Friday, August 15, 2014

Ocean Museum remembers the 80th anniversary of the Morro Castle tragedy



On Saturday, September 8, 1934, the burning hulk of the disabled luxury liner Morro Castle broke free of its towline and drifted dangerously near Convention Hall to run aground just yards off the Asbury Park beachfront. The tragedy (at the time the worst in U.S. merchant marine history) made national headlines. It turned local lifesavers into heroes and Asbury into a sightseeing mecca for the next six months.

Eighty years later (almost to the day), the Township of Ocean Historical Museum, located in the Eden Woolley House at the Ocean Township Library complex on Deal Road, opens a mini-exhibit remembering the Morro Castle. The highlight of the September 7 opening is a dramatization of a radio interview with fictional Morro Castle survivor Ellen Van Brunt. Imagining a WCAP (“City of Asbury Park”) broadcast from Convention Hall, the performance, scheduled for 1:30 and repeated at 3:00, brings events to life.

Bad weather, bad behavior, bad design

A confluence of misfortunes added up to tragedy for the Morro Castle. The liner was on its 174th return trip from Havanna to New York when its captain died mysteriously. That same night, a fire of suspicious origin broke out on board. The acting captain delayed signaling for help, thinking at first he could make it to New York. An oncoming Nor’easter fanned the flames. By 3 a.m. the ship--whose design and materials contributed to the fire’s spread--was ablaze. They were six miles off Sea Girt. Launch of the lifeboats was hampered by fire. Just 6 made it to shore, carrying only 85 people--80 of whom were crew members! Panicked passenagers, who had received no lifesaving instruction, jumped into the sea. Nearby ships sped to pick up survivors.

Local heroes

From shore, local fisherman and boat owners defied the storm to join the rescue. Ambulance crews, police, and fire departments (including Ocean Township’s) rushed to the scene. Local lifeguards pulled corpses and survivors from the water. In the final toll, 400 were saved, 137 died.

Rescue of a different sort

By early afternoon, the Coast Guard cutter Tampa had begun towing the Morro Castle to port. In a final twist of an ill-fated journey, the towline snapped, leaving the ship adrift and headed for shore. Its dramatic landing brought notice to Asbury. Tens of thousands flocked to see the wreck, which sat off the beach for six months. Merchants dealing with Depression Era downturns and a city burdened by debt realized an economic boon. The story of the Morro Castle, already a significant chapter of maritime history, became the stuff of local lore.

Visit the Eden Woolley House September 7 to learn the full story. The exhibit will be up through the end of November.

The Township of Ocean Historical Museum, founded in 1984, is a member-supported, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, incorporated under the laws of the State of New Jersey. Its headquarters, the Eden Woolley House, is one of the few 18th century structures still in existence in the Township and is open to the public on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays (1 p.m. to 4 p.m.), Thursday Evenings (7 p.m. to 9 p.m.) and the first and second Sundays of each month (1p.m. to 4 p.m.). For more information, please call 732-531-2136.

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