The Ocean County Compendium of  History
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Fires - Page 3

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Boardwalk Fires
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A hot & hazy day at the beach in Seaside showing Funtown Pier to the right
This photograph was taken five months before Super Storm Sandy struck on October 29, 2012
(photo by Steven J. Baeli, 2012)
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Much like village fires, boardwalk blazes have superior potential to get out of control and spread quickly throughout the village given the right conditions, but the location of a boardwalk and its piers is also unique in that it has no real protection from the wind or the sun.  Boardwalks also have a distinct advantage given that the wooden boards are the perfect conduit for the flames to spread, although firefighters can use that same advantage against it by taking out sections the boardwalk and cutting off the route as was done in the recent 2013 Seaside Park fire.  Like Atlantic City and Asbury Park, the Barnegat Peninsula (locally referred to as “the barrier island”), has since the turn of the 20th century been home to amusement park-style boardwalks in Point Pleasant, Seaside Heights, and Seaside Park, and although those other resorts have seen fires over the years, there have been far more severe blazes on our boardwalks here in Ocean County.

The boardwalks of the two “Seasides” are connected at Porter Avenue where Funtown Pier straddles both boroughs, while Seaside Heights boasts Casino Pier on the northern end of the amusement park.  The building of the boardwalk and piers began in the late 1910s, which was followed by a large jump in the summer population as electrically driven thrill rides began to grace the piers and attract large crowds to the ocean front resorts.  Summer vacation resorts such as Seaside were unique in their character and affordable to the common people allowing almost anyone to indulge in one of life’s special treats.  The advent of the railroad system in the late 1800s also encouraged growth in the resort towns because it allowed for a working man to take his family on day trips to the shore for a reasonable price.

The following is a chronologically historic overview of fires that burned Ocean County’s amusement resorts.

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A crowd beach bathers looks on as Casino Pier burns
(photo by Harlan Conover)
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June 9, 1955 – While there were likely small fires in the early years, it was not until 1955 when the boardwalk experienced its first conflagration and saw the loss of four blocks of the amusement park when the fire engulfed the area between DuPont Avenue in Seaside Heights and Decatur Avenue in Seaside Park[i] taking with it seventy concession stands, three bars, a rollercoaster, the Ferris Wheel, and various other rides.  Also lost were many wheel games and the bingo hall.[ii]

"When they woke me I took one look out the window and I kissed it goodbye,” recalled then-Seaside Heights Mayor J. Stanley Tunney in a 1963 account.  “The flames, feeding on hard pine were soaring in the air and the smoke was terrific.  Fire engines were converging on the scene.  Building after building and huge sections of the boardwalk were consumed.  I’ve never seen anything like it and I never want to again, believe me.”

The fire, which burned from about 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., was believed to have started in Case’s Hotdog Stand, where a defective neon light exploded and sparked the first flames,[iii] but was later found to have started at unnamed business “150 feet northeast.” As was the case in many of these types of fires, winds up to fifty miles per hour were kicking up, which fed the flames and pushed them across the boardwalk and prevented the firemen from getting close enough to fight the blaze.[iv]  At that point emphasis was placed on containing the fire to keep it from “vaulting”[v] across Ocean Terrace and spreading throughout the rest of the village.

Aside from minor burns and smoke inhalation, there were no casualties in the fire with the exception of Frank F. Iovine, a fifty-nine year-old vacationer from Fort Lee, New Jersey who died of a heart attack while watching the blaze play out.  Given the intensity of the fire, it was a miracle that no one was hurt during the course of the event.

Sadly, the carousel was lost in the fire[vi] but absolutely no time was wasted rebuilding the area as the next day Mayor Tunney ordered bulldozers 10 raze the still-hot and smoking timbers to make room for the new boardwalk, the materials of which had been ordered at 9 a.m. that morning.[vii]  The mayor himself also hunted and later replaced the original carousel with one of comparable age and quality, which was later replaced with a newer fabricated one that melted down in the 2013 fire.

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Another View of the 1955 Casino Pier Fire
(Photograph by Harlon Conover)

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July 5, 1958 – On the day after Independence Day another large fire broke out, although not nearly as destructive as its predecessor, it being better contained and burning only four attractions in comparison between Hamilton and Webster avenues in Seaside Heights, and shutting down electrical service in the area for two hours.[viii]  Businesses that were lost included, “Jo-Jo’s Refreshment stand, Sonny Ricci’s [sic] Doughnut and Merchandise Stand, and Tony Carozza’s arcade.”[ix]

That fire was believed to have been sparked by a detective neon sign, which broke out at about 10:45 a.m. but was quickly brought under control by firefighters within ninety minutes of the first alarm.

June 9, 1965 – Ten years to the day of the 1955 fire an explosion occurred at 12:30 a.m. started a fire at Mike’s Auction House located on the corner of North Ocean and Farragut Avenues.  A slight ten mile per hour wind was streaming through the area helping to fan the flames, but firefighters from twenty fire companies were able to get the fire under control by 2:15 a.m.[x]

June 10, 1965 – On the day after the auction house fire another a fire alarm was sounded at 3:28 p.m., this time at the Casino Pier in Seaside Heights, where several new rides from Europe had recently been imported, but none of which had been completely constructed for use.  The fire originated between the Hymalaya and European Dark Horse rides and was probably caused by a cigarette.[xi]

Winds from the west fanned the flames helping to feed the fire, but the wind also served to push the fire away from town out toward the pier, which, as luck would have it, was not operating the rides at the time and was largely void of vacationers.[xii]

At that time Casino Pier was owned and operated by Venice Amusement Corp., which reported that beyond the cost of the fire, estimated to be about $1.5 million, it would also incur a loss from the sale of 10,000 tickets sold in advance to “church and school groups”[xiii] expected to visit over the summer.

Many of rides were owned by Edward Meier, Sr., who resided from Switzerland, and his son, Edward Jr., who recalled the moment when he heard someone yell, “Fire!,” immediately after which he was surround by flames that he said went off “like a bomb.”[xiv]

By the time the smoke cleared and the ambers finally cooled, 600 feet of the pier was lost, including a recently added section built in April of that year.  Aside from the Himalaya and the European Dark Horse rides, also lost were the Wild Mouse rollercoaster, the Ferris Wheel, the Rotor, Trabani, Dive Bomber, and the sky ride,[xv] the cable of which slashed Seaside Heights police chief, Joseph McDevitt’s hand when it broke loose.[xvi]

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Kohr's Frozen Custard Stand on Casino Pier (circa 2012)
This photograph was taken five months before Super Storm Sandy struck on October 29, 2012
(Photo by Steven J. Baeli 2012)

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April 15, 1976 – A little more than ten years later another large fire smaller in scale in Seaside Heights taking out both Kohr’s Frozen Custard Stand and the Whistle Stop Restaurant on the boardwalk at Franklin Avenue.[xvii]

A fire of unknown origin was reported at 3:48 a.m. and was subdued within ninety minutes of the arrival of the firefighters,[xviii] and as he neared the fire house, Seaside Heights volunteer firemen Kenneth Hersey, reported seeing a “ball of fire 100 feet in the air,”[xix] seven blocks away from the scene.  The explosion originated from the gas lines on both sides of the restaurant and continued to feed the flames as the firemen struggled to find the valve to cut off the fuel. 

The Whistle Stop Restaurant, which was not insured, took the most damage, it being gutted completely.  The loss of the Kohr’s stand was also great for owner, Gerald Kohr, who had just installed $30,000 in new equipment, but in particular he lamented the loss of an “early-type ice cream-maker, which can not [sic] be replaced”[xx] that had supplied his other four stands.

Aside from the custard stand and restaurant, the San Tropez clothing store and one of Lucky Leo’s record stands were damaged.[xxi]  Across town that same day two other fires were attended to in Ortley Beach, where a garbage pile caused a shed fire, and a stove burned out the kitchen of a bungalow.[xxii]

March 3, 1980 – Four years after the Whistle Stop/Kohr’s fire, another major conflagration cut a swath through a block’s worth of the Seaside Heights boardwalk between DuPont and Porter Avenues taking out the Royal Arcade, Carousel Gift Shop, Maruca’s Tomato Pies, Smith Records, Trader Tom’s, and Surf Skillo.[xxiii]

There were two accounts as to where the fire started, one being in the ceiling of the Royal Arcade,[xxiv] and the other an official statement that it began in Maruca’s pizza parlor,[xxv] but was of unknown origin.

As was the case in the Whistle Stop Restaurant fire, gas lines exploded making the fire hotter and even harder to control until the supply was cut off at the main.  The weather that day was extremely cold and brought with it a wind that only made matters worse, causing water to freeze in the hydrants, hoses, and puddles in the road, all of which inhibited the firefighting effort.[xxvi]

An alarm had been sounded at 7:30 p.m. and the fire raged on until 10:30 before firemen could safely say that it was under control.  There were no major injuries despite the poor weather conditions that hampered firefighting efforts.

An estimate of over $1 million was assessed on the damage.[xxvii]

May 20, 1982 – Just two years later another fire seized Seaside Heights, this time destroying three stores and two apartments.  The fire had originated in Ellie’s Sub Shop near Webster Avenue at about 11:45 a.m., quickly spreading to Judy’s Place clothing store and Beach Liquors.[xxviii]  A “flash behind a soda machine”[xxix] was later reported by two girls who had been in the sub shop at the time, confirming the place of origin and that it was not intentionally set.  While no suspicion was drawn on the blaze, had there been no eyewitnesses officials may have wondered otherwise considering the string of arson fires set in nearby Toms River earlier that day.[xxx]

Although not as severe as the boardwalk fires, the potential for this event to spread was great, but skillfully contained by over 100 firefighters from surrounding towns.

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Firefighters battle the Funtown Pier blaze in Seaside Park on September 12, 2013
(photo courtesy of Tom Parise - Used with permission)
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May 20, 1983 – Exactly one year to the day The Palace arcade and concession complex at Casino Pier caught fire at 7:30 p.m. caused by roofers tarring the roof using torches that probably started the blaze.

The fire was quickly contained and most of the damage was done to the roof rafters, although water damage was high as well.  The carousel located on the ground floor of the building was not damaged.

There were two more large fires on the boardwalk, the first at Big Jim’s Pizza in Seaside Heights in 1988, which gutted the second floor of that establishment and did damage to some of the surrounding buildings,[xxxi] and another on Funtown Pier in Seaside Park on May 6, 1995 that was not nearly as severe as in the past given the quick turn around by the firefighters who was able to stop the blazed before it got out of control.[xxxii]  It did, however, destroy twelve businesses in the process.

Point Pleasant Beach - In addition to its early village fire history, Point Pleasant has also had its share of disastrous boardwalk fires, one in April of 1975 that burned down six buildings across 400 feet of boardwalk and Jack and Jill’s Amusements that was once the home of the carousel.[xxxiii]

On November 22, 1989, another fire visited the Point Pleasant boards, this time burning down Jenkinson’s Pavilion.  Firefighters were able to contain the fire to the old wooden structure, but were unable to save it from total destruction due to high winds and the added annoyance of first snowfall of the season.  Had the fire happened two days before, the outcome of the fire may been much worse as a gale had blown through the area bringing 60 mile an hour winds in its wake.[xxxiv]

Jenkinson’s was and is still a well-known name, and at the time its pavilion floors were well-worn from the shoes of thousands of visitors over its then-60 year history.  Inside summer vacationers would find concession stands, wheels of chance, an arcade and five bars at which to quench their thirst, but all of it was gone by the time the fire had finally receded.[xxxv]

The fire that burned down Funtown Pier on September 12, 2013 is another in a long line of sad chapters in the history of Ocean County’s boardwalk resorts, but like those other disasters there has been a feeling that the pier and all that was lost would soon return.

Perhaps that feeling is a holdover from the resolve brought on by Super Storm Sandy, which tore much of Ocean County apart on October 29, 2012, specifically in the Seaside area where most of the boardwalk and many businesses and homes were completely destroyed and washed out to sea.  Or perhaps it was the knowledge that in the past everything had worked out in the end and that the boardwalk and piers did indeed return as promised giving everyone faith that the phoenix of old will be new again.

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The aftermath of the Funtown Pier fire in Seaside Park
September 14, 2013

(photo courtesy of Tom Parise - Used with permission)
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Endnotes

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[i] ________, “Damage Estimated at Over $1 Million,” Asbury Park Press, June 9, 1955, p. 1.

[ii] ________, “Damage $1 Million As 70 Concessions, 3 Bars Are Leveled,” New Jersey Courier, June 16, 1955,

    p. 1.

[iii] ________, “Rebuilding of Razed Boardwalk Started Amid Smoldering Ruins,” Asbury Park Press, June 10, 1955,

    p. 1.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] ________, “Seaside Begins Rebuilding As Fire Ashes Cool,” Star-Ledger, June 10, 1955, p. 1.

[vii] ________, “Rebuilding of Razed Boardwalk Started Amid Smoldering Ruins,” Asbury Park Press, June 10, 1955,

    p. 1.

[viii] ________, “Believe Sign Caused Seaside Heights Fire,” Asbury Park Press, July 7, 1958, p. 1.

[ix] ________, “Seaside Blaze Levels 3 Boardwalk Concessions,” New Jersey Courier, July 10, 1958, p. 1.

[x] ________, “Explosion, Fire Ruins Seaside Park Auction: Call in 20 Fire Units,” New Jersey Courier, June 10,

    1955, p. 1.

[xi] ________, “Seaside Heights Pier Fire Loss Is Put at $1.5 Million,” Asbury Park Press, June 11, 1965, p. 1.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] ________, “$1.5 Million Damage Won’t Delay Opening,” The Review. June 11. 1965. p. 1.

[xvii] ________, “Fire Destroys Boardwalk Concessions,” The Review, April 15, 1976, p. 1.

[xviii] ________, “Boardwalk Fire Probe Underway,” Ocean County Observer, April 15, 1976, p. 1.

[xix] ________, “Fire Destroys Boardwalk Concessions,” The Review, April 15, 1976, p. 1.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] ________, “Boardwalk Fire Probe Underway,” Ocean County Observer, April 15, 1976, p. 1.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Bonnie Williamson, “Blaze Guts Six Stands,” Ocean County Observer, March 3, 1980, p. 1.

[xxiv] Bob McHugh, “Seaside Heights Hit By Major Blaze,” Asbury Park Press, March 3, 1980, p. 1.

[xxv] Bonnie Williamson, “Blaze Guts Six Stands,” Ocean County Observer, March 3, 1980, p. 1.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] ________, “Arcade Damage Figure Rises As Blaze Investigation Ends,” Asbury Park Press, March 4, 1980, p. 1.

[xxviii] John Glase, “Fire Guts 3 Stores in Seaside Heights,” Asbury Park Press, May 20, 1982, p. 1.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] ________, “Arson Spree Checked,” Ocean County Observer, May 20, 1982, p. 1.

[xxxi] Information gleaned from photographs posted on the Seaside Heights Volunteer Fire Company Museum website,

      <http://seasidefiremuseum.com/major-fires/boardwalk-blaze-1988/>, 2013.

[xxxii] Alan Wheeler and Susan Decker, “Blaze Rips Boardwalk,” Ocean County Observer, May 7, 1995, p. 1.

[xxxiii] George Brown, “Blaze Wrecks Six Buildings On Boardwalk,” Asbury Park Press, April 10, 1975, p. 1.

[xxxiv] Staff Report, “Gale Force Winds Keep Police Busy,” Ocean County Observer, November 21, 1989, p. 1.

[xxxv] Mark Lagenvest, Kim Reisler, and Shannon Mullen, “Fire Destroys Jenkinsons,” Asbury Park Press,

     November 23, 1989, p. 1.

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