CAPE MAY - A recent Herald article on a planned Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May contained the observation about the Chalfonte Hotel that “For years, a meal in the hotel’s Magnolia Room made clear Cape May’s location below the Mason-Dixon Line.” An alert reader, Francis Smith, wrote the paper to point out a historical inaccuracy, stating that “the Mason-Dixon Line never crossed into New Jersey.”
The famous line dates to the colonial period. Between 1763 and 1767, a survey by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon worked to resolve a border dispute between Maryland and Pennsylvania. Later, the line named for the two men became a symbolic demarcation point between the north and south in the decades leading to and following the Civil War.
So, why is Cape May often said to be below the Mason-Dixon? It is a matter of language, custom and a history in which the county’s namesake resort city was a frequent vacation destination for visitors from the southern states.
A 1996 New York Times travel story on the resort spoke of Cape May as “dangling into the Delaware Bay just below the Mason-Dixon Line.” A New Jersey Leisure Guide notes that the oldest seaside resort in the country is “located below the Mason-Dixon Line."
The "Family Travel Network" boasts that Cape May, “located just below the Mason-Dixon Line,” offers a “southern style of hospitality.” Even Britain’s "Daily Mail" speaks of charming Cape May “below the Mason-Dixon Line.”
The historical facts support the claim that the Mason-Dixon Line had nothing to do with the Garden State.
Yet as the food and travel magazine "Saveur" put it in 2016, Cape May is “a town with abiding Southern roots” dating to the days before highways when the resort was equally accessible by steamboat from Virginia and Maryland.
"Saveur" tells its readers that Cape May is “comfortably below the Mason-Dixon Line” and in the minds of many, that is where it has always been.