The Fire on the Ferry New Jersey in 1856
By Thomas A. Bergbauer, Retired Courier-Post Editor
A need to cross the Delaware River between Camden and Philadelphia was felt as early as the 17th Century and it was ferry service between Cooper's Point in Camden and Saxamaxon Street in the city of Brotherly Love that led to the founding of Camden.
There were many ways to get from one side to the other and at times there were tragedies during the crossings resulting in fatalities and injuries. According to historical records ferry service between the two cities was approved in 1687 along with rates of passage.
Between the 17th and 20th centuries, ferries not only sailed out of Market Street in downtown Camden, but there were also ferry slips at the foot of Vine Street near Market and at Kaighn Avenue in South Camden. There were also ferries crossing the river from Gloucester City, Palmyra and Burlington City.
One early way to reach Philadelphia was to walk across the river when it was frozen. There was a time when winters on the river presented a different way of life. In the early 1800s, the river froze almost solid, possibly as a result of the “Little Ice Age,” which inundated the world for many centuries. Ice flows at times also created a hazard and historical records show that George Washington encountered heavy ice flows while crossing the Delaware on Dec. 25, 1776 in his surprise attack on the Hessians in Trenton.
Walking across instead of using a ferry turned into a family affair and pedestrian traffic on the ice-clogged river of the 1830s was a regular winter custom and usually did not always hinder the movement of ferries. Many times families ice skated across.
At the Camden County Historical Society research revealed that horses sometimes were used to tow the ferries, like a sled, between the two cities. The frozen Delaware also required specially equipped ferries for the crossings. These ferries were fitted with skids or runners on either side of the keel.
When floating ice was a problem, boats with very strong and very sharp bows were pressed into service. Extending from their bows was a platform where a boatsman would sit with legs and feet dangling down to steady himself. With boathook in hand, he would push floating ice away from the moving ferry.
Sometimes the ice was so bad that it would take a ferry from one to two hours to cross the river, working its way around the flows.
But there were times when tragedy also struck on the river.
Saturday, March 15, 1856 was a cold and windy day. All day ice flows floated down the river past Camden, according to newspaper reports, claiming the break in the ice showed promises of an early spring. But that day gave no indication of spring-like weather.
That evening nearly 100 people climbed aboard the ferry “New Jersey” in Philadelphia in anticipation of getting to their warm homes in Camden.
According to the county historical documents and the newspaper reports, the ferry, owned by the Philadelphia and Camden Steamboat Company, left its slip at the Walnut Street wharf at 8:30 p.m. and sailed into the darkness towards Camden.
Documents show that Captain William S. Corson of Camden, was in command and he guided his vessel toward the channel, but due to heavy ice flows he was unable to navigate and turned the ferry upstream to look for another way to reach the Camden slip. Moments later smoke was seen coming from a spot near the deck and the smokestack. Passengers notified the captain, as flames became visible.
The passengers went to work trying to put out the fire. They grabbed buckets from the walls, dipping them overboard and then passing them forward to douse the flames. In a desperate effort to save the ferry, Corson turned the boat around in order to try and make it back to Philadelphia hoping to reach the dock before the fire got out of control.
As the boat limped back and Corson held his course, flames swept the upper deck forcing passengers to the windward side creating a bad list. It was reported the New Jersey came within 30 feet of the Philadelphia dock when the pilothouse collapsed in flames causing the ferry to veer out of control.
As panic set in, Corson, who survived, watched as women tried, in vain, to beat out flames that engulfed their long dresses and men tearing benches and chairs loose to help support those who had jumped overboard. He saw passengers leap into the frigid water and climb on top of ice flows, and a short time later he followed them as he jumped overboard. Other passengers in the water clung to the benches, chairs and floating wood.
One report shows that 61 people perished in the fire and 30 had survived. Others were reported either unaccounted for or missing.
As the tragedy unfolded families in Camden took to the streets waiting for the return or news of loved ones. Later shrieks of joy sounded as survivors arrived in Camden on other ferries. However, the joy was short lived as news arrived of the number of dead or missing in one of early Camden's worst tragedies.
An investigation later showed that the ferryboat's boilers, fireplace and brickwork surrounding them had become defective, thus causing the fire. Other records revealed that the New Jersey had no lifeboats or life preservers. The records showed that a law requiring safety equipment on steam-powered vessels had exempted this type of boat on the grounds that short ferry trips could never seriously place passengers in danger.
One newspaper reporting on the fire later said that every family in Camden had been touched by the tragic event, losing a loved one, friend or acquaintance.