Fire on the beach: Asbury Park, NJ and the S.S. Morro Castle disaster.

In the predawn hours of September 8, 1934, a small fire broke out in the first class writing room of an ocean liner, the SS Morro Castle, which was headed for New York from Havana. The ship was then about eight miles off the coast of Long Island. The fire tore through the ship quickly, fueled by flammable paneling and many old coats of paint on its surfaces, and within 20 minutes had knocked out power all throughout the vessel. Panicked passengers ran screaming toward the stern through clouds of billowing smoke. Crewmen trying to fight the blaze opened all of the Morro Castle’s fire hydrants at once, which, due to a design flaw in the fire control system, caused water pressure to fall to zero and made the hydrants unusable. To make matters worse, a gale was blowing up at the time, fanning the flames considerably, and the ship’s command structure was in chaos–the Morro Castle’s captain, Robert Willmott, died in his cabin hours earlier from causes unrelated to the disaster. It was a perfect storm of incompetence and bad luck.

Although the ship was near the shore, rescue attempts were slow, botched and ineffective. The poorly-trained crew for the most part abandoned the Morro Castle’s passengers to their fate, escaping in lightly-loaded lifeboats that could have carried hundreds more people. Other ships and shore stations, including aircraft and the Coast Guard, were slow to respond and many couldn’t see people floundering in the dark waters through the ferocious gale. Within hours, everyone who was going to make it had been rescued, leaving 135 dead–burnt to crisps aboard the ship itself, or dead in the water from various causes. Bodies began washing up on the nearby shores. The Morro Castle herself blazed brightly throughout the day of September 8. Taken into tow by a Coast Guard ship, the tow rope broke in the storm. The death ship, now a deserted flaming hulk, began drifting toward shore–specifically toward the beaches of Asbury Park, New Jersey.

Asbury Park was a prime destination for day (and longer) trips for New York City-area families with small children. Here are some kids on the boardwalk, probably sometime in the 1930s.

Horrific as the Morro Castle disaster was on a human scale, the ship’s appearance off the beach was something of a divine deliverance for Asbury Park. This beachside community got going in the Gilded Age as a day-trip vacation destination for wealthy New Yorkers, fueled by (what else?) railroad connections and increased affluence in the decades following the Civil War. The usual accouterments of East Coast beach resorts followed: big wooden hotels in Gothic and wedding cake styles, boardwalks, amusements, and a somewhat seamy underside of traveling carnivals, pickpockets, petty crime and not-so-petty corruption. By the 1920s Asbury Park was booming, especially with a new convention center right on the water. That all came to a crashing halt when the Great Depression hit. In the early 1930s Asbury Park was something of a sad and depressed place, still a tourist beach town, but with an air of decay about it. Then, on September 8, 1934, the Morro Castle drifted into view, its decks still smoldering.

Morro Castle eventually grounded on a sandbar just yards from the Asbury Park Convention Hall. The next morning, September 9, a Coast Guard official and Asbury Park’s city engineer ventured over to the smoking hulk in a boat and began implementing a scheme to attach ropes from the ship over to the Convention Hall. What they eventually established was a breeches buoy, a kind of lifeline where people could traverse the water on a pulley. The efforts to reach the Morro Castle were publicized in real time across the town and the area, because there was a radio station inside the Convention Hall. Firemen and other first responders used the lifeline to get to the ship and see if anyone was still left alive aboard her. No one was, and there was virtually nothing of value left to salvage: the intense fire had left Morro Castle a blistered, empty derelict.

Various companies sold postcards depicting the Morro Castle wreck in the months after it wound up on the beach. Here’s one of them.

Despite the tragedy of the disaster, there was obviously a macabre fascination with the Morro Castle, which remained wedged on the sandbar just off the Asbury Park beach for several months. Once investigations were complete and grisly human remains were removed from the ship, the breeches buoy leading from the Asbury Park Convention Hall to the Morro Castle wreck began to result in some economic gains for the Depression-wracked town. Tourists were charged $5 a trip to squeak aboard the vessel and gaze at its gutted rooms and pitted bulkheads. It was so close to the beach that tourists could wade out into the surf, or go out in small boats, and actually touch the lopsided wreck. Spectators lined the boardwalk to get a look at the wrecked ship, bringing some much-needed revenue to local shops and attractions.

The ruined ship remained off Asbury Park for several months. In March 1935 she was finally floated off the sandbar and towed toward Gravesend Bay, New York to be broken up for scrap. What happened to the ship after that is unclear. In one report I read, she sank while under tow; in another, she wound up at a scrap yard in Baltimore. Whatever happened, it was a sad end for the ship itself, only four years old at the time of the disaster, to say nothing of the 135 people who died needlessly in a completely preventable tragedy.

The Asbury Park Convention Hall played a significant role in the Morro Castle disaster. Here is how it looked roughly in the mid-1930s.

The story of the Morro Castle and its encounter with Asbury Park resonates with me. In the early 2000s I had occasion to visit Asbury Park, just for one day, and I found it a curiously haunting place, full of decaying memories of those glory days in the early part of the 20th century. Faded advertisements for ice cream and children’s attractions still adorned wind- and sand-blasted walls. The boardwalk seemed dilapidated and sagging under the weight of history. Everywhere there was the sense of lost childhood and faded innocence. The moldering hulk of a burnt-out ocean liner, hovering like a ghost just off the shore, would’ve been a perfect addition to this scene.

Since I was there, it’s my understanding that Asbury Park has been undergoing a renewal. The old boardwalk I saw has been replaced and new businesses are opening up there. Still, there’s something haunting about the memory of the Morro Castle disaster that happened here more than 80 years ago. Echoes of tragedy resonate through a place long after its physical constitution changes.

The Morro Castle postcard is owned by C.V. Norris and is used under GNU Free Documentation License. All other images are in the public domain.
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1 Comment

  1. These old shipwreck disaster stories are always haunting. Maybe it’s the number of people who die in these wrecks, or maybe it’s the whole “ocean against humanity” thing. I remember the stories of this, one of the things my mother remembered and talked about.

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