Fire broke out the morning of November 8, 1878 in the summer city of Cape May around 7 a.m. in the attic of the new wing at Ocean House on Perry Street. By the time the flames could be contained, some 11 hours later, 40 acres of prime property lay in a pile of charred ruins. Arson was suspected. No one was injured.
A workman on the roof of the Stockton Hotel spotted the fire, but it was Civil War hero Colonel Henry Sawyer who sounded the fire alarm.
Northwesterly winds blowing at 35 mph reaching gusts of up to 50 mph caused the fire to crisscross Perry Street north to Washington Street . Flames then shot over to Jackson Street spreading south to Beach Avenue, turning back up Decatur to Washington again. The flames moved east toward Ocean and Gurney where firemen, with the help of fire engines sent from Camden, finally contained the inferno at approximately 6 p.m.
The path of the fire systematically brought about the destruction of some of Cape May’s finest hotels. Shortly after the fire ignited in the Ocean House, Congress Hall – on “Whiskey Row” – also caught fire which consumed the new wing fronting Perry Street. Soon after, the main wing of the hotel facing Washington Street was also engulfed in flames.
Simultaneously, more flames shot to the back of Merchant’s House on Jackson Street. The Merchant consisted of two, three-story buildings, situated midway between the Atlantic Hotel and Centre House on Jackson Street, immediately adjoining the Ocean House property.
Winds then carried the fire down to the beach. By 10:30 a.m., the conflagration destroyed several cottages along Jackson Street, as well as Centennial House and the old Atlantic House.
Cape May Fire Chief Colonial Edward Lansing admits the city is ill-equipped to handle a blaze of this magnitude. The current fire department consists of a truck, one hand-engine, and a number of chemical engines. Col. Lansing’s request for funds to purchase new equipment were denied earlier this year by City Council because of budget constraints.
The main problem, he said, was lack of water. Although a valiant effort, the bucket brigade stretching from the ocean to Ocean Hotel, some 300 feet, was insufficient in stopping the spread of this devastating fire.
Mayor Thomas Edmunds sent a telegram to the Camden Fire Department for aid and around 12 noon, with the fire at its height, and after the Avenue House had caught fire, a steam engine from Camden arrived by special train. The fire was then checked at Perry and Jackson but continued to spread toward Decatur where Judge Hamburger’s cottage was destroyed. Three of W. E. King’s cottages were also destroyed.
Around 2 p.m. the alarm came that Columbia House, on Ocean Street which runs from Beach Avenue to Hughes Street, was on fire. The Columbia House, with a dining room accommodating 800 people, burnt to the ground within ten minutes. Several cottages along this stretch were destroyed along with Columbia House bath house and 150 other bath houses belonging to the Stockton Hotel.
Some of the cinders from the fire lodged on the roof of Stockton Hotel but no damages resulted. The last building to be destroyed by the fire was Wolf Cottage, two hundred yards away from Stockton Hotel.
At 2:30 p.m. the fire still rampaging, General Sewell of the West Jersey Railroad ordered the tracks be cleared for a special train to take down two more engines from Camden. In one hour and 20 minutes the firemen were at the terminus of the road. Forty-five minutes later, a train with six cars filled with passengers left Camden bound for Cape Island.
The passenger list consisted of lawyers, realtors, politicians, hotel keepers, cottagers, and newspaper men from Philadelphia and New York.
Many made jokes about the novelty of the impromptu excursion; the fun of going to the seashore in overcoats and of a promenade on the newly-illuminated beach. These victims of the fire who had lost their cottages, were generally in good humor, and said that they intended to put up for the night either at Congress Hall or the Columbia.(which of course were burned out of existence by the time they got to Cape May).
At 4:30 p.m. a second fire engine arrived from Camden. At 6 p.m. firefighters were finally able to check the flames and contain the fire at Gurney Street where the Stockton Hotel still stood. The houses on Columbia Avenue escaped the fiery fate of their neighbors.
Col. Lansing said the last train from Philadelphia arrived at the station at 6:30 p.m. and contained the passengers from Philadelphia whom, he said, seemed disappointed to see only smoke and ruined embers. They were expecting to witness this great conflagration of flames shooting up against a reddened sky.
Camden fire engines, he said, were used throughout the night to hose down all the buildings so the fire would not again erupt.
Col. Lansing said the fire was evidently the work of an incendiary, as there had been no fire in the Ocean House since the close of the summer season and Ocean House had not been occupied for several days.
The current proprietor of Ocean House, S. R. Ludlam, was last seen boarding a train for Philadelphia fifteen minutes before the fire erupted. Authorities are looking for Ludlam in connection with circumstances leading up to the conflagration.
The entire burnt district covers an area of about forty acres, and is situated between Congress on the west, Washington on the north, Ocean Street on the east, and the beach on the south. The total loss is estimated at about $400,000, of which more than half is covered by insurance on the property and furniture.
Lost in the fire were the following commercial properties:
Congress Hall, owned by a stock company; loss $100,000.
Ocean House, $45,000; insured for $33,000. Ocean House was one of the oldest “caravansaries” on the island. (Caravansary is a kind of inn with a large central court, where caravans stop for the night) Built in 1856, it accommodated up to 400 guests.
Centre House, owned by J.E. Mecray; loss $35,000. Centre House could hold up to 400 guests and was three stories high.
Columbia House, owned by John C. Bullitt; $60,000; insured for $55,000.
Atlantic House, owned by E.C. Knight; loss $20,000. The Atlantic had a capacity for over 250 guests, and was four stories high. It was erected after the fire of 1869.
Merchant’s Hotel, owned by William Mason; loss, $15,000. Merchant’s Hotel was north of Ocean House and could hold 100 people.
Postscript: Mr. Ludlam was arrested and brought back to Cape May for trial. He was, however, found innocent of the charges of arson. The jury believed the evidence brought forth by the prosecution was circumstantial and insufficient to bring about a conviction.
Col. Lansing was ultimately blamed for the fire. Cape May people expressed bitter
complaints about the defective hose with which the city was supplied. The hose ran about 2,000 feet and burst every few minutes, finally collapsing altogether. It is believed that if the city had a good hose, the fire could have been contained within a couple of hours. City Council is looking to set aside funds for new fire equipment and will discuss it at the next council meeting in two weeks.
NOTE: Council readily approved the funding for new equipment at its next meeting. In a town whose sustenance relies on tourism, there was a frenzy of rebuilding in Cape May and the next summer has one of its best seasons ever.
CapeMay.com extends grateful credit for the facts and in some cases the wording of the great fire report to the Greater Cape May County Historical Society. The original account of the 1878 fire in the Historical Society’s report was first published in a Philadelphia newspaper on Nov. 9, 1878.
Also thanks to facts and details supplied by Col. Lansing (aka John Alvarez who portrays the besieged fire chief in the tour conducted by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts – MAC titled “Cape May On Fire.”)
And a final thanks for information and the map published in “The Summer City By The Sea” by author Emil R. Salvini. Color postcards are courtesy of Don Pocher.