Atlantic City, NJ fire, Aug 1915

$200,000 FIRE WIPES OUT BIG BLOCK ON ATLANTIC BOARDWALK

Fully 100,000 Visitors Watched as Flames Raged From Building to Building - Gaping Space Between North Carolina and Pennsylvania Aves.

From a Staff Correspondent.

ATLANTIC CITY, N. J., Aug. 20. - One of the most spectacular fires in the history of this resort, which for more than an hour threatened to reach the disastrous proportions of the conflagration of 1902, wiped out an entire block of store, office and restaurant property along the Boardwalk today, entailing a loss which probably will run close to $200,000, endangering several of the large hotels in the vicinity, and leaving that section flanking the great esplanade between North Carolina and Pennsylvania avenues a gaping space of charred and shattered timbers.

Fully 100,000 visitors watched the blaze as it raged from building to building in the two-story row in which it originated, and the vast crowd was given many thrills as, almost from moment to moment, it seemed certain that it would get beyond control and destroy millions of dollars' worth of property in its fiery wake across the island.

Steeplechase Pier Ablaze

At one time the Steeplechase Pier, within sixty feet of the hottest section of the fire, was ablaze, and several times it looked as though Haddon Hall, the Strand and the Seaside, all of them among Atlantic City's biggest hostelries, were doomed to destruction. The one real advantage that the firemen had - and it was largely responsible for the success of their work - was the fact that the wind was blowing but lightly, and twice the direction of the breeze changed just when it seemed that it would carry the flames to other large properties.

That no fatalities, or even serious injuries, were recorded, especially in view of the immense throngs that practically surrounded the entire fire area, watching the course of the blaze from every point of vantage, was attributed to the heroic efforts of the firemen, police and the whole lifeguard corps, the latter being called as a reserve force when the police found themselves unable to hold back the army of curious alone.

The fire was discovered at twenty minutes after noon, when several thousand persons were bathing, and it was estimated that fully 5000 of theswe saw the conflagration while immersed in the ocean up to their necks. And even at that distance the heat was so intense that they were compelled to dive frequently to keep from getting scorched.

Hampered by Vast Throngs

Three alarms brought every fireman and piece of apparatus in Atlantic City to fight the fire, but at one time the surrounding crowds became so large and so bold that even the firemen temporarily were taken from their fire-fighting duties to aid the police in forcing back the onlookers to a point where they would be out of danger and would not interfere with the work of the firemen.

The heaviest individual loss falls upon Mayor William Riddle, who was a large proeprty holder in the section destroyed. Next to him, when the damages are finally totaled, probably will come Louis Kuehnle, hotel proprietor, real estate operator and former political dictator of Atlantic City.

At 1:30 o'clock, after the flames had raged back and forth for one hour, the fire was announced under control, but it was late in the afternoon before it was finally extinguished and all danger from another outburst had been conquered. Tonight the site is still the Mecca of thousands, who, in something of a spirit of awe, look in silence, or with brief comments, upon the devastated space where this morning a flourishing business was being carried on in the entire block of properties.

Loss May Reach $200,000

Tonight Mayor Riddle placed his personal loss at $65,000 on the buildings, with only $12,000 insurance. The losses on stocks in the various stores and offices he placed at between $100,000 and $125,000, and the equipment in these, he said, would probably send the total up another $25,000. His own loss, he added, would be materially reduced by the $70,000 insurance carried upon the rentals of the buildings burned. Kuehnle had a one-third interest in the block.

The stores destroyed, all of which fronted on the Boardwalk, were: Vanault's, a toy shop; that of Kee Lun Company, importers; the Porto Rico Shop, Dietrich's photographic studio, A. Valleria, lace shop; Samuel Wachter's cigar stand, A. Rothchild, jewelry, and Huyler's candy store. On the second floors were the Harriman brokerage offices and the American Chop Suey Restaurant.

It was this latter place that nearly trapped four diners in dense walls of smoke and flame. Their escape, effected through a trap door and over the roofs, was only finally accomplished by means of a long rope, down which they slid through a choking cloud of smoke, while the onlooking thousands gasped believing the four had fallen back into the fire.

Chief, Ill, is Overcome

Half an hour after he had assumed direction of the big fire-fighting force, Chief William Black, who only recently recovered from a long illness, was overcome by weakness and excitement, and, realizing the seriousness at hand, and his own temporary inability to handle it, gave way to Assistant Chief Cluin and was sent to his home. The transfer of authority, occurring at one of the most critical stages of the blaze, was one of the most dramatic moments of the whole spectacular affair.

Thus far inquiry has failed to fix responsiblity for the fire, which, under more adverse circumstances, might have wiped out a large part of this seashore resort. It was just 12:20 o'clock when two employes on the Steeplechase Pier saw a thin spiral of smoke curling upward from the rear of the Deitrich studio. They had heard no previous detonation to give weight to the theory advanced that the flames had been caused by an explosion of chemicals.

Every effort is made to get fire apparatus on the scene in the shortest possible time after an alarm from that section of Atlantic City, but before the first engine arrived, the flames had burst through the roof and the walls of the studio building, which is 1113 Boardwalk, spreading hungrily on the one side to 1111, and a moment later, eating into the structure, 1115-17-19 Boardwalk.

A strong ocean breeze, which it was feared might at any time spring up, inevitably would have changed the path of the flames so as to have taken in Haddon Hall, the Seaside and the Strand, and it was the realization of this, and the headway the fire already had gained, that impelled Chief Black immediately to sound two more alarms, bringing every available man and piece of apparatus.

Keeping the Flames Confined

Accompanying the latter was A. E. Emerch, Chief of the Baltimore Fire Department, and the latter aided in directing the fight, first to keep the flames confined to the block in which they originated, and secondly, to extinguish them there as rapidly as possible, before a change in the wind which would make the task doubly hard, perhaps impossible.

As the firemen got into action the throngs in the water and on the beach and Boardwalk began to congregate, pushing far into the danger zone. The falling of one of the retaining walls, caused a roof to collapse, and it in turn carried down with it a tremendous electric advertising sign. A shower of sparks was sent a hundred feet into the air, scattering in all directions, large embers being carried to the roofs of many of the big hotels within a radius of a block.

The crowds were sent scurrying in every direction, and it was then that thousands of them took safety, both from the police and the flames, by wading far into the surf.

It was this same shower of sparks and a slight veering of the wind which first scorched and then set fire to the Steeplechase Pier. It was extinguished with some difficulty, and thereafter a constant stream of water was played upon the pier and the nearest hotels to prevent them from igniting.

When the 30-foot electric sign suddenly went hurling downward, crashing through the roof, Captain Allen Darby, of Engine Company No. 7, was directing his men from a perilous perch on a beam. The timber was snapped off as though it had been nothing more than a brittle twig, and the thousands of persons who saw Darby suddenly disappear gasped at the apparent tragedy, several women screaming in their fright.

Save Fireman From Death

Darby had fallen into the building, but presence of mind and quick and heroic work upon the part of half a dozen men working under his direction saved his life. They formed a human chain and, reaching into the fiery depth from the top of the wavering wall, grasped the fire captain and dragged him out to safety. In five minutes he had so far recovered as to resume command of his company.

Hardly had the throngs of spectators subsided after this thrilling incident than four men, one by one, drew themselves up through a trap door from the Chinese restaurant to the roof. In an instant a rolling cloud of smoke hid them from view but their appearance was cause for shouts and cries to attract the attention of firemen, for it had been thought that everyone was out of the burning buildings.

The men dashed across the tops of the burning structures to the far end. From the towering roof of the Strand a stout rope was dropped within their reach, and, as the police with difficulty held back the excited onlookers, the men slid to safety and dropped, semi-conscious, where they landed. Mayor Riddle personally aided in getting them into the hotel, where they were restored to consciousness.

They said that they were eating when the fire started and thought it wa some distance away. When the corwds gathered they heard the fire captains shouting their orders they attempted to get out, but escape by the stairway had been cut off by fire and smoke. They had appeared at the windows, but the heavy pall of smoke hid them from the view of those outside. It was then that they discovered the trap-door and made that their means of escape.

In the Hotel Section

At the Strand every windowfacing the roaring flames was occupied by anxious men and women, ready at a moment's notice to remove their belongings to a place of safety if the fire communicated with that big caravansary. The intense heat almost constantly sent up great gusts of whirling embers and some of these were carried to Haddon Hall, about half a block away. On the roof there, as well as other nearby hotels, however, hastily formed fire bridgades of employes either beat them out or played streams of water on the sparks before they could ignite the structures.

It is at the Strand that David H. Lane, chairman of the Republican City Committee of Philadelphia, summers, and it is there that many important political conferences are held, espcially recently, when the potential Republicans of the Quaker City have been trying to settle upon a harmony candidate for the Mayoralty.

During the course of the fire an explosion in the photographic studio where the fire originated sent fantastic tongues of flame high into the air, and the burning chemical fluids created such an intense heat that the firemen were compelled to retire for a greater distance until the chemicals had been consumed.

A woman employed as a cook in the Quaker Inn, one of the restaurants in the destroyed block, was trapped on an upper floor, but was led safely down a ladder by firemen. When she reached the Boardwalk she fainted from fright and excitement, but within a short time was able to leave without assistance.

Joseph Horrocks, employed by the Atlantic City Gas Company, was struck by the whirling nozzle of a hose and knocked unconscious. He was the only person sent to a hospital as the result of the fire, and he soon was discharged.

Mayor Riddle tonight declared that the efficiency of the Fire Department was demonstrated in the short time they occupied in stamping out the fire. Two hours after the firemen attacked the blaze it was subdued. the fire was in the heart of the congested section of the resort.

Immediate plans for the erection of new buildings, frequired by the building rules to be fireproof, will be undertaken. Harriman Company, stock exchange brokers, who found themselves without a home, are arranging to open temporary offices tomorrow. The burt area tonight was surrounded by a curious crowd. The embers are still smoking, and guards are on duty to prevent their breaking out in flames.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia, PA, 21 Aug 1915