The tale of an 85-year-old Boardwalk blaze that stretched for blocks in the seaside resort.
Change can come incrementally or instantaneously. In the space of four hours on Oct. 11, 1927, Ocean City was forever transformed by an inferno that roared along the Boardwalk and through nearby neighborhoods.
For one evening, fire was truly a four-letter word for those who fled the path of its destruction and for the firefighters who tried to douse the flames.
The Atlantic City Daily Press called it a “night of horror” and summed up the story with an eight-column headline that stretched over two lines on the front page of its Oct. 12 edition:
BLAZE SWEEPS OVER FIVE BLOCKS OF OCEAN CITY, BURNS 3 THEATRES, 4 HOTELS AND SCORES OF STORES
Left unmentioned in the story was this irony: The blaze erupted during Fire Prevention Week, which was being observed from Oct. 9-15.
Initial reports indicated the fire was started by crossed wires in a building on the Boardwalk at 9th Street. An alternate theory had the blaze beginning around the Hippodrome Pier.
“No definitive cause was ever established,” said Paul Anselm, a forensic fire investigator and Ocean City historian who has studied and lectured on the blaze.
The fire began shortly after 7pm and moved along the Boardwalk, aided by a strong breeze off the Atlantic Ocean. “Both sides of the Boardwalk between 9th and 10th streets were destroyed,” Anselm said.
The blaze would travel off the Boardwalk to parts of Atlantic, Ocean and Wesley avenues, Moorlyn Terrace and 10th Street before it was finally contained.
The flames spread to a Boardwalk garage and the Dodge Motor Agency. In the latter, four gasoline tanks exploded. The blast’s impact reverberated through the city, propelling burning embers and sparks hundreds of feet into the air, according to a newspaper report.
It was a scene that would be repeated as the fire traveled through residential areas.
The fire’s enormity created unforgettable memories. One observer commented that it seemed as if the ocean were on fire. The flames were visible from up to 25 miles away.
The toll of the blaze on city businesses was extensive. The Normandie, Biscayne and Traymore hotels were destroyed. Since it was the offseason, the three buildings were not occupied. A fourth hotel, the Strand, also was destroyed and its few residents escaped.
Other businesses that were lost included the Hippodrome Pier, noted for its vaudeville shows; Shriver’s fudge and ice cream shop; Litterer’s Orangeade; the Strand and Colonial theaters; New York Book Shop; and Seaside Baths. More than two dozen homes also were destroyed.
Because of the widespread nature of the blaze, Ocean City put out a call for help from other fire departments across South Jersey. Firefighters from Atlantic City, Pleasantville, Somers Point, Northfield, Hammonton and Sea Isle City were among those to respond. A pair of state troopers on motorcycles escorted firefighters from Camden to the scene.
Efforts to extinguish the fire initially were hampered by low water pressure, caused in part by residents using hoses to keep the flames away from their homes. The additional manpower allowed the blaze to be declared under control around 11pm, but work continued into the next day to make sure the fire did not reignite.
The blaze took its toll on the firefighters, injuring nearly 20 men. One firefighter from Ocean City died when his car skidded off the road while responding to the scene.
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