Firefighters appear to be getting the upper hand on a raging fire that destroyed much of an iconic Jersey shore boardwalk after a last-ditch effort to slow its spread by ripping up boards that had not yet burned.
Authorities had not declared the fire under control late Thursday but it appeared to have vastly lessened in intensity. Seaside Park Mayor Robert Matthies says "it certainly looks like it's been suppressed."
No serious injuries were reported. The fire burned more than 30 boardwalk businesses in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights.
The turning point came as public works crews in Seaside Heights ripped out 25 feet of the boardwalk — which had just been rebuilt after Superstorm Sandy — and filled the void with sand piles to block the flames' advance.
Although the news cycle moved on awhile ago, the east coast's recovery from Superstorm Sandy isn't even close to the finish line. Case in point: the residents of Mantoloking, New Jersey, weren't even allowed to go back home until today.
That's four months after the storm hit New York and the Jersey Shore. Mantoloking residents are the last Jersey community to get the OK to go home, provided they still have one to go to. As the Associated Press notes, "it's not a mad rush."
According to CBS New York, every single one of the 521 homes in the barrier island communitysuffered at least some Sandy damage, 60 of which simply disappeared. "Hundreds" of the homes still standing are severely damaged and will need to be demolished.
Mantoloking is a wealthy community with only 100 or so year-round residents, but a larger summer population. During the storm, water from the ocean bisected the community and cut through to the bay, taking an as-yet unknown amount of homes, cars, and debris with it.
The freighters moved vegetables and timber from the farms of northern Monmouth County, including Keyport’s own Kearny plantation, to New York markets.
Boat builder Benjamin Terry had his works there, building 50 steamers from about 1850 to 1870. Once of those, a side-wheeler called the River Queen, was used by Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War. A painting of one of those meetings still hangs in the White House.
On the Keyport waterfront was a cottage-like building, once a steamboat company machine shop. When the industry died, the building found a few other uses, then went vacant. The town claimed it off its tax rolls.
In 1974, a group of Keyport locals decided all this history should not be forgotten. They made a deal to lease the building for $1 a year and in 1976, the Keyport Steamboat Dock Museum opened.
For 36 years, the museum housed and collected 300 years of history, including the original deed for the Kearny plantation, dated 1714.
Tom Gallo, a three-time past president of the museum, knew it was in trouble during high tide, the night Sandy made landfall.
He was on a rescue team, evacuating a family from a house on First Street, which rises sharply above Raritan Bay. At the foot of the hill, the town’s boat ramp and baywalk were already under a few feet of water, and boats from the local marinas were being tossed. But that Monday night, the powerful tidal surge reached parts of Keyport that had always stayed dry.
“The water went from here to here in a matter of seconds,” said Gallo, moving his hand from knee- to chest-high. “We were hanging onto a rope. Anybody who was out in that and says they weren’t scared is a liar.”
It was in that surge that Gallo knew the Keyport Steamboat Dock Museum was gone.
“It had to be. The water was halfway up to First Street.”
In the days before the storm, museum members did their best to empty the place. Keyport was a bottlemaking town, and there were glass collections stamped with names like Maurer and Disbrow. It was home to Aeromarine, a pioneering aviation company that built training airplanes for World War I, and the museum kept a collection of flying instruments and a wood propeller.
Important maps, deeds and photographs, and a ship’s wheel were removed, as was a giant, intricate model of the Terry-built steamship “Keyport.”
The model had double significance: it was handcrafted by the late Wilbur Huyler, one of the museum founders.
“We went through and put red dots on the things we knew we had to move,” Gallo said.
Some of the artifacts were taken by the Monmouth County and Matawan historic societies; other were stored in members’ homes. One member donated a heated garage for long-term storage, if needed.
It was needed. The surge gutted the building, and the flooding scattered what was left. When the water receded, the members went through the wreckage; 36 years of collecting 300 years of history, laid to waste in 12 hours.
“It is heartbreaking,” said Jack Jeandron, 86, a founder. “It was a life’s work.”
Heartbreaking is not an overstatement in Jeandron’s case. He went down to the waterfront the day after the storm, to see what museum items Sandy’s retreat had left, broken and matted, along the docks. Pneumonia followed, followed by “some kind of heart failure,” he said. He was hospitalized and now struggling to regain his health.
In the weeks since the storm, some items were recovered.
A old trunk washed up on Cliffwood Beach; the vintage West Point uniforms remained dry. Other paper goods and logs were found; so were the Underwood typewriters, lead type and ink rolls from the Keyport Weekly.
In the heated garage, Gallo and other members put the “wet items” in the basement near the gas furnace. At some point, they’ll be cleaned or thrown out, depending on the damage.
“We’ll go on,” said Jeandron, whose wife, Angel, is curator. “People in town love this place, and we got visitors from all over.”
The waterfront location certainly was a draw. From the museum doorstep, the bay opens up; Staten Island and Brooklyn, those old freighter destinations, still loom. On the water, white or colorful sails from recreational yachts dance where the gray smoke of steamers once bellowed. There is ancient history in those waters; Sandy is just the latest chapter.
But it may be the final one for the museum’s waterfront presence.
“We’re looking for another home,” Jeandron said. “We’d like to be on the water, where the action is, but I’m not sure we want to live through another storm.