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Fire Rips Through the Pines

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jul 10, 2019

Surf City, NJ — Cedar Bridge Tavern today is the centerpiece for Ocean County’s Parks Department. It stands alone in a clearing surrounded by forest, but twice during the 20th century the historic site was on the brink of destruction. The first attack came during the Great Depression.

In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt proposed a Civilian Conservation Corps as a means of ending unemployment.

“I propose to create (the CCC) to be used in complex work, not interfering with normal employment and confining itself to forestry, the prevention of soil erosion, flood control, and similar projects. I call your attention to the fact that this type of work is of definite, practical value, not only through the prevention of great present financial loss but also as a means of creating future national wealth.”

Soon thousands of young men ages 18 to 25 were in camps earning $30 per month, of which $25 had to be sent back to their homes. Locally, camps were set up at Bass River State Forest, where they planted trees and built a dam, and in Manahawkin, where they dug miles of ditches in the salt marshes to eliminate mosquitoes. It would be these young men along with other volunteers who would fight and die to save the tavern.

The Tuckerton Beacon of May 28, 1936, summed up a four-day blaze, saying, “The conflagrations first started late Sunday afternoon and prevented motorists from returning from Long Beach Island by way of Route S40 (today Route 72), and necessitated their traveling thru Tuckerton to the White Horse Pike and thence to Philadelphia.

“The fires increased in force Monday midday and by the middle of the afternoon were of such proportion as to be a menace to all Southern Ocean County.

“The fire jumped the Tuckerton Philadelphia highway and within a short time ran through ten miles of woodland. Only the activity of firemen who kept streams of water pouring on dwellings in Mayetta, Cedar Run and West Creek saved the houses, from which the residents fled.”

The fire had started in Burlington County. The New Jersey Mirror of May 27 told, “On Sunday the flames broke out again and once more bore down on Chatsworth. A force of 400 CCC workers was hurried to the scene from the Lebanon forest, and Bass River camps, while fire companies from Barnegat, Tuckerton and Manahawkin were hurriedly summoned. … Automobiles going south were turned off along a western detour at Manahawkin, while from the south, traffic was diverted along the White Horse pike. Thousands of men labored with spades and with chemicals to stay the onward march of the fire filled areas. In the woods about Warren’s Grove, hunting centre, a saw mill owned by George Cranmer and three deer club lodges were destroyed by the flames.

“The area about Warren’s Grove was burned out and late Monday afternoon the western end of the conflagration was a few miles east of it. Dense black smoke covered the fire area like a pall, extending high into the air so that it was visible for miles around. Hundreds of game animals and birds emerged, frightened, from the suffocating woods, while thousands more were estimated to have perished from heat, flames, and smoke. Deer, rabbits, pheasants, grouse, and quail were seen dashing out. The advance of the fire was believed to have been stopped early on Monday just west of a road bisecting Tucker-Philadelphia and Manahawkin-Philadelphia roads, near Warren’s Grove. Before, however, the advancing flames, born by the stiff breezes, managed to jump the back-fired area near the road, and then began their rapid eastward advance. Inhabitants of Manahawkin, which is a trading centre for the Barnegat Bay towns, thronged the streets all afternoon, anxiously watching the advance of the fire, audibly wondering whether they would have to flee their homes.”

The method of fighting wildfires at the time was to clear a firebreak, then start a small backfire in front of the monster fire, which it was hoped would then burn itself out. Just outside of Cedar Bridge, at a place called Stafford Forge, this process went horribly wrong.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Wesley Davis, acting division warden in the area where the five men burned to death, conducted an investigation of their deaths yesterday. … His report said the men had driven their truck up a little used dirt road and started a backfire. Underestimating their distance from the main fire, however, they were trapped when two tongues of fire, a quarter of a mile apart, shot past them on each side and hemmed them in.”

William Whittick, a 17-year-old member of the CCC from Camden, survived. He later told his story to the Asbury Park Press.

“‘There was a sudden shift in the wind,’ he said. … ‘We were all told by our boss to get out of there. The fire was right in back of us. A whole bunch of us jumped into the truck and pulled a fellow on with us just as we went away. There were other fellows back in the woods. We didn’t see them anymore.’ … Another eyewitness said he ‘saw five or six youths run out on a small road shouting that others had been caught in the whirling flames. … the four were trapped on a back road three miles north of Stafford Forge. They were in an army truck and the road was so bad they could not turn around to flee. … Abandoning their truck, they tried to escape thru the woods but were caught by the flames.’”

In 1990, Richard Allen wrote, “Our company of CCC boys were helping State Forest and civilian fighters fight the vast number and areas of forest fires in that east central New Jersey area. Lowell Thomas was flying over the area every evening and reporting it on the radio news.

“On the night of May 25, a truck load of us was sent up a back road near Stafford Forge to set off a back fire. However, the wind changed and the main fire came down on us like a hundred express trains. Our truck got stuck in the sand and the fire hit us.

“Have you ever been Par-Boiled? We were! The fire grabbed us, burned us and shook us like we were rag dolls! It was like we were in a semi-coma and couldn’t think. The main fire swept on but everything was burning and the truck on fire. Finally, primitive reasoning returned and we climbed out of the truck, our skin hanging from us like disembodied robes.

“Six men were left behind that didn’t survive: three CCC men and three fire fighters.

“We walked till we came to a highway when autos stopped and took us to Lakewood Hospital. The next day an Army ambulance took us to Camp Dix for medical treatment.”

Finally, it was over, and according to the Inquirer, “With fervent prayers against a sudden rise in the wind, a force of 350 weary fire-fighters kept vigil last night over a 60,000-acre tract of New Jersey forest in which the State’s worst woodland conflagration in years had been checked after taking five lives.

“The threat against the dozen Barnegat Bay coast towns, where inhabitants had been prepared for flight at a moment’s notice, had been removed by bleary-eyed men, fighting with spades and with back-fires.

“Within a triangular area whose base extended about 12 miles from Tuckerton to Manahawkin and whose sides reached back about six miles to the apex near Warren Grove, dozens of fire pockets flared and died away until finally all flames were stilled in the blackened smoke-filled woods.”

Today in Bass River State Forest there is a monument to those who died. The Cedar Bridge Tavern still stands because of them and countless others who fought the great fire of 1936. As the Inquirer noted, “So furiously did the fire travel that fire wardens stopped dozens of motorists on county roads and pressed them into service in defense of the threatened farms.

“When the Ocean County conflagration was brought under control yesterday about 1200 volunteer fire-fighters were allowed to go off duty after a 48-hour stretch.”

Next Week: The government attacks the tavern.

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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