Splashback

1960: The Majestic Baldwin, Gone in Smoke

The Beachcomber
By MARGARET THOMAS BUCHHOLZ | Sep 08, 2013
Source: Island Album/ Down The Shore Publishing August 1947: A careless smoker caused a fire that ruined 37 rooms in the Baldwin’s northeast wing, but the Beach Haven Fire Company saved the hotel. It reopened a few days later.

In August 1947, fire destroyed one wing of Beach Haven’s Baldwin Hotel, facing the ocean between Pearl and Marine streets since 1883. Beryl Yocum kept a diary during the years she and her husband, Charlie, owned the old structure. By chance, she was visiting Beach Haven in the fall of 1960, seven years after they sold it. The Baldwin was a tinderbox, and fear of fire had always been a constant. Charlie had posted this smoking warning in his guest bulletins every season:

Cigarettes, Cigars, Smoking in General - Please be careful and that’s putting it mildly. There are ample containers for butts. It is hard to imagine the kind of a mind a person has who will toss a butt out of a window, and I don’t mean maybe.

The Yocums were big supporters of the volunteer fire company. This item is from an August 11, 1950 bulletin:

The Beach Haven Volunteer Fire Company Housing and Dedication

To make a long story short, our local Fire Co., (God Bless ‘em) are having housing and dedication services in connection with their newest piece of equipment. They expect to have between 35 and 40 fire trucks here from out of town companies. There will be a parade beginning at 3:00 pm, and sometime after that it will come to Pearl Street. You may view it from the Pearl Street side of the hotel porch, or if you like you can put chairs along the Pearl Street pavement. The kids usually like to see these shiny red fire engines and there will be about five bands, floats, marchers, etc. I imagine the parade will take about an hour to pass, but I do not know exactly what time it will pass the hotel. These visiting firemen will start coming in town in the morning and they expect, along with the various pieces of equipment, possibly 1,000 visiting firemen, so the traffic situation will be difficult. Now, for the benefit of the guests in the hotel, the parade would like to pause here and if they are to do that it will be necessary that all of the cars on the south side of Pearl Street be moved to some other spot. I believe the parade will be quite worthwhile and of course, I know all of the kids want to see it, so how about after breakfast tomorrow morning you move the cars away from the south side of Pearl Street, between Atlantic Avenue and Beach Street. A suggestion – you can put them on Pearl Street east of Atlantic Avenue up around the bathhouses. You can also take them around the back of the hotel and park them on Marine Street.

I’ll make the further suggestion that it might be a good idea to do as little driving as possible around town Saturday, August 12. The consensus is that this will be the biggest day of celebration in the history of Beach Haven.

* * *

From Beryl’s later accounts:

The thing I recall most vividly was a day in August 1947, when our hotel was afire. It was a cloudless summer day, which made the near tragedy seem more awful by contrast. Some careless lout dropped a cigarette out of an upper window onto the porch roof, which was dry as a chip. The spark smoldered and a nearly invisible flame suddenly became a devastating fire.

Fireman yelled hoarse directions to one another as a hideous fiery crackle filled the air, while thousands of onlookers gasped and choked. Above it all was the sound of tons of water pouring over and down into the building. I’d about resigned myself to seeing it go and was grateful that there had been a safe and orderly evacuation of all guests, including many elderly people like my mother and grandmother. My husband was in the building working with the fireman, and I depended on his cool resourcefulness to keep him safe. I was disconsolate as the children’s rooms burned and thought of the loss of years of work.

For a while it was touch and go as to whether the old place would stand or be destroyed, but after two hours the firemen had the fire under control. Thirty-seven rooms were consumed and I will be grateful all my life that no one was injured. I thanked God, and our able volunteer company. We closed off the burned wing and in a few days the hotel was running again.

September 1960

A group of handpicked friends were having a few farewell brews in our favorite drinkery when the fire siren gave out with its unearthly howl. As in every small town, Beach Havenites followed the fire engines.

Being close to the firehouse, we got there first and I was stunned to see flames shooting through the roof of the Baldwin. Probably no one ever sees a house burn where she once lived. It jolted me, even though I had not lived there for several years. While my friends found ringside seats, I made my way around the police roadblock to the beach behind a forlorn row of old bathhouses, where I could watch and not be seen. The way I look when I cry I am not a fit sight for public viewing.

It was not long before gale winds swept the fire in all directions and it was quickly apparent the old dowager of the dunes would burn to the ground. No firemen anywhere work harder than a volunteer company and these men were no exception; but there was not enough water in the world to keep up with a blaze whipped by the 40-mile wind. The flames raced in both directions of the L-shaped building. Room by room, floor by floor, the old hotel was systematically devoured. The lovely oceanfront dining room was last to go and its entire bank of windows fell clear of the rubble and remained unbroken.

I was watching the destruction of a place that I had lived, loved, worked and been happy. Something I had helped to create – the Baldwin atmosphere – was going up in smoke. Soon nothing would be standing of the place where two crazy people, Charlie and me, had started in our thirties with nothing and parlayed it into an exciting and profitable business – a business that frequently grossed more money than either of us had ever seen.

Instead of the blaze before me, I was seeing a montage of innumerable vacationing families, big USO dances, visiting politicians and parties from one end of the social spectrum to the other.

The lobby chimney, five stories high, toppled with a thud, leaving only the rosy Dutch tiles of the fireplace. As the porte-cochere fell, the sign on its roof fell crazily intact across the street. It read, “Baldwin Hotel, American Plan.” Part of me seemed to dissolve with each wing that was destroyed. As I turned my back on a full city block of ruin and ashes, I knew that a well-loved phase of my life was really dead.

 

Feedback From Our Readers

I heard from several people last week in response to my Splashback [The Beachcomber, Aug. 23] statement that gasoline was $1.60 in 1958. Wrong! The following from James Brazel: “I am probably not the first one to note that the price in N.J. of gasoline in 1958 was not the $1.60 a gallon quoted in the article, but something closer to thirty cents a gallon.”

(I have fired my research editor!)

Another interesting email, this from Lindsay Fuller: “Your article that included information about the proposed floating nuclear plants [The Beachcomber, Aug. 9] brought back a lot of memories.  Some long term good did come out of that project.

“The old Coast Guard Station out at the end of Seven Bridges Road had been abandoned by the government some years before and had been burned and trashed by vandals.  When Public Service [Electric & Gas] starting thinking about building these plants, they talked to Rutgers about Rutgers doing the oceanographic studies that would be necessary.  Rutgers said they didn’t have any marine facilities that could do the work.  Public Service came up with the idea that it would buy the old Coast Guard Station, outfit it to Rutgers’ specifications, and donate it to Rutgers in return for Rutgers doing the work on the project.  So they did, and Rutgers has made that facility key in its oceanographic work ever since.

“I remember sitting in my boat in Brigantine Inlet one day weakfishing and watch a large helicopter set the sections of the tall radio antenna at the Rutgers site.  The whole thing was built in about two hours.  It was neat to watch.”

— Margaret Buchholz

Margaret Buchholz is the former owner of this newspaper and author of Josephine: From Washington Working Girl to Fisherman’s Wife, Shore Chronicles, New Jersey Shipwrecks, Island Album and co-author of Great Storms of the Jersey Shore, available at local stores. Comment at lbipooch@comcast.net.

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