Control Tower No. 23, in particular, was built in 1942; serving as one of 15 such towers stretching from North Wildwood to Bethany Beach, Delaware. Four of these towers were actually in Cape May County. In addition, all 15 towers were part of the Harbor Defense of the Delaware system. The primary fort of this coastal defense system was Fort Miles in Cape Henlopen near Lewes, Delaware. At the time, Fort Miles was a U.S. Army installation.

The fire control tower was decommissioned not long after the end of WWII. Then, in November 2003, Fire Control Tower No. 23 joined the National Register of Historic Places. The control tower now welcomes visitors to climb to the top during the week. It also includes a changing exhibit on the second floor, prior to reaching the observation deck.

It Takes More Than Loose Lips to Sink Ships

But that’s not the only piece of history in the area. Right down the road from Fire Control Tower No. 23, a ship is slowly sinking in the Delaware Bay. For tourists who decide to visit the lookout tower, the Delaware Bay is within walking distance. A famous spot for taking gorgeous sunset photos, those who do so may find their shot obscured, however; specifically, by the protruding hull of an early 20th century ship. Widely known as the “Concrete Ship,” this frequent photo bomber is actually the SS Atlantus.

SS Atlantus

The SS Atlantus first set sail in December 1918. It is the best-known of the dozen concrete ships built by the Liberty Ship Building Company. It was meant to serve in the World War I Emergency Fleet; but the war virtually ended a month prior to launch, so the SS Atlantus became a transport boat for troops. On occasion, it also transported coal in New England. In late 1920, only two years after becoming active, the SS Atlantus was retired to a salvage yard in Virginia. But that’s not the end of the story.

Colonel Jesse Rosenfeld purchased the ship six years later; planning to use it along with two sister ships to create a ferry dock in the Delaware Bay. In fact, a groundbreaking ceremony took place on March 1926, to celebrate the dock’s creation; at this point, the SS Atlantus was repaired and towed to Cape May. Three months later, however, a storm hit the area, halting construction. The storm broke the ship free of its anchorage, causing it to crash off the coast of Sunset Beach. Though they made an effort to free the ship, it remained stuck.

Sunset from Sunset Beach

See it While it’s Still Here

More than 90 years later, the SS Atlantus is a permanent fixture in the Delaware Bay. However, it continues to sink, and the ship becomes less visible every year. The stern of the ship is the most visible section, though the bow is visible during low tide. Unfortunately, the middle of the ship, is now completely underwater.

Thousands of visitors travel to Sunset Beach every year to witness one of New Jersey’s most spectacular sunsets. While some go for the great view, gift shop and grill, others take home a special piece of history. Next time you’re in Cape May, why not Jersey Through History alongside the SS Atlantus and Fire Control Tower No. 23?

Continue your journey through New Jersey’s most historic sites with Jersey Through History: The Complete Series.

All Images: © Patrick Lombardi / Best of NJ

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