Summer Reading: New Jersey’s Books and Authors — Disaster!

Part local history and part doomsday scenario, Alan A. Siegel’s Disaster! is a compelling read

While we’re on summer hiatus, recharging our batteries and coming up with new story ideas, we want to make sure that you have plenty to read. That’s why we’ll be posting excerpts every day from New Jersey books and authors. We’ll be back, rested and ready, after Labor Day. Meanwhile . . .

Fires. Steamboat Disasters. Train Wrecks. Shipwrecks. Natural Disasters. Those are the titles to the chapters of Alan A. Siegel’s “Disaster! Stories of Destruction and Death in Nineteenth-Century New Jersey.” By combing through contemporary news accounts, Siegel reconstructs the tragedies to create a compendium that is part local history and part doomsday scenario. “None of these stories end well,” he writes in his introduction. “Still, we cannot but admire the courage of those who experienced firsthand such calamities and survived to tell the tale.” The following excerpt — from the chapter on “Fires” — tells of three devastating fires to hit Cape May City in a 25-year span.

September 5, 1856

Cape May City’s claim as America’s oldest seaside resort dates to 1801, when Ellis Hughes, who owned a tavern and hotel, advertised in the Philadelphia newspapers a night’s lodging for seven cents. “The subscriber has prepared himself for entertaining company who use sea bathing,” proclaimed Hughes, “and he is accommodated with extensive house room, with fish, oysters and crabs and good liquors.” Cape May’s popularity surged when the steamboat General Jackson began making regular weekly runs from Philadelphia to the cape in 1816. An added stop at New Castle, Delaware, opened the resort to passengers from the southern states, firmly establishing Cape May’s reputation as a favorite playground for the wealthy seeking to escape the South’s humid summers.

As the resort’s popularity increased, entrepreneurs lavished thousands of dollars on ever larger wood-frame hotels, many of them enormous, ornate structures that could accommodate hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of guests. Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln were two of the resort’s earliest distinguished visitors. Clay’s two-week stay in 1847 reinforced Cape May’s position as the country’s finest seaside resort. More numerous than the politicians were the planters from Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, who rode their thoroughbred horses on the wide beaches during the day and spent the evenings gambling in the casinos.

Among Cape May’s remarkable hotels, the most remarkable of all was the Mount Vernon, built by a company of Philadelphia investors at Broadway and Beach Avenues at a cost of $125,000. Said to be the largest hotel in the world, the Mount Vernon was simply immense. “Although the hotel . . . was capable of accommodating 2,100 visitors, it was not finished,” reported the New-York Daily Times. “It was designed to . . . occupy three sides of a hollow square, or court yard, and the front range and one wing were up . . . The building was constructed entirely of wood; it was four stories in height in the main, with four towers, each five stories in height. Three of these towers occupied the corners of the building, and one stood midway of the only wing. In addition to these towers there was an immense tower six stories in height in the centre of the front. The entire structure, both outside and upon the court-yard, was surrounded with wooden piazzas that extended from the ground to the roof, with floors at each story.” The wing was five hundred feet in length, and the front extended another three hundred feet. “The dining room, which was 425 feet long and 60 feet wide, was capable of accommodating 3,000 persons. There were 432 rooms in the building . . . [with] stables for fifty horses, carriage houses, ten-pin alleys, etc.” The Mount Vernon, said the paper, was “celebrated . . . for the superior accommodations the building offered its guests. The interior was well-finished, and the apartments were larger and more comfortable than usual at watering place hotels.” Unique among early hostelries, the Mount Vernon boasted a bathroom in each room. The hotel’s luxurious furnishings alone were valued at $94,000.

On the evening of Friday, September 5, 1856, the hotel’s manager, sixty-five-year-old Philip Cain, and his family—sons Philip Jr. and Andrew, teenage daughters Martha and Sarah, and Mrs. Albertson, Cain’s housekeeper—were alone in the hotel, or so they thought. Cain’s wife and several other children were in nearby Vincentown, but the Mount Vernon’s manager, a busy season just behind him, preferred the quiet of his magnificent hotel. No doubt, too, there was much work to be done before the hotel could be closed for the winter.

Shortly before eleven o’clock, after the family had retired for the night, fire broke out in three different places. Unable to escape, and overcome by the dense smoke, manager Cain, his two daughters, one son, and the housekeeper perished in the flames. Son Philip, although badly burned, saved himself by jumping from a second-story window. Within an hour’s time, the Mount Vernon was a complete loss. Its buildings constructed almost entirely of wood, Cape May City was surprisingly unprepared for a fire, even a minor one: There was no fire apparatus of any kind for miles. Only because the Mount Vernon stood at a considerable distance from the resort’s other hotels was the city saved from total ruin.

On the Monday following the fire, New Jersey newspapers reported that the wife of an Irishman who claimed Cain owed him $100 had been arrested and committed to jail on a charge of arson. “It is said that she had the day before, and up to late in [the] evening previous, been heard to utter the most serious threats against Mr. Cain.”

Inexplicably, the loss of the Mount Vernon, and a fire that razed the Mansion House the following year, failed to alert Cape May’s town leaders to the transparent need for a city fire department. Although the newer hotels were now equipped with their own water tanks, fire hoses, and employees trained to detect and fight fires, the resort was a tinderbox in search of a match. The United States Hotel, built in 1850 and one of the largest and best equipped on the island, was the target of so many arson attempts that a vigilante force was established in 1863 to protect both the building and the town.

August 31, 1869

Disaster struck once again on August 31, 1869, the very year that President Ulysses S. Grant vacationed at the United States Hotel. It was 2:30 in the morning when the dreaded flames were first discovered flickering in a two-story building occupied by Peter Boyton, known locally as the Pearl Diver. Packed with flammable material, including Japanese paper kites and lanterns, lacquer boxes, and cotton goods, Boyton’s shop was soon burning fiercely. A handful of would-be firefighters who, acting without direction, broke in windows and knocked down doors unintentionally vented the fire, which then spread relentlessly from one building to the next. The town’s hook and ladder truck arrived, along with the mayor, W. B. Miller, who attempted to bring some order out of confusion, but the uncoordinated efforts of a thousand or more volunteers were no match for the fire, which had now gained an insurmountable headway. Unfortunately for the city, the wind, stirring only lightly when the fire began, now began to blow briskly toward the ocean, carrying sparks and flames to all of the buildings east of the Pearl Diver.

The United States Hotel, sold only the week before to a New York investor for $80,000, stood directly in the path of the fire, protected by a twenty-seven-thousand-gallon water tank and a corps of employees determined to save it. They hung wet blankets over the balconies facing nearby burning buildings and played almost all of their precious water on surrounding structures, but the intense heat and smoke proved too much for the hotel employees. Forced to retreat, they could only look on helplessly as the wooden structure first smoldered and then burst into flame. Wind-driven sparks soon ignited the American House and the New Atlantic Hotel, together with a score of lesser buildings in between. When it became clear that the United States Hotel was doomed, “the guests hurriedly poured out in a great crowd, men, women and children, scarcely clothed, and unnerved by fright,” reported the New York Times. “Each person was burdened with such articles of personal property as he had been able to snatch up in the hurry and terror of the moment; men bore out trunks, and women and children struggled under unwieldy loads of clothing. But there was little time to save property, and hardly more than enough to make sure that no human being should be swallowed up in the hot fire.”

After the United States Hotel caught fire, it was at once clear to everyone that no part of the city was safe. “The town was now thoroughly alarmed and aroused,” continued the Times. “Every hotel, every house, every store was emptied of its inmates, who fled inland with such part of their portable property as they had been able to collect. Nor was the alarm groundless or the haste uncalled for. The flames spread with terrible rapidity.” From the United States Hotel the blaze extended in almost every direction, ultimately devastating one-fourth of the city, consuming in its fury “the heart and beauty of the pleasant town.” Several of Cape May’s finest hotels were saved almost by chance: Congress Hall (where Lincoln once vacationed) was protected by a row of trees that refused to ignite; the LaPierre House escaped the flames when its owners tore up its carpets, dowsed them with water, and spread them on its roof; the Columbia House owed its preservation to the “almost superhuman exertions” of five employees who, wrapped in wet blankets, managed to cling to the rooftops of adjoining buildings, extinguishing every firebrand that threatened devastation.

“The escape of the Columbia House from destruction is looked upon as the most wonderful occurrence of this terrible drama,” said the Times, “and is altogether owing to the clear foresightedness of two or three of its employees in tearing away some smaller out-buildings and in the judicious use of the hotel’s supply of water. The scene from the roof of the Columbia was terrifically sublime. The red flames checked the fall of the frame buildings, and the large clouds of smoke, interspersed with sparks, floated out to sea, and hung like a pall above the surf.” The three steam fire engines from Camden that arrived by special train at noon could do little more than hose down the smoldering ruins. Losses from the fire exceeded $300,000.

Unwilling to acknowledge that the town’s sprawling wooden hotels might themselves be the cause of its troubles, Cape May searched for a culprit, convinced that the fire was of incendiary origin. Peter Boyton, the Pearl Diver, who had himself lost $1,000 in cash in the fire, was hauled before the mayor only to be discharged after a brief hearing that produced no proof that he was the arsonist. “There immediately followed a tremendous burst of applause from all present,” reported the Cape May Ocean Wave, “a large proportion being ladies.” A $1,000 reward offered by the mayor and City Council for the arrest and conviction of the incendiary proved ineffective. Cape May once again began to rebuild; within two years, all evidence of the fire had been erased.

November 9, 1878

A newspaperman writing in the 1870s called Cape May “the favorite watering place of Philadelphia.” It was, he wrote, “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 81 miles from Philadelphia, on a point of land at the most remote portion of the southern extremity of New Jersey. The Town of Cape May is of itself not attractive, and 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 250 acres in extent, and, besides the hotels, is occupied by numerous cottages.” Among the twenty-four hotels, he wrote, the largest were the Stockton, Congress Hall, the Columbia, the Centre, and the Ocean House. “All these buildings were frame, and some of them were imposing in their proportions. . . . The popularity of the place as a resort area arises from the fact that it has an exposure on three sides to the ocean view, and an atmosphere which in summer always affords relief from the heated city. The only drawback comes from a northerly wind, which brings with it not only resinous odors but clouds of mosquitoes.”

The era of Cape May’s grand hotels came to a fiery end on the morning of November 9, 1878, when the resort city’s third major conflagration in little more than twenty years broke out in the attic of the new wing of the Ocean House. Discovered by a policeman at seven in the morning, the fire burned through the day and was not brought under control until six in the evening, after it had laid waste forty acres of buildings. Burning over much of the same area destroyed in the 1869 blaze, the fire caused nearly $700,000 in damage, leveling the Ocean House; Congress Hall, one of the resort’s finest hotels with accommodations for 1,200; the Atlantic, rebuilt on the site of its predecessor destroyed nine years earlier; and the Columbia House, one of the oldest on the island with rooms for 600. Of the resort’s major hotels, only the Stockton, built at a cost of $600,000, survived, although it too was damaged by flames that came within feet of its magnificent porches.