The Phoenix of Old is New Again
By Steven J. Baeli
October 4, 2013
It isn't necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia - Frank Zappa
For many the recent fire that consumed the southern end of the boardwalk in Seaside Park harkened back memories of past blazes along the seashore as well as some infamous inland conflagrations that once wreaked havoc upon the people of Ocean County.
Throughout the years, fires in the shore villages and resort areas have been common and often dangerous to the surrounding structures within close proximity, especially since most of the older buildings were generally constructed of wood. It was therefore common knowledge that when conditions were right, and the principals of physics aligned just so, an entire village could be lost in an instant.
While there are many examples of such fires to choose from, there are some that stand out due to their ferocious and sometimes fatal nature.
The bay shore hamlet of Barnegat saw such a trial when the entire village was nearly lost on May 4, 1882 after a string of buildings caught fire in the early morning hours laying waste to three structures including the Methodist Episcopal Church, which was “levelled [sic] to the ground.”[i] Unfortunately, the Barnegat Fire Company would not be organized until 1909,[ii] leaving the townspeople to stand in shock as they helplessly watched their town burn down.
The fire, which started in John Predmore’s store, spread to the church and then to Allen Neill’s residence, which also contained and his wife’s millinery and restaurant. Estimates were said to have cost upwards of $20,000 by the time the last of the smoke cleared.[iii] Sadly, the church, only twenty-five years old at the time, had only recently retired its debt.[iv]
Smaller fires can be equally dangerous if not quickly checked. One such case was that of the Berkeley Arms Hotel pavilion and bathhouse in Seaside Park fire on July 21, 1892, which was believed to have started in the bathhouse by someone smoking a pipe and then spread to the roof of the pavilion from there.[v] Although the structures did not burn down entirely, the potential of it spreading to the hotel itself and then onto other buildings was great.
Another fire on August 11, 1914 nearly took down the Seaside Park pavilion at the southern end of the boardwalk, but thanks to Ethel Barrow and William J. Murphy, who quickly alerted others, the fire was put out after a half hour’s hard work of some beach campers who used wet sand to extinguish the flames. Disaster was averted and praise given to the firefighters whose action stopped the fire from spreading, even though “a stiff wind was blowing at the time.”[vi]
A brush fire in Seaside Park on October 19, 1925 scorched 200 acres along the beachfront, nearly burning down the Island Beach Coastguard Station No. 109 in the process. The fire was helped along by a “strong northeast wind”[vii] that spread fast across the sand flats following the xeric grass line that lead to the beach where fishermen had set out “newly tarred”[viii] pound fishing nets. The nets, valued at $30,000, were the only property destroyed in the fire thanks to the efforts of the Lavallette, Seaside Park, and Seaside Heights fire houses.[ix]
While considered a fire of unknown origin, it is possible that it was sparked by a train engine since it began “just south of the Pennsylvania Railroad track [where] it leaves the bay bridge, at Seaside Park.” Such fire origins were common then considering that that train system was integral at that time, it running several lines and branches across Ocean County.
Human error aside, the causes of fires themselves have changed somewhat over the years according to the culture and technology of an era. Ancient structural fires were generally set by defective heating systems that often originated in the chimney, but as electricity became more prevalent, shorted out electrical circuits have outnumbered their predecessors and became much stealthier, leaving little time for its victims to react and get to safety.
The phenomenon of village fires, such as the Barnegat fire of 1882, go back to the earliest days when Ocean County was still part of Monmouth County, when on March 24, 1782, the Village of Toms River was attacked by British troops and burned to the ground. All structures save two were destroyed.
This story ties into the oft-told tale of Joshua Huddy and others Patriots of that time who stepped up to protect themselves and their families from the British as the American Revolution raged, and while it was a purposefully set series of fires during wartime, the devastation it left behind was no different in its psychological effect than others similar to it.
Point Pleasant – Point Pleasant has been hit particularly hard by village fires over the years, the earliest perhaps taking place on March 21, 1885, when the “Worthington & Street block of business houses, opposite the railroad station…were entirely destroyed.”[x]
The fire consumed seven structures, including Worthington & Street’s real estate and insurance offices, Kennard’s barbershop, Bennett’s restaurant, Dedaker’s general store, Shoemaker’s ice cream parlor, and Spitz’s cigar shop and billiard hall, where it is believed that the fire began. The cost of the fire damage was about $20,000, but would have been much more if not for a “timely change of wind and the efforts of the bucket brigade.”[xi]
A similar fire ten years later in West Point Pleasant started in VanWickle’s blacksmith shop burning down it and a new shop that was being built on the same property. As the fire began to spread as it was fueled by a “high northwest wind,”[xii] setting Hance’s store on fire several times, each being successfully extinguished by the Point Pleasant Fire Department before the entire building went up in flames. William Hankin’s house “some 200 yards away,”[xiii] also caught fire but was mostly saved due to the efforts of the firemen.
In an unfortunate circumstance, the historic collection of the Daughters of Liberty, who used the room above the blacksmith shop as its lodge, was lost in the fire.[xiv]
In yet another fire on June 26, 1899, two buildings on Bay Avenue were burned to cinders in the business section of the village in the 2 a.m. blaze. The fire began in the Murphy building in Chafey’s cigar shop and billiard hall, and had completely engulfed it in the short time it took for firefighters to respond, by which time it had begun to spread to other structures where bucket brigades successfully extinguished them before they could become entrenched.[xv]
In March of 1906, a fire started in an apartment led to the burning down of most of the 600 block of Arnold Avenue. A “Mrs. Polhemus,”[xvi] who lived in the apartment of origin over Gottlieb’s Department Store on the southeast corner at Laurel and Bay Avenues, unintentionally sparked the blaze having hung some clothes up in her kitchen near the stove to dry.
The fire quickly spread engulfing the old wooden structures one after another as it turned eastward up Arnold Avenue taking with it the Zwisohn Building that housed Johnson’s Pharmacy, Laugh’s Confectionery Store, and a private residence. Also incinerated was the Eureka Building, Cramer’s Barbershop, and both Clayton’s and the Chafey Millinery shops.[xvii]
Firemen from the Point Pleasant Fire Companies fought gallantly, but with little luck as the flames became so intense that it drove them back beyond the point that they could not fight the fire. They were also hindered by the weather, which was “cold and blustery…with snow still on the ground.”[xviii]
By the time that the two Manasquan fire companies made it to the scene, about twelve businesses and homes had been completely leveled to the ground.
Downtown New Egypt
(photo courtesy of the Ocean County Cultural & Heritage Commission)
New Egypt – Arson was suspected in a village fire in New Egypt on September 10, 1891, a conflagration of which “threatened to destroy the entire business portion of the town.”[xix] In the end, three structures were completely destroyed, but the town was saved by volunteers from the area as well as men from Hightstown who had traveled fifteen miles to aid in their neighbors’ plight.
Also an early morning blaze, the church bells were rung in alarm after smoke was seen about 3:30 a.m. at Davis’s General Store on Main Street in what was referred to as the “oil house”[xx] located in the rear of the building. The store was soon engulfed in flame and began to spread, burning down the house of Jacob Win, and then the house and millinery store of Anna Sexton.
The Jameson house that adjoined the Sexton residence and store began to ignite as the heat became more intense, but firefighters were able to extinguish it before it took that building as well. As the fire raged, Mr. Jameson desperately began to remove his effects from the house and then passed out from exhaustion after the fire was under control. Fortunately, the American Hotel, which was located directly across the street from the inferno, was saved by covering the roof and walls with wet blankets.[xxi]
Because of the oil house’s hidden location in the back of the store, it was suspected by many of the townspeople that the fire was set by an arsonist, although evidence to that effect was never presented.
Headline from the Ocean County Sun (April 23, 1953)
Beachwood – A forest fire visited the western side of the Borough of Beachwood on April 22, 1953, burning down six structures and damaging several others as it was pushed through the borough by high winds that forced an evacuation of the town.[xxii]
Firefighters from twenty towns and fifty firehouses, two hundred and fifty in all,[xxiii] converged on the fire that originated on the Garden State Parkway slated to open the next year.[xxiv] Workers on the road crew were unable to control a brush fire that they had set and it spread to the woods on Double Trouble Road and from there traveled the two miles into Beachwood Borough.[xxv]
A list of house in Beachwood destroyed by the forest fire
High winds and dry conditions aided the fire, which inevitably burned over 500 acres in addition to the homes, and while there were no major injuries in the five hour fight to save the town, two dogs died in blaze.[xxvi]
As over 250 people fled the rapidly approaching flames, the houses of Frederick R. Wiedeke, Edmund Otto, Kenneth Nelson, Joseph Kirkman, Anton Von Der Hock were all burned to the ground. Also destroyed was the Henniger Rod and Gun Club on Neptune Avenue.[xxvii]
An 1960s aerial view of the Village of Toms River
(photo courtesy of the Ocean County Cultural & Heritage Commission)
Toms River – A more contemporary, but no less destructive and dangerous fire, struck the Village of Toms River on October 25, 1970 on the northwest corner of Main and Water Streets in the business section.[xxviii]
The fire, which originated in the Beauty Academy, consumed the entire corner, burning the monolithic wooden structure that had replaced the Ocean House Hotel in the 1950s beyond repair and also destroyed neighboring business such as Tommy’s Restaurant and a Sear’s Catalog outlet.[xxix]
[i] ________, “Disastrous Fire at Barnegat,” New Jersey Courier, May 24, 1882, p. 3.
[ii] Barnegat Fire Company Facebook Page < https://www.facebook.com/station11>, 2013.
[iii] ________, “Disastrous Fire at Barnegat,” New Jersey Courier, May 24, 1882, p. 3.
[v] ________, “Fire,” Ocean County Democrat, July 21, 1892, p. 1.
[vi] ________, “Seaside Park Pavilion Afire,” New Jersey Courier, August 14, 1914, p. 3.
[vii] ________, “Fish Pound Nets Worth $30,000 Go Up In Smoke,” New Jersey Courier, October 19, 1925, p. 3.
[x] ________, “Fire at Point Pleasant,: New Jersey Courier, March 25, 1885, p. 3.
[xii] ________, “Fire at West Point Pleasant,” New Jersey Courier, August 8, 1895, p. 3.
[xv] ________, “$8000 Fire in the Business Part of the Village on Monday Morning,” New Jersey Courier, June 29,
1899, p. 1.
[xvi] ________, “1906 Conflagration Levelled [sic] Many Businesses at Bay and Arnold Aves.,” Ocean County Leader,
July 27, 1950, p. 3.
[xix] ________, “Fire at Egypt! Was it the Fiend? The Inhabitants Think So,” Ocean County Democrat, p. 1.
[xxii] Sam Christopher, “Blaze Started by Parkway Crew Levels Five Homes, Hunting Lodge,” Asbury Park Press, p. 1.
[xxiv] Don Bennett, “Garden State Parkway Reshaped Ocean County,” Ocean County Observer, February 25, 1996, p.
[xxv] Sam Christopher, “Blaze Started by Parkway Crew Levels Five Homes, Hunting Lodge,” Asbury Park Press, p. 1.
[xxviii] ________, “Burned-Out Structure May Be Leveled,” Daily Observer, October 26, 1970, p. 2.