Cape May, NJ Fire, Nov 1878

Telegraphic News.

[Special Dispatch to the Baltimore Sun.]
The Great Fire At Cape May.

More Than Half of the Famous Seaside Resort in Ashes-Ten Hotels and Twenty Cottages Destroyed-Supposed Incendiary Origin of the Fire-Loss Over $400,000.

Cape May, N.J., Nov. 10.-The most disastrous fire that has ever visited any seaside resort yesterday laid more than one-half of the principal part of Cape May in ashes. The flames, fanned by a northwest gale, swept through the central portion of the city, and as all of the buildings, from the stateliest to the humblest, are of wood, and the various squares divided by narrow streets, they fell an easy prey. The burned district embraces nearly forty acres of spacious buildings, including ten hotels and nineteen or twenty cottages, representing a total value of over $400,000, and this crisp autumnal morning the black, unshapely ruins mar sadly enough all the associations of last season’s [illegible] and pleasures. The hotels in the order of their destruction are as follows: The Ocean House, Congress Hall, Centre House, Merchant’s Hotel, Centennial House, Atlantic House, Knickerbocker House, Avenue House, Wyoming House and Columbia House. On these and the smaller structures which shared their fate the insurance cover about half the loss.

How The Fire Started.
The fire originated in the Ocean House, and although nothing definitely is known as to its cause, it is believed from the fact that the hotel was unoccupied that it had an incendiary origin. Its discovery was accidental. About seven o’clock yesterday morning an employee of the Stockton House (also [illegible]) saw from the roof of the building smoke issuing from the attic of the Perry Street wing of the Ocean House, and gave the alarm. It was a useless alarm. Cape May, though a city of tinder boxes, and liable to be touched off upon the slightest occasions, had only one small fire engine, a truck and a few chemical extinguishers with which to fight a conflagration. With these make-shifts all was done that could be, and buckets of water were passed up from the ocean’s edge by a long line of citizens, with all the zeal and determination their energy was capable of, but to practically little or no purpose. The dry frame structures were devoured by the flames one after the other with scarcely a halt in their progress. Before the Ocean House had been half contained the fire had crossed Perry Street, and was creeping up the sea sing of Congress Hall. From the start it was beyond control, and burned fiercely [illegible] on one side it died out on the beach , and on the other was conquered by the Camden firemen with their apparatus, who arrived about noon in response to the summons for aid. Had the letter been at hand when it first attacked Congress Hall the conflagration might have been stayed there, but after Congress Hall was destroyed the wind changed due west. The dire then invaded the Centre House, on Washington Street, in the rear, after which it swept on before the wind, which drove the blazing cinders directly towards the old Columbia House, carrying everything before it. Yet it was two o’clock-seven hours after the discovery of the fire-before the latter building was reached, each full and hearty food the flames found in the intervening houses. At times the spectacle was superb. Along these famous piazzas of Congress Hall, the fire swept at faster pace than ever last summer’s gay promenaders, creeping up pillar after pillar, encircling each with a bright envelope of flame. When the conflagration, having devastated Jackson Street below Congress Hall and fed greedily on the cottages on either hand, began to lay siege to the Columbia, the scene was one long to be remembered.

By the time the engine had arrived from Camden, but it was evident at a glance that the building was doomed, and the firemen directed their efforts to other quarters. It was now only a question of saving the Stockton House, the destruction of which would have added so largely to the calamity. Fortunately that escaped, several times the flying cinders endangered it, but a good tin roof and the watchfulness of the citizens saved it. A company of firemen from Vineland were also present, and towards dusk company from Philadelphia arrived and aided in preventing the spread of the fire from the dying embers. All of the Stockton bath houses, about 1,000 in number, were burned, as were those of the Columbia, but that loss is of course comparatively [illegible]. Following the Columbia three cottages, the Beaver and Thos. E. [illegible] in Ocean street, and Col. T.N. Smoot’s, on Washington, were consumed, and the two in Stockton Row caught fire, but here the firemen drove the enemy back, and at the Wolf Cottage, but six hundred feet away from the Stockton, got entire control, so that by sundown all further danger had passed, and nothing remained but to extinguish the already dying embers to the burnt district.

Fortunately there was no loss of life during the conflagration, though there were some narrow escapes, and several persons were scorched and otherwise slightly injured in saving property and fighting the fire. The firemen worked under great disadvantages, but they accomplished much more than the situation and the circumstances accomplished much more than the situation and the circumstances led many to even hope for. Those from Camden, Philadelphia and Vineland returned hone to-night.

The Scene Of The Fire.

Cape May, now visited for a second time by a disastrous conflagration, is a town with a population of about 3,000, which is increased to nearly 6,000 by the transient visitors of a summer season. The town is eighty-one miles from Philadelphia, on a point of sand at the most remote portion of the southern extremity of New Jersey. The towns of Cape May is of itself not remarkable. The fashionable hotels are all built on what was formerly Cape Island, once separated from the mainland by a small creek that has been filled. Cape Island is about 230 acres in extent, and, besides the hotels, it is occupied by numerous cottages. Among the hotels the most conspicuous were the Stockton, Congress Hall, Columbia and smaller houses about twenty-four in number, among which are the Ocean and Centre Hotels. All these buildings were frame, and some of them were imposing in their proportions. The Stockton House is owned by the West Jersey Railroad Company. The popularity of the places as a resort arises from the fact that it has an exposure on three sides to the ocean, an uninterrupted ocean view, and an atmosphere which in summer always affords relief from the heated city. The town itself has provided a system of water works on the Holly Plan, but it is its fire department, as already indicated, was wretchedly inadequate. The fire burned stubbornly from seven o’clock in the morning until between five and six o’clock in the evening, and was checked at Wolf’s cottage. The water supply was good, and was furnished by artesian wells. At 11 o’clock last night two steam engines were playing on the ruins. On August 31, 1869 this place was swept by a fire scarcely less destructive than that of to-day-the old Atlantic Hotel, the Greenwood and many other smaller places being totally destroyed. The site of the fire in 1869 was partially the same as that of yesterday.

The Losses

The losses so far as can be ascertained to-day, are as follows: Congress Hall, $100,000; Green House, $45,000; Centre House, $35,000; Columbia House, $75,000; Atlantic Hotel, $20,000; Merchant’s Hotel, $15,000; Wyoming Cottage, $16,000; Cahill’s Cottage, $5,000; Fryer’s Cottage, $10,000; Avenue House, $5,500; King’s bathhouses, $40,000; Hamberg’s Cottage, $3,300; Randolph’s Cottage, $4,000; Mcconnell’s Cottage, $2,000; Kalckerbocker Hotel, $1,500; Barrett’s Saloons, $4,500; Danezat’s Cottage and bathhouse, $8,000; Stockton Hotel Bath-houses, $5,000; Centennial Cottage, $5,000; Fenton’s Cottage, $1,000; Peterson’s Cottage, $4,000; Wolf’s Cottage, $45,000, Beaver Cottage, $3,000; Tasker’s Cottage, $4,500; Smoot’s Cottage, $4,500; Miller’s Cottage, $3,000. Total, $482,000.

Latest Reports And Features Of The Situation.

A.U. investigators confirm the belief that the fire was incendiary. One eye-witness stated that shavings [illegible] with coal oil were found in the attic story of the Ocean House immediately after the alarm had been given and similar rumors from other sources. It is probable that the city council will be called together to-morrow and institute a searching inquiry. The council is held by public sentiment to be really responsible for the conflagration. Water was abundant, but the only engine, an old hand-machine purchased for [illegible] two years ago which required eighteen men, with relays every ten minutes, to work it, was worthless, while the hose was rotten and constantly breaking. One steam fire engine could have extinguished the flames any time before they reached the Centre House. But a short time ago the council refused, by a vote of six to three to buy new apparatus.

The course of the flames was very terrific. After driving down the one wing of the Ocean House before the wind they turned about [illegible] the street to Congress Hall and [illegible] to and in the very face of the gale. Similar flames were displayed elsewhere and flying sparks far in advance of its natural course. Its slow progress, lasting nearly twelve hours, was due to the fact that in many cases the buildings caught on the roof and burned downward in comparative isolation. It was this that enabled the Camden engines when they arrived to check the fire almost at the steps of the Stockton.

Standing on Congress Street one can look straight away over the steaming ashes to Ocean Street, five squares distant, with nothing to break the view save here and there a solitary chimney. But many [illegible] hotels remain. The following escaped entirely: The Stockton, National, St. Elmo, Sea Breeze, United States, Chaifont, Arlington, Clarendon, Cape May house, Artic, Baltimore House, with other, making seventeen in all, with a capacity of over two thousand guests, besides numerous cottages.

There is little doubt that the burnt quarter will be nearly all rebuilt with a finer class of buildings, especially Congress Hall, the Ocean, Centre, Atlantic and Columbia Houses. The largest individual owner in the district sets the total loss at $700,000, and insurance at $350,000, but insurance men think the loss not over $500,000.

The city has been thronged with visitors all day, two special trains bringing down from Philadelphia about five hundred people.

The Principal Hotels Burned.

Congress Hall was one of the largest summer resort hotels on the continent. The first Congress Hall was erected in 1708. In 1858 Waters B. Miller erected the new portion known as the dining room extension. In 18[illegible]8 J.F. Cake, as the agent of his wife, purchased the property of Mr. Miller for the sum of $120,000, erecting in the following year the L running towards the beach. At this time the old buildings, formerly occupied as an office and billiard room, were torn down and replaced by a new structure of the same height, from the dining-room out to and along Perry Street, a distance of about 365 feet. The completed building presented an unbroken piazza on the ocean front of over 700feet in length. In 1876 Mr. Cake was forced by financial difficulties to suspend payment, his liabilities reaching $887,000, and the structure was sold at sheriff’s sale on May 29 of this year. Richard J. Dobbins leased the hotel to Messrs. J.B. Kingsley & Co., of the Continental Hotel, Philadelphia, and by them the recent reason at the famous hotel was conducted.

The Ocean House, which fronted upon Jackson Street, was 800 feet in length and three stories and a half in height. The accommodations were for four hundred guests. Adjoining the hotel in the rear and running towards the beach, were three sections of bath houses belonging to the hotel, containing seventy-eight bath-rooms. At the beginning of the last season the hotel was refurnished throughout with an outlay of $20,000. The hotel was owned by Samuel R. Ludlow, to whom it was recently sold by the Farr brothers, of Philadelphia, and other partners in ownership. There was a mortgage on the building of $31,500, which was held by these latter gentlemen.

The Columbia House formed two sides of a square, each wing about 180 feet long, with the offices at this angle. The accommodations were for about six-hundred guests. The Columbia had just been reroofed, and extensive improvements and alterations made at considerable expense. At the end of the lawn are situated the bath houses of the hotel, sixty in number, and midway between the hotel and ocean drive are two cottages, each three stories in height, all of which were destroyed. The building was owned by John C. Bullitt, of Philadelphia, and was leased during the seasons of 1877 and 1878 by Geo. E. Ward.

The Merchant’s Hotel, a three-story building, small in comparison with some of the other buildings, was located just north of the Ocean House and between the Centre and Atlantic, on the same side of the street with the last two.

The Atlantic Hotel was owned by Edward C. Knight, and was managed by John Mcmekin and Levi Johnson. It had a capacity for over two hundred and fifty guests and was four stories high. It was erected after the fire of 1862.

The Centre House was a large frame building, three stories in height, running about 175 feet on Jackson Street and 70 feet on Perry Street. It was the property of Mr. Jeremiah Mccren. Its accommodations were for 400 guests.

The Sun, Baltimore, MD 11 Nov 1878

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Thanks for the article. Someone should copy this information to the list of Great Fires of the world on Wikipedia. Unbelievable how much fire has destroyed in the 400 last years.