CAPE MAY — Coastal storms have left their mark on this seaside town, but fire has shaped it.
Fire, according to a new exhibit titled “Cape May Ablaze,” has made Cape May what it is today. That is the premise behind the free exhibit at the Emlen Physick Estate on Washington Street. The exhibit is open daily until October.
The exhibit uses old photographs, maps, newspaper articles, early firefighting gear and other historical artifacts to tell the story.
It documents numerous fires over the years, beginning with the Sept. 8, 1856, conflagration that killed six people and destroyed the largest hotel in the world at that time, the Mount Vernon, right up to the Jan 25, 2014, fire at the Bedford Inn, where firefighters extinguished the blaze before it could spread to other buildings.
In between those two were the huge fires of 1969 and the granddaddy of them all, the 1878 fire that leveled almost 40 acres in the center of town.
“I’d like people to take away the notion of Cape May being a survivor,” said exhibit curator Ben Miller. “No matter what happens, the hurricane of 1944, the northeaster of 1962, the fires of 1869 and 1878, Cape May comes back and it comes back stronger.”
The exhibit, sponsored by Sturdy Savings Bank and presented by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities, shows how lessons were learned.
The 1878 fire convinced the city to buy the most modern firefighting equipment of the day, steam-powered and horse-drawn. The city’s equipment in the 1878 fire failed, including fire hoses in such bad shape they burst when the water was turned on. Camden firemen and firefighting apparatuses had to be brought in by train to battle the blaze.
Miller, a former volunteer firefighter in Pennsylvania, documents numerous fires since 1878 that could have burned the city down without a top-notch firefighting response.
“Cape May comes back stronger. It rebuilds. It takes lessons from it. I want people to walk through with a sense of emotion for the losses and being grateful for what’s still here.”
Miller uncovered some interesting facts along the way that most people did not know. It was known that the Mount Vernon Hotel fire was arson and six people died. He found out two of the bodies had gunshot wounds and the safe was emptied.
“It was murder. I found that by pure luck. I was reading an article and found someone was charged with the murder,” Miller said.
Miller, author of a book about Cape May called “The First Resort,” found hotels built as early as the 1790s going up in flames. Congress Hall, one of the oldest hotels in town, is actually the fourth hotel at that site, he noted.
The exhibit uses what Miller calls “ghost pictures” to superimpose where the old hotels would be on today’s streets. Some took up an entire city block. Many of the pictures have QR codes so people with smartphones can get more information.
“People can learn more if they want to. It’s an interesting but also a very emotional part of Cape May’s history,” MAC spokeswoman Susan Krysiak said.
The exhibit is dedicated to the last local firefighter to die in the line of duty. Lt. Andy Boyt died after a fire call in 2011.
Many of the fires over the years were the work of an arsonist, from the Mount Vernon to the Windsor Hotel fire of 1979. The exhibit shows strong winds in this coastal town often play a role. The combustible construction of the large balloon-frame buildings were another factor.
It shows how neighboring companies such as West Cape May, Cape May Point and the U.S Coast Guard also respond to alarms here.
The fires did not just take hotels. They destroyed businesses and private homes. They often remade the city. The 1878 fire destroyed Colonial buildings, and the rebuilding used the modern Victorian architecture of the day, creating the buildings the city is now famous for.
If the fire never occurred, would those old Colonials have survived to this day, or would they have been torn down years ago for urban renewal or to construct buildings more modern than the Victorians?
“It’s difficult to think these old Colonials would have remained, particularly the big hotels,” said Miller. “That’s why we have this beautiful Victorian city, because fire destroyed what was there before.”
The centerpiece of the exhibit is a 1924 Ford Boyer Model TT fire truck. It also documents an evolution of firefighting apparatuses, resulting in the modern equipment the Cape May Fire Department has today. The exhibit shows how the number of blasts from an air horn would tell the firefighters what part of town was burning to quicken the response.
Such equipment wasn’t around in the 19th century when large wooden hotels, often illuminated by oil or gas lamps, dominated the city.
The four-story United States Hotel, which took up an entire city block, burned to the ground in just 15 minutes on Aug. 31, 1869. The fire also took the New Atlantic Hotel, but Miller noted the Old Atlantic Hotel, built in the 1790s, somehow survived. It perished in the 1878 blaze sparked by an unknown arsonist.
There have been many fires since, but better firefighting kept damage to a minimum. In 1889, the New Columbia Hotel, which spanned a city block from Jackson to Perry streets, burned down. In 1903, the Marine Villa burned, and in 1918 The Fun Factory amusement park was leveled.
Fires continued into the modern era with the 1960 Green Mill fire and in 1964 the Sylvania Hotel and a 1976 fire that destroyed four buildings on the Washington Street Mall.
Colonial Cape May, Miller noted, was worried about coastal storms and blizzards but was “wholly unprepared” for fire. As the city evolved as a tourist mecca, so did firefighting.
“Since 1878, they’ve had fires that could have caused similar damage, but they were stopped. Cape May owes such a debt of gratitude because the city as we know it wouldn’t exist today,” Miller said.
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