Flirting With Disaster: A Collection of Calamities

A new book by Alan A. Siegal catalogs the fires, shipwrecks and other disasters that have plagued New Jersey throughout history.

"Disaster! Stories of Destruction and Death in Nineteenth-Century New Jersey" by Alan A. Siegal

Think the winter we’ve just endured was rough? It was a picnic compared to 1888, when the blizzard of March 11 to 14 paralyzed New Jersey, killing nearly 100 people. More than 2 feet of snow fell in some regions, and winds reached 60 miles per hour in an era before snowplows.

That’s just one of 28 deadly events pulled from the historical shadows by Alan A. Siegel in his new book, Disaster! Stories of Destruction and Death in Nineteenth-Century New Jersey (Rutgers University Press). The Warren Township resident explores catastrophes of the lesser-known variety, including fires, steamboat wrecks, train wrecks, shipwrecks and natural calamities.

Ponder the plight of poor Cape May, which suffered major fires in 1856, 1869 and 1878, destroying most of its major hotels. The charred hostelries included the Mount Vernon, billed as the world’s largest, with 432 rooms and a dining room that could seat 3,000 when built in the 1850s. With its preponderance of wooden construction, “the resort was a tinderbox in search of a match,” writes Siegel.

A major fire in Newton on September 22, 1873, destroyed or damaged nine buildings—in part because town officials had allowed the volunteer fire companies to disband in 1867.

Fire on the water was deadly, too. On March 15, 1856, a blaze erupted in the smokestack of the New-Jersey, a double-decker ferry, as it crossed the Delaware River from Philadelphia to Camden, killing 56.

Railroad journeys could also be risky. An accident outside Burlington on August 29, 1855, killed 22 and injured 27 when a train, backing up to avoid another train, struck a two-horse carriage and derailed.

“Almost all of the train wrecks were caused by human error,” Siegel says. “Except for the natural disasters, one sees the unsteady hand of man behind each disaster.”

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