While you’d think that hurricanes and floods wreak the most havoc, there has been nothing more destructive to properties in the Somerset Hills more than fires. The Mr. Local History Project is gathering information regarding large fires in the Somerset Hills area. Looking back at history, we’ve started digging to let the public understand how severe fires have devastated our community.
Bernardston Charter Destroyed in 1850 Fire
Basking Ridge – All township records before 1850 were destroyed in a fire. “It is in fact unfortunate that these charters were kept with so little care and were thus allowed to be destroyed.” The charter was the official formation of the township recognized by the King of England.
According to various written statements, it seems that the Bernards Charter was destroyed when the Bernards Township Municipal Office (or the Town Clerk’s home) burned during a fire in 1850. The Township keeps meeting minutes going back only to 1851 (at Town Hall). The actual location of the Bernards Twp. Town Clerk is still under investigation but is difficult to research since the Bernardsville News only goes back to 1897. But it is noted that back in that time, it was customary for Town Clerks to keep township records at home. The earliest recorded municipal meeting minutes that still exist in Bernards Township were signed by William R. Wilson, Clerk in 1851.
Basking Ridge – The Great Fire of 1880
Numerous publications have hinted that there have been massive fires in the downtown Basking Ridge village that has continually reshaped the landscape. The Journeyman and the True Democratic Banner reported on the Great Fire of 1880 on April 14, 1880 in Basking Ridge.
“About 4:40pm on Wednesday, April 14, 1880 the bakery of Mr. Balding (Belden) at Basking Ridge was discovered to be on fire, having caught from a bonfire burning next door. Mr. Balding (Belden) discovered the fire, which had burnt a hole about two feet square in the floor of his bakery, and as soon as possible a dispatch was sent to Morristown for help. An Independent Hose, Washington Steamer and the truck were ordered to proceed further. For a while it seemed as if nothing could prevent the larger part of the village from being destroyed, and a second dispatch was sent for the firemen to hurry.
The Hose Carriage with a horse attached started followed by a number of the members in Haddin’s carryall. The truck with four horses attached were ready to start, when a third telegram was received, stating that help was not needed. It was too late.
At this time the wind had changed to a more favorable direction, and with the aid of the “Bucket Brigade” formed by the young ladies of the place, the fire was confined to the bakery and dwelling of Mr. Belding (Belden) and the house of the Misses Oliver, occupied by Dr. Jones, which were entirely destroyed.
The sparks from the burning building were carried by the wind, the the Presbyterian Church, which was set on fire several times, but was quickly extinguished. Several other houses having shingle roofs were also set on fire. Ready hands soon carried out all that was possible to save, but most of the silverware, both of Mr. Balding (Belden) and Dr. Jones was lost. Mr. Balding’s (Belden) loss will amount to $7,000 and insured for $2,000. The Miss Oliver loss was $3,000, insured for $1,200. Most of the furniture was saved from the houses. Mrs. Jones was quite sick, and was carried from the house to a place of safety.
The last fire at the Ridge occurred about thirty years ago (1850) at which time a considerable part of the business portion of the town was burned. The Hose Company had proceeded 2 1/2 miles when they were overtaken by the Chief and ordered back home. A few of the members, however, who were ahead of the carriage, went on to render what assistance they could, and were well entertained by the people of the village. A great deal of credit is due the young ladies who passed water from the wells during the entire time the fire was burning. Mr. Balding (Belden) allowed a considerable portion of his insurance to expire a short time ago when he built his bakery, as the rates were at that time increased, and he preferred to take the risk.”The Jerseyman – Morristown, New Jersey April 16, 1880 – the article misstated Mr Belden’s name as Balding.
The present building at 11 South Finley Avenue dating from 1882, was once the lifetime residence of Postmaster William Scheuerman and served as the town’s post office from 1919 to 1952. It replaced an earlier one, the first home of the Basking Ridge Methodist Episcopal Church, that was also destroyed by the fire.
Thought now to be the oldest building on the block, the building at 21 South Finley Avenue was constructed as early as 1830. It was saved from the Great Fires by being covered with wet carpets and blankets. In the late 1880’s, Robert Bishop had his home and harness shop here. Later Dr. Frederick C. Jones, a prominent physician in the community for nearly 30 years, made it his residence and medical office as well.
Chief Engineer Halstead yesterday received two or three telegrams from Basking Ridge stating that a fire raged there threatening the entire place and asking the assistance of the Morristown Fire Department. He detailed Washington Steamer, Resolute Truck and Independent Hose to go to the aid of our distressed neighbors, and the fire alarm was sounded to secure a working corps of the companies. Independent Hose Company arrived, this time from Mr. D. D. Craig, stating that the fire was under control and the apparatus was not needed. Taking a buggy the Chief started after the Hose carriage and overhauling it near Mr. Bailey Breezes’ it was ordered back. The truck was in good shape, with four horses, for a speedy, trip, while the steamer was also well prepared.
The fire had originated in Mr. P.O. Balding’s (Belden) store building, on the South West Corner of the business part of Basking Ridge (corner of W. Oak and S. Finley today), and extended to his dwelling adjoining and also to a dwelling belonging to Miss Oliver of this place, burning all of these clean. Miss Oliver’s dwelling had just been occupied by Dr. Fred Jones, who’s sick wife was carried out in great haste by her friends. Belding’s store building was 1 1/2 stories high and filled with a stock of groceries etc. His dwelling was 2 1/2 stories. His loss was eight or nine thousand dollars, insured for $2,000.
Miss Oliver’s dwelling was two stories high, loss about $1,500, insured for $1,200. The dwelling adjoining Miss Oliver’s was saved by throwing we carpet etc. over it. (It is now known as 19-21 South Finley Avenue, Basking Ridge).
There was a very high wind blowing directly from the burning building toward the Presbyterian Church and the greatest fears were entertained for its safety, but it is roofed with slate, and watchful care prevented it from being ignited by the leaves in the church yard, which were fired and in turn set fire to the fence.
During the fire an explosion occurred in the Balding (Belden) building that was heard a quarter of a mile away. It is supposed to have been a barrel of kerosene. The fire started from a bonfire of garden rubbish back of the store, a spark igniting the roof.
There was no insurance on Mr. Belding’s store stock, but a large quantity of it, together with some of his and of Mr. Jones furniture was saved. It was stored in the church. Mrs. Moore’s dwelling opposite Miss Oliver’s was ignited by flying sparks, but saved by the bucket brigade.
Mr Balding (Belden) had allowed his insurance to run out only a short time ago and had intended renewing it in a new company but delayed from time to time. The last fire on note occuring in Basking Ridge occured about 1850 and consumed a row on the same street, but little above the present locality.
While speaking to those who did good work in subduing as well as preventing the spread of flames, we must not forget the young ladies who most nobly and energetically aided the stronger sexin the work.Source: True Democratic Banner – Morristown, NJ April 16, 1880 – the article misstated Mr Belden’s name as Balding.
1895 Fire Almost Takes Basking Ridge Village
Fehn’s Bake Shop, the initial building on 134 South Finley was owned by Hattie Whitnall. Given the name “ Bake Shop Hill” to Lewis Street. The bakery was destroyed by fire in 1895 and the present residence was built on the site. But there was the fire later in 1903 across Lewis Street that became the impetus to the formation of the Basking Ridge Fire Company and St. Marks Church.
The Washington Hotel Fire of 1947
The famed Washington House was originally built in 1871. While there were a number of smaller fires at the establishment, the greatest fire was the one that destroyed the famed cupola that was lost in a fire that started at 2:30am of December 2, 1947. Twenty two sleepy guests were tossed out in the street as the fire raged after starting on the fourth floor and going down the staircase to the third floor.
Raymond Harned, owner at the time estimated the cost at over $25,000. It was guessed that the fire started in the attic from chimney ashes. Mrs. Anne Scherzer, owner of the Village Fountain next door opened her store at 3am for the guests to come in out of the 18 degree cold.
Firebombings in Bernards Township – 1968
The most interesting thing we’ve learned about the history of the Bernards Township Police Department is that there were two fire bombings at the Stonehouse Station. Then when the PD moved to the Astor Estate, there was another fire bombing. All three incidents were never solved.
On April 16, 1968 a second firebomb was reported in the New York Times at the Stonehouse police station. Chief Harry M. Allen was in charge at the time. No one was in the building at the time. Two molotov cocktails were thrown through a side window. A second bomb failed to go off. At least half of the building and the furnishings were destroyed. The chief stated while he thought it was not racially motivated, it was most likely the work of someone holding a grudge against the police. The fire caused about $7,500 damage. This was the second attempt in the last 10 days. The first bomb landed on the roof. The police later recognized that milkman Joseph Yuhas of Bernardsville was the hero as he was the first to call in the alarm just past 4am and rushed to put water on the fire with a hose.
A temporary headquarters was set up in a former Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church office space on 12 Allen Street, just north of the church. They stayed there until September 1969 when then moved to the Astor mansion on Collyer Lane.
Third Basking Ridge Firebombing – 1974
After the move to the new facility after the township purchased the Astor Estate, the new police headquarters and the municipal courtroom at the front right of the estate was firebombed at 2am on the morning of October 6,1974. It was later reported that the crime was tied to a stolen patrolman’s motorcycle that was later recovered in a wooded area near the Cedar Hill School. A five gallon “GI style” gas can was found on the floor of the courtroom with combustible liquid. All three of the firebombings were never solved.
Bernardsville’s Most Historic Fire
The Somerset Inn Fire – May 6, 1908
It was reported that when the Somerset Inn opened for the 1903 Summer Season, guests arrived by train and carriage from Virginia, New York, Canada, Princeton, Newark, and Plainfield. During the season, a weekly article in the Bernardsville News reported on the various activities and new arrivals. In August of 1907, one particular item indicated that “Thomas Edison and party came to the Somerset Inn on Sunday from East Orange.” Then one of the greatest tragedies in Somerset Hill history happened in May 1908.
In the earliest of the morning on May 6, 1908, fire struck the Bernardsville Mountain’s Somerset Inn. Just off what is now Mendham Road, the fire engulfed the entire 500 guest hotel, but it also took the eight cottages on the property. It was said that you could see the light from the fire for miles al the way down to the railroad tracks in the Bernardsville village. Chief Sanford W. Tunison, Bernardsville Fire Chief arrived just about 1:30am. The alarm was sounded at 1:40am. . Fire departments came from Mendham and Peapack to help save the structure to no avail. It is thought that the fire started in the kitchens and spread to the dining rooms.
The inn had a capacity of about 500 guests and there were known to be 100 bath rooms attached to the suites in the facility. The fire destroyed the Somerset Inn just weeks before the June 1st season opening. Evander H, Schley was insured to about 80% of the cost and the loss was estimated at $200,000. Sadly, it was never rebuilt. The fire left over 20 chimney’s standing alone on the property.
Twenty years later on Monday, February 13, 1928, the clubhouse that adjoined the golf course burned to the ground as well. The only thing that remains from the Inn are two entrance pillars just off Mendham Road.
Bakery Fire Almost Takes Entire Bernardsville Business District -1917
On the early morning of Sunday, January 11 , on the Viedt Block on Main Street a fire started in the basement of L. Mischiara’s bakery causing over $1,000 in damages. Pasquale Grisselli’s shoe store next door suffered substantial damage as well. Quick work by the local fire department prevented the spreading of the fire which most likely would have taken the entire block. Special thanks went out to fire Chief Edmund Spinning for reacting so quickly to the alarm.
Stonemere Estate Collapses – 1969
STONEMERE (formerly Order of the Eastern Star Home)
Washington Corner Road 1955 – 1973
In September 1955, Stonemere was a nursing facility when it opened under the management of Mrs. F. Doherty, R.N. It was described in the Bernardsville News as the “Cadillac of Nursing homes–Quality, luxury and service at moderate rates.” A postcard promoting the home is above. Attempts to expand the facility were denied many times by municipal boards over the next 14 years.
On April 3, 1969, a fire destroyed the building with 29 elderly patients moved by ambulance to the Bernardsville Elementary School. Being two miles from the town center with no hydrants in the vicinity, water availability hampered the effort to save the residence. Mrs. Doherty’s request for permission to rebuild was denied in March 1970 and the property was sold for development. In 1973, five acre lots were available on the new street, Carriage House Road.
Like Bernards Township, in 1845 it was reported that the Charter of Bedminster was burned at the home of Aaron Longstreet of Lamington, who was the Township Clerk at the time. Now known not to be true, the Bedminster Charter is now in good hands with the Bedminster Township government having been recently donated by the Forbes family.
Hamilton Farm Fires of 1923 & 1978
Wall Street financier and magnate James Cox Brady (not “Diamond” Jim Brady) who was close friends with Thomas Edison and also interested in gas and electric lighting, built Hamilton Farm and named it after his third wife’s family name. Quickly growing from 180 to 5,000 acres, the homestead included an extensive horse barn with storage area for a large carriage collection.
Hamilton Farm started in 1911 when James Cox Brady decided to create an English-like country estate in the green fields and woodlands of the Somerset Hills in Bedminster. Cox gathered up almost 5,000 acres creating one of the largest farms ever. While the clapboard house was completed, on Monday, March 12, 1923 at 6pm was reported to the Peapack Fire Department. The 75 room residence burned to the ground estimating the loss at over $500,000.
After rebuilding, the new estate stood unscathed for 55 years when in 1978, fire struck again on the Hamilton Farm estate. The Beneficial Corporation had just contracted to purchase the property from the Brady family and the closing was marred by a massive fire which destroyed the mansion down to the foundation. Without hesitation, Beneficial Corporation continued with the purchase, and contracted with designer Percy Leach to restore the mansion to its’ grandeur. The fabulous estate is part of the Hamilton Farm Golf Club and is noted as being one of the best in the country.
Not only did the main house suffer from fire, Brady also had a major fire which burned his carriage and stable facility to the ground. When this stable burned, Brady resolved and re-built an even grander scale facility, and included fire-proofing measures which were virtually unheard of at the time. The new barn featured a carriage storage area and fifty stall stable. The barn was also used as a hospital during WW2.
Peapack / Gladstone Fires
Blair’s White Cottage/ Keith (Manhattan Project) Windfall Burns in 2009
The 16-room mansion on Highland Avenue known as “Windfall” was unoccupied at the time of the fire around 9 p.m. Peapack-Gladstone Mayor William Horton, who lives next door, said he saw flames 50 feet in the air.
The Blair family dubbed the Melick farmhouse “White Cottage” and used it as their country home in the years Blairsden was being built. Located next to the famed Natirar estate — once owned by the King of Morocco and now being transformed into a luxury spa by Virgin mogul Richard Branson — the house dates back to the mid-18th century, when it was built as a stone farmhouse on the hilltop of a sprawling farm owned by the Melick family, according to “The Somerset Hills.”
“I know the house well,” Turpin said today. “When I heard this morning that it had burned, I was dismayed because it’s one of the landmarks around here.”
White Cottage was later separated from Blairsden when Percival Cleveland Keith, a chemical engineer famous for his work on the Manhattan Project, purchased the property in 1933.
Essex Fox Hounds Fire – 2016
Begun in Essex County in the late 19th Century, the Essex Fox Hounds moved west to Peapack-Gladstone around the turn of the 20th Century. The group continues to hold traditional fox hunts, and the Essex Fox Hounds, a breed of American hound, are a beloved part of local events like the Raritan Headwaters Association’s Old Fashioned Country Fair in Bedminster.
You’d have to go back over 100 years to November 1903 when there was a fire at Charles Pfizer’s Gladstone Kennel where one of the stable buildings and a shed on the kennel farm were destroyed by fire. Thomas Maddan, the foreman at the site was credited for creating a bucket brigade which saved the day. No horses were harmed in the fire. The site was the second site for the Essex Fox Hounds that Pfizer bought and brought first to Bernardsville, then moved to Gladstone.
Firehouses & Firefighters
Let it be noted that all of the firemen and firehouses in the Somerset Hills have been all volunteer since their inception. Each town formed their own department and they all were formed in the late 1800’s thru the early 1900’s. Below are a few images of the properties.
Basking Ridge Fire of 1903 and a New Fire Company
One of the major fires in Basking Ridge which indicated the need for a fire company occured in the fall of 1903 when Charles Wickenhaver had the misfortune to have his large barn with contents and four horses burn. That winter there was talk about organizing a fire company and on May 30, 1904, names were secured of those willing to give their time and talents as members. Almost a month later on June 24, 1904 a meeting was held with Fred C. Sutro presiding, at which time the Basking Ridge Fire Company was formally organized and its officers were elected; Chief J. Walter Allen, Secretary, Raymond A, Henry, Treasurer, Charles M. Allen, and Wardens, Harry W. Bennett and Frank J. Happe.
Founded in 1897, the Bernardsville Fire Company was the first fire department in the nation (paid or volunteer) to be fully radio equipped!
At the corner of Henry Street and South Maple Avenue is the earlier firehouse of Basking Ridge Fire Company Number 1, organized in 1904. The red brick building with clay tile roof was constructed in 1915 for the cost of $10,000.
The Peapack & Gladstone Volunteer Fire Company has been serving the community since 1905.
Other Notable Fires in the Somerset Hills
- 1760 charter of Bernardston is said to have burnt in a fire in 1850 at the home of the Township Clerk. Read the story.
- The history of fires in Basking Ridge (part of 100th anniversary celebration)
- Somerset Hills Quarterly -The Charter of Bernardston Burns
- Basking Ridge fire of 1843 (searching)
- Basking Ridge fire of 1850 (searching)
- Basking Ridge fire of 1881 (searching)
- Somerset Hills Quarterly Vol 5 (Somerset Hills Quarterly Vol 2 pg 103. – Charter burns Bernardsville News looks back at the Somerset Inn Fire of 1908
- 1903 fire at Charles Wickenhaver’s farm, it was this barn fire that prompted the formation of the Basking Ridge Fire Company. And the farm later became the grounds for the St. Marks Church!
- 1909 fire that destroys Dumont Lumber Yard in Far Hills
- 1915 Fire destroys Lawson house in Far Hills – 1915 Bernardsville News
- 1917 Stone Crusher Fire causes extensive damage – Bernardsville News
- 1927 – Three fires on Schley Estate causes $500,000 in damages – reported August 18, 1927 being caused by cigarettes and thunderstorms.
- Bernardsville News 1947 – A look back at the greatest fire in Bernardsville History
- 1934 Fire destroys Brooder House in Dewey Meadow (Bernardsville News)
- John Copperthwaithe fire in Far Hills
- 1948 – Bernards Inn fire – March 1948
- 1975 – Joseph “Jumbo” Luccis dies in fire at Mooreland Farms in Far Hills
- 1976 fire destroys Basking Ridge’s Pennbrook Golf Club – “The Club” and “Porch Lounge” were destroyed and owner promised to rebuild.
- The firebombings at two Bernards Township Police Departments go unsolved.
- Official Bernards Township Clerks (ties to Great Fire of 1850)
- 1851 William R. Wilson
- 1852-1853 John S. Quimby
- 1854-1855 James W. Arrowsmith
- 1856-1857 Benjamin Smith
- 1858-1859 James W. Arrowsmith
- 1860 Ira B. Pruden
- 1861 John W.B. Lewis