Baldwin Hotel: The Hurricane of ’44

The Beachcomber
Jul 16, 2013
Source: Eighteen Miles of History/ Down The Shore Publishing The Baldwin Hotel was built in 1883 on the Beach Haven oceanfront between Pearl and Marine streets.

This is the second in a series about the Baldwin Hotel, on the oceanfront in Beach Haven from 1883 until it burned down in September 1960. The following memories are from the diary written by Beryl Yocum between 1940 and 1953, when she and her husband, Charlie, owned the aging structure. They lived there year round with daughters Gay, Patty and Barbara. The diary excerpts are shared with The Beachcomber courtesy of Beryl’s granddaughter, Lynn Rafferty.

— Margaret Thomas Buchholz


During every season in a resort hotel there is glamour, glitter and fun. Some years are good; some are lean. Once in a while there is tragedy. The summer of 1944 had its share of all these and was drawing to a close in mid-September, even though for that time of year we were unusually crowded. Soldiers on leave, honeymooners, the usual quota of older people stretching the season, and a few war-weary workers who could not manage a vacation earlier, filled the hotel. Around the 14th of the month we were feeding 50 guests, a bigger crowd than normal.

For two days we had been hearing radio and newspaper warnings of a tropical storm working its way up to our part of the coast, but preoccupied with our jobs, no one paid much attention. We’d heard about hurricanes for years, and they had always turned out to be northeasters, and we had no reason to believe that this storm would be different. It was moving steadily up the East Coast, but we were sure that as in the past, when it passed North Carolina, we would soon breathe a sigh of relief when an announcer said, “... and the storm which has been threatening this area has blown out to sea.”

All of us were so sure that the promised storm did not mean business that on the morning of the 14th, Charlie took a group of eager tuna fishermen out on a party boat. The twins [12-year-old Patty and Barbara] went off to Beach Haven Grammar School, and Gay took the bus to Barnegat High on the mainland. In the hotel we were absorbed in our jobs.

Mid-morning a driving rain began, and gusty winds blew. I was relieved when the tuna fisherman came in, drenched to the skin, and with nary a fish. If a storm were going to strike – and I assured myself that it was NOT – it was better to have the resourceful head man on tap.

Just before noon I decided to pick up the twins. A ten-block walk never hurt any healthy child, but they’d be soaked. I stopped and canceled Barbara’s appointment for a permanent wave. Silly maybe, but suppose a hurricane did materialize? Did I want my youngest to be fastened by 28 steel rods and electricity with a swirling Atlantic Ocean around her feet? That beauty shop was too close to the ground even for just a heavy northeast storm.

The kids got home and started roller-skating in the ballroom with a group of children of our guests. Mainland schools closed early and Gay came up the street from the school bus through rain up over the curb.

Three was too early for our cocktail hour, that was at five; but since the day was so dreary and dull, Charlie sent out early for ice and snacks and everyone settled dry and comfortably in the lobby. The radio droned on with its dire warnings about “securing” everything and staying off the beaches and pulling small boats out of the water. A very talented guest who was both a composer and a good pianist played and the minutes ticked by.

In the kitchen Uncle Joe, Sara and I had a drink, too; I removed our legs of lamb from the oven, made up fifty salads, and prepared some trays of bluefish for broiling. Pie was cut, coffee made, and frozen vegetables were counted out from the freezer. A miserable day and we were so sorry for people who only had one week of vacation. Who wants to have it spoiled by a three-day northeaster?

At about four, the Chief at the Coast Guard station called and said winds over 90 miles an hour were predicted for the next few hours and suggested that we stay off the 4th floor. The patched roof, he suggested soothingly, could be blown off. That was all I needed to make me curious. Securing my nerves with a second hearty drink, I trudged up to the 4th floor. Wouldn’t have taken the elevator in a storm for anything – once in a while the power went off and I didn’t want to spend a couple of hours in an elevator cage stuck between two floors.

The view from our 4th floor oceanfront rooms is good, but today I did not like what I saw. There was a heavy, uneasy feeing in the atmosphere; the same feeling I’d had before going into labor with Gay. The sky was a greenish-brown, the clouds were lowering and there was so much rain that the entire view blended into a twilight fog.

In the kitchen we filled at least a dozen empty stew pots with water for drinking and cooking. I’d heard that water supply was often interrupted in a hurricane, and I wasn’t taking any chances. Later I was grateful for this water, even though everyone laughed at my precautions.

From time to time I peeked into the lobby, aware of a rising crescendo of sound. As the wind roared louder, more drinks were poured, voices became 1ouder, and though the situation became increasingly dangerous, there was no panic. One of the desk clerks got drunk enough to be loud and unmanageable, and was fired immediately, for a time of peril is no time for a hotel worker to give problems.

Inwardly I was deeply concerned, but we were responsible for the safety and feeding of over 50 guests and I was glad that I had to keep busy.

As the hands of the clock ticked toward 5:30, there was crash after crash and large sections of boardwalk hit the building. Part of the broad front porch was sagging as at least one of its brick supporting piers on the ocean side had given way.

By now it was dark as midnight and the power went off. Plenty disconcerting to be without light and power, but worse, we had no radio with which to follow the news of the storm. With the extra people from the neighborhood who sought shelter at the hotel, the crowd swelled to almost a hundred and we decided that dinner would be served cafeteria style. Certainly there could be no formal style with half of the Oceanside dining room windows blown, hurricane winds, and the foaming Atlantic through, around, and under our feet. All of the tables were sopping wet, and the floor was a mass of puddles.

In the kitchen we made ready to serve with as many candles as we could keep lighted, and three or four oil lanterns, which every seashore hotel keeps on hand. I’ll remember the menu forever, for my hands shook as I dished up the plates but I tried to keep my voice calm. “Roast leg of lamb or broiled bluefish?” I asked, then added, “mashed or roast potatoes, peas or asparagus?”

While the hungry guests took their hot, comforting food into the dry section of the dining room and the lobby, I took a lantern out to the porch on Pearl Street. The Atlantic Ocean was all around and under the hotel at a height of about six feet. The nice familiar ocean that usually stayed a block away was swirling white water as far as I could see, and it was the most terrifying feeling I have ever had.

How much more could the old wooden building take? The roar of the wind was frightening, and with all lights off we couldn’t tell what was happening around town, or whether friends and neighbors were safe or not. I forced myself to choke down a sandwich and coffee, and after the guests had carried their trays back to the kitchen we all returned to the lobby. Even for the little ones there was no early bedtime tonight. Though no one said it out loud, everyone felt that if the hotel should crack up and break apart, families wanted to be together.

More piano music, more coffee, more songs, and so the evening wore on. From time to time, a loud crash would warn us that part of the boardwalk or another house was bashing into the hotel, and we wondered how many houses might be standing when this dreadful storm was over, or if we would all be alive the next morning.

Every so often I peered through the dark front porch and heard the angry water slap-slapping at the building, and I sent up a prayer for the safety of all. Many such prayers must have been answered, for at about 9:30 p.m., when nerves were strained to the breaking point, the wind stopped and in a few minutes the stars came out the brightest I have ever seen. It seemed as though the sky had been scrubbed clean and pure, and the stars hung like big diamonds. I have never seen them so beautiful since.

Barbara Yocum’s recollection:

“From the lobby I could see the bathhouses and gift shop up on the beach. They faced the ocean along the Boardwalk. I watched one huge wave come down the street, taking the Boardwalk with it. I saw Cassie Fujawari, who managed the gift shop, jump out of a store window in a raincoat with an armful of items he was trying to save. The next day we helped him dig through the sand looking for his inventory. After the storm, the streets were full of sand and debris and chunks of the boardwalk.”

Margaret Thomas Buchholz is the former owner of this paper and author of Island Album, Shore Chronicles, New Jersey Shipwrecks, and the newly released book Josephine: A Memoir 1917-1959. She is co-author of Great Storms of the Jersey Shore. Reach her at lbipooch@comcast.net.


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