• October 13, 2019

THE GREAT BOARDWALK FIRE OF 1927 - Ocean City Sentinel: Home

THE GREAT BOARDWALK FIRE OF 1927

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Posted: Wednesday, June 14, 2017 10:34 am

Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-part series on the great fire of 1927 that destroyed the Ocean City Boardwalk. The first part was how firemen from the other barrier islands and mainland fire companies responded when the fire was first reported.

 OCEAN CITY — The Ocean City Boardwalk’s wooden structure made it a virtual tinderbox as the conflagration on Oct. 11, 1927 spread quickly. 

“The smoke rolled up Ninth Street in a cloud so thick it was impossible to see the lights on the street. Firemen who attempted to check the blaze without gas masks were quickly driven back,” the Ocean City News reported. “The flames spread under the Boardwalk and suddenly blazed forth, sweeping away Litterer’s orangeade stand as quickly as it takes to tell of it.”

In rapid succession, Cone’s Cigar Store, New York Bead Shop, Arcadia Café and Cafeteria caught ablaze. Practically all the shops burned on the Boardwalk were closed for the season, but the stocks within each store were destroyed.

“With the heavy wind from the sea, and the terrific draught under the Boardwalk, it was not long before the Hippodrome Pier and the carousel were a mass of flames,” the Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger reported.

Following the Hippodrome Pier, Shriver’s ice cream saloon and candy establishment also burned. 

“The firemen made energetic efforts to gain control of these fires, but soon the Hippodrome was a seething mass of flames. It was doomed beyond the possibility of help,” the Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger reported. “The firemen responded promptly, but the blaze had gained considerable headway, and the smoke from the burning Boardwalk was simply stifling. Undaunted, the boys battled the flames until finally it was found that the fire was gaining headway, and then an appeal for help was made to the Atlantic City Fire Department, which sent over a number of men and seven pieces of their apparatus.”

Following the destruction at Shriver’s, the flames traveled north along the Boardwalk, where Sharpless & Sharpless and Tersi Brothers caught fire. The roiling heat damaged the Strand Theatre, which was spared destruction.

Establishments that weren’t so lucky included Mawson’s Pop Corn Shop, Shelton’s Baths and the Surf Laundry, Thorn’s Candy Shop, Orangeade and Sandwich Shop, Colonial Theatre, Ryan’s Restaurant, Brooks Apartments, Foscos Gown Shop and B.C. Litterer.

“The local firemen were practically helpless trying to stem the blaze. Their efforts were directed towards preventing the spread of the flames, as it was a practically hopeless to task to extinguish a building once the flames got a start,” the paper reported.

Spreading toward Tenth Street along the Boardwalk, the fire consumed the Hole in the Wall Restaurant, Wise Shooting Gallery, McCullom’s Fruit Show Shop, the Baby Gift Shop, Seaside Baths, The Gift Shop, Townsend’s Restaurant and Meyer’s Cigar Store.

“The fire was roaring into Ocean City, eating its flaming way into huge hotels and beautiful homes to the terror of stricken property owners,” the Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger reported. “People evacuated their homes like ants from a dirt hill as the huge clouds of smoke billowed skyward.” 

 

Inferno island

 

At the New Jersey Bell Telephone Company office, operators frantically handled calls for emergency assistance while employees were stationed on the building’s roof with buckets to extinguish any errant embers threatening to ignite their structure.

When the electric current in Ocean City was cut off around the telephone office, men working under Wire Chief Walter Booz searched the city for six-volt batteries to replace the central office battery.

“Two 320 line switchboards were held in readiness in the Atlantic City storeroom to be rushed to the stricken area should fire threaten the central office,” the Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger reported. “Additional switchboard facilities were also held ready at Newark to be loaded on an emergency train of freight and coach cars and rushed to the shore.” 

The Hotel Traymore, on the south corner of Ninth Street and Wesley Avenue, was gutted and “a total loss” according to the Ocean City News.

When the Traymore Hotel caught fire, outside responders arrived on the scene, including numerous fire companies, New Jersey State Police, and Battery F, 112th New Jersey National Guard. 

A fire was discovered in the tower of the Central Avenue School, and extinguished swiftly.

The home of Dr. Willits P. Haines, who was vacationing in Europe, was destroyed. Properties adjacent to the Haines house; the Homedell, Burleigh Cottage and the former Palen Cottage also succumbed to flames. 

Even Mayor Champion’s large brick home sustained damage.

Several garden hoses, kept in winter storage, were taken out and used to douse buildings, which prevented the fire from spreading. 

 

Desperate rescues 

 

Not content to sit by and watch the destruction, civilians removed the stocks from the stores and carried them to safety on the beach where they were guarded. 

“Thousands of persons grabbed a few of their most valuable belongings and raced to the most remote sections of the resort,” Ocean City News reported. “Some took their things to the Gardens section and others drove their cars to the mainland, fearing the entire island would break into flames. It was feared that the whole city would be destroyed by the greatest fire ever witnessed in the history of south Jersey.”

Harry Conover assisted Dr. Florence Haines and Lane Haines in saving equipment valued at several thousand dollars. Conover was struck in the mouth with a spark “which left a burn resembling a giant fever blister.”

Eighty-three year-old Louis Shultz was removed from the apartment over Moorlyn Theatre to the Preston home at Third Street and Atlantic Avenue during the fire. 

Engulfed in flames, Boardwalk Garage was destroyed and along with it, half a dozen motorcars. 

The flames were checked by the asbestos and stucco show room of the Dodge Brothers agency, saving the adjacent six frame buildings as well as Fogg’s residence on the corner.

Concerned with the encroaching fire, some people ran to the garage of C.F. Reid, Inc., on Ninth Street near the Boardwalk, and notified Lewis Vance, who helped turn in the alarm.

After this, Vance drove a number of the cars from the garage, but after removing four or five from the building, there was a thunderous explosion as gasoline tanks ignited, and he was unable to return.

 

“They shall not pass”

 

Hundreds of residences, businesses, City Hall, the Asbury Avenue shopping district and Pennsylvania Railroad station lay ahead of the encroaching inferno. 

Like a bellows, the heavy gusts fanned the fire and blew flaming debris toward the bay. 

“It is difficult to explain why hundreds of dwellings, which were continuously showered with sparks did not cause fires in various sections of the resort. Dozens of roofs were ignited several blocks from the scene of the fire, but these blazes were extinguished by the vigilant owners, tenants and neighbors,” Ocean City News reported.

At the fire’s height, the Hotel Normandie, a six-story, 1,000-room frame building long recognized as a “fire trap,” ignited after embers and flaming shingles, carried by the wind, slammed into its roof. 

“At that time the sky was lighted by the flames, the flying sparks as they reached the outer circle of the light reminded the spectator of chips of a giant sparkler, such as used in a pyrotechnic display at a Fourth of July celebration,” Ocean City News reported.

“Because of its shingle roof, Chief Conover said there was not much chance for the Normandie once it caught fire. There wasn’t enough apparatus on the scene to extinguish the flames on this building,” one newspaper reported.

From behind a wooden barricade on Ocean Avenue, firemen fought the blaze. 

“It was here the firemen, members of the Ocean City department, aided by four companies of the Atlantic City fire department and almost a score of other companies from all sections of south Jersey, made their stand,” according to the Ocean City News. “Like the soldiers of Verdun, they stood determined ‘they shall not pass’ – and the flames did not pass, except minor blazes in the tower of the Strand Hotel and the Central Avenue School.”

Responding, 18 pumpers threw streams of water at the fire, draining the water supply as the pumps were depleted.

Chief Conover ordered several pumpers to pump water from the storm water drains, which the newspaper described was a “godsend in the emergency.”

“The streams which poured from the burning buildings emptied to the gutters and drains. The water was used over and over again,” the Ocean City News reported.

The firefighters poured tons of water on a two-family cottage with asbestos shingles adjacent to the Normandie. 

This halted the fire from progressing north on Ocean Avenue, but didn’t stop the fire from scorching adjoining buildings, the Ocean City News reported. 

“After the flames became such that the smaller fire apparatus was of no use in attempting to extinguish the Boardwalk block, between Ninth and Tenth streets, and the Normandie Hotel, which were a mass of flames, Chief Conover ordered all small chemical and hose trucks to patrol the streets and place under control the small fires, most of which were on the roofs, before they also get beyond control,” the Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger reported. “Many small fires, and some that had gained headway, were put out by the chemical trucks. Among these fires were those of Central Avenue School, the Sterling Restaurant on Asbury Avenue, between Eighth and Ninth streets, Wright’s Restaurant and several dwellings in that section of the city.” 

The trucks raced throughout the city, searching for fires caused by sparks, carried by the winds. 

According to the paper, furniture in the Biscayne Hotel was blistered though the hotel itself did not catch fire.

Plants growing in the Ocean City Green House perished in the heat, though the greenhouse itself escaped damage.

One popular account claimed firemen were aided when the wind changed direction, preventing the fire from spreading.

According to Paul Anselm, electrical forensic fire investigator, former fire marshal, and past president and trustee of the Ocean City Historical Museum, there was no evidence the strong gusts changed. 

“It was never proved,” Anselm said. “It’s one of the things that’s been passed down through the years.”

 

Next week: Injuries and blackened ruins after the Boardwalk fire of October 1927.

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