A blog about living in Aberdeen, New Jersey.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

History: Major Fire Consumes Downtown Keyport (1877)

There was a massive fire in downtown Keyport on 22 Sep 1877, destroying more than two dozen businesses and making many homeless with only the clothes on their back. The lack of a Keyport fire company condemned the town to much destruction. While word was sent to Matawan to bring its engine company, the towns people created a bucket brigade from the Raritan Bay to do what they could to fight the fire. Those residents who had time removed furniture and other possessions from their homes as they waited for assistance.

The New York Times covered events on the day of the fire. Keyport Fire Department has a website with a brief history and some historical photographs. The 29 Sep 1877 edition of The Matawan Journal, pg 2, provided the following rather colorful reporting that summarized the previous week's events.

Terrible and Destructive Fire 


Of all the conflagrations that have visited Monmouth County, it has been left to Keyport to have the most extensive and perhaps the moot disastrous.

On Friday night of last week, at the hour of 11 o'clock, when the greater part of her citizens had retired and were slumbering, the cry of fire rang upon the quiet night through the streets of Keyport, arousing the people and striking them with terror at the possibilities, yea the probabilities, before them. A fire in the very heart of the business portion of a town, with scores of frame buildings all about to feed, and a stiff breeze to fan, the flame, and with no fire apparatus nor organized fire company, the most cool and collected saw disaster and ruin as the fate of Keyport.

The fire was first discovered in the rear part of the building owned by Abram Morris, opposite the Pavilion. The first floor was used by him for a meat market, and tbe four upper rooms were rented to Mrs. Ann Riley and Mary McGerry, well known as "big Mary." Ann says she was awakened by a cracking noise and on going in the next room discovered that the place was on fire. As to its origin all is conjecture, and we do not deem that we hare any right to circulate the mere rumors that are prevalent.

The flames spread rapidly and soon the entire building was on fire. Proceeding toward the steamboat wharf, the next building was that of Mary Hill, the residence of Wm. H. Madden, and next to it the shoe and tobacco store of H. Dougherty. These were entirely destroyed, and here the fire was spent in a north westerly direction, by the space to the Pavilion stables.

Meanwhile the flames had communicated to Charles Miller's barber shop and dwelling, only a narrow opening separating it from Morris's building. Mr. and Mrs Miller, with the two children, jumped from bed and rushed from their burning home without being able to save anything. Mrs. Miller and the two children had nothing but their night clothes; Mr. Miller only a pair of pants, undershirt and stockings, and the man employed in the barber shop only his pants and shirt, and Mr. Wm. Miller, of Matawan, found his brother and family on the street in this condition and hurried home  for clothing from his own and his wife's and children's wardrobe.

The great fight was now made on the Pavilion opposite, which was already about taking fire. A line was formed to the bay, and water passed in buckets and thrown on the front. Cornelius Britton, Jr., stood before the burning flame with a blanket thrown over him and dashed alternate buckets on himself and the building, and only by grim desperation was the hotel saved, though the weatherboards on the lower part were burned to a charcoal.

On the flames leaped from building to building, maddening as they progressed, and licking up dwellings more rapidly than water melts sugar. The brick building in which Adam Huyler kept a grocery store stood next to the Pavilion, but was saved by being almost fireproof.

Mr. John Morrell had started with his team and wagon for Matawan to give the alarm and solicit the aid of the Matawan firemen, with their engine. Foreman Sickels was routed out; the alarm shouted; the fire-bell rung, and very soon a force of men were on their way to Keyport. They reached there just as the Atlantic Hotel on one side of Front street and Decker's shoe store on the other, were in flames. Running their engine in the yard back of Geran's stove store,they played on that building, thoroughly
wetting it. Then, as the side of Decker's store was pushed in, they played on that heap of flames and stopped the further progress on that side.
Much credit is given to the Matawan firemen, and it is conceded by all that the entire street must have been swept had it not been for the aid of their engine.

Without extending our description of the scene, we will give a summary of the families made homeless and the businesses destroyed —Wm. H. Madden and family; Mrs. Ann Riley and Mary McGerry; Chas. Miller and family; Joseph Maurer and family; Amos Wolcott and wife; Wm. Matthews and family; Andrew Campbell and family and several boarders; Cyrenius and Timothy Wait and wives; Robert West and family; Sands Selleck and family; Mrs Lizzie Cowdrick and two children; Montz. Naftal and a family of seven; F Eckhardt and wife; John Bedle and family; Rich. West and family; Wm. Storms and family; Jacob Brown and wife; Fred'k Hoffman and wife; Abram Murdock and family; Jas. Brown and family; John Hunzinger and family; Mrs. Topping and two daughters; Wm. Howard and family.

The Mansion House, Necorsuli Johnson, proprietor, was entirely consumed and all the furniture destroyed.

The finest building burned was the large brick store belonging to the heirs of Wm. Walling, dec'd, and occupied on the first floor by Mr A. Block.

Mr. Wm. Bedle carried his furniture from his house to his barn, and some fiend was seen carrying a bundle of burning straw toward the barn with the evident intention of setting it on fire. When discovered he dropped the straw and ran. A lot of rags on the upper floor of Geran's store was also discovered on fire, after the flames had been subdued, and it is thought it was done by an incendiary.

Twenty-five buildings were destroyed and twenty-six families turned into the street without a home.

The losses sustained amount to about $150,000, on which there were insurances amounting to between $50,000 and $60,000.

The large brick building occupied by A. Block and owned by the Walling estate we understand is to be rebuilt by the insurance companies.

Dr. E. McKinney has opened his drug store at E. Geran's.

The Post office is in the store next adjoining Stout's grocery.

Alfred Walling, Jr. has opened his office for the present over Brown's store, Lockport.

Chas. Miller's barber shop is under the Pavilion, and Eckhardt's barber shop is in Conover's building.

Mr. Decker's shoe store is removed to Lockport.


I checked the census for information about the people affected by the fire. Below is some of the information available:

The 1870 Federal Census showed the following about people in the above Matawan Journal article:
  • John R Bedle (38 NJ) was a painter living in Keyport, along with wife Carrie (28 NJ) and two children.
  • Benjamin Decker (27 NY) worked in a clothing store in Keyport.
  • William Madden (54 NJ) was a butcher living in Keyport, along with wife Eliza (52 NY); son Joseph (33 NY), carman; son William (24 NY), butcher; and daughter Mary (23 NY).
  • Abram Morris (35 NJ) was a butcher living in Keyport, along with wife Emma (28 NY), four children and a Sidwell Roberts (61 England)
The 1880 Federal Census showed the following about people in the above Matawan Journal article.

a) These persons were enumerated on two census pages of households on Broad Street in Raritan:
  • William Bedle (72 NJ) was an undertaker. He was enumerated with wife Jane (66 NJ), three daughters; and son Melville (28 NJ), sash and blind maker.
  • James Brown (45 Ireland) was an oyster laborer. He was enumerated with wife Mary (45 Ireland) and a daughter.
  • Andrew Campbell (63 Ireland) was a hotel keeper. He was enumerated with wife Maria (43 Ireland) and seven children.
  • Mary Hill (34 Ireland) was the wife of restaurant keeper John Hill.
  • Fredrick Hoffman (30 NJ) was a livery stable keeper. He was enumerated with wife May (25 PA) and an infant. 
  • John Holzenger (Hunzinger)  (48 Germany) was a baker. He was enumerated with wife Agusta (42 Germany) and three children.
  • Neucorsili (Necorsuli) Johnson (40 NJ) was a hotel keeper. He was enumerated with wife Jenny (34 NJ), three children, a cook, a servant, and six boarders. 
  • Joseph Maurer (55 Germany) was a "lager b. saloon" (worked at a lager beer saloon?). He was enumerated with wife Catharine (49 Germany);  son Joseph (23 NJ), bartender; plus three other sons.
  • Charles Miller (28 Germany) was a barber, enumerated with wife Emma (23 NY) and three children.
  • Ann Riley (36 Ireland) was a restaurant keeper, enumerated with son Mathew (19 NY).
  • Amos Wolcott (44 NJ) was a juler (jeweler), enumerated with wife Anna (37 NJ), two children and a boarder.
b) These persons were also enumerated in Raritan:
  • Alexander Block (53 Bahamas) was a merchant. He was enumerated on Main Street with his wife Annie (50 Bahamas); son Joseph (19 NY), clerk in store; daughter Clara (17 NY), clerk in store; and three more daughters.
  • Cornelius Britton, Jr (37 NJ) was an oysterman. He was enumerated on Broadway with his wife Amelia (35 NJ) and two children.
  • Benjamin Decker (37 NY) was a merchant. He was enumerated on Second Street with his wife Emma (26 NJ) and three children.
  • Huey Dougherty (38 NY) was a cigar maker. He was enumerated with his wife Sarah (41 NY) and three children.
  • Adam Hyler (Huyler) (60 NJ) was a sash and blinds maker. He was enumerated on Broadway with his wife Hannah (55 NJ); son Abram (25 NJ), caulker; son Charles (18 NJ), laborer; and two other children.
  • There were two Richard Wests on Main Street. 1) Richard West (27 Ireland) was a carpet dealer. He was enumerated with his wife Luesa (23 NY), two children, a servant, and two boarders. 2) Richard West (53 VA) was an oyster laborer. He was enumerated with his wife Elanor (51 NJ); son Charles (29 NJ), sailor; and two adult daughters. 
Necorsuli Johnson moved to Staten Island, where he operated a hotel until his death in 1887, according to an obituary found at Distant Cousins.

No luck identifying John Morrell or Mary McGerry in the 1870 or 1880 censuses.


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