It has been more than half a century since two major fires ripped through Schellenger’s Landing. The first, in 1966, destroyed the Lobster House restaurant, and the second, a year later, incinerated Fisherman’s Wharf and threatened a major explosion.
Just this summer, a treasure trove of never-seen-before photographs of the wharf inferno was shared with Cape May Magazine, when two ladies presented a box containing dozens of slides that had been stashed in closets for 38 years since the death of the photographer, their father. Joseph Moroz was a Philadelphia draftsman with a family beach house along the bay in the Villas who died at age 69 in 1979.
Moroz’s daughters, Carol Henry and Marjorie Taylor, explained that their father always carried a camera. And he was always taking photos, pulling up on a city street or a country road when a subject interested him. He was leaving Cape May on Sunday, May 14, 1967, when at 12:45pm, he saw smoke rising from Fisherman’s Wharf as he approached the bridge leaving town. He pulled into the restaurant parking lot, grabbed his 35mm camera, and recorded the general alarm fire that ultimately destroyed two fish packing houses, five smaller sheds, and 14,000 square feet of dock and pilings of the Cold Spring Fish and Supply Company. Both the Lobster House and the Fisherman’s Wharf operations were owned by Wally Laudeman and Elmer Strauss.
The May 18, 1967 Star and Wave reported that dock foreman Russ Spaulding discovered flames and tried to put them out with a fire extinguisher. Wally Laudeman heard Spaulding’s shouts, ran toward him, saw the flames, and called the Cape May Fire Company and the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard arrived first with two 44-foot boats. They were soon joined by the New Jersey Marine Patrol. The primary company to cover Schellenger’s Landing, located in Lower Township, is the Town Bank Fire Company, but its distance is greater than that of the Cape May Fire Department, which was the first on the scene with equipment.
More than 100 firefighters rushed in with engines and pumper and ladder trucks from Town Bank, Erma, North Cape May, and the Villas. The Star and Wave reported that the New Jersey Marine patrol cut loose and towed two large commercial fishing vessels away from the flaming dock. The Schooner American cocktail lounge was loosened from her moorings for removal in the event the flames spread closer.
Plumes of thick black smoke billowed hundreds of feet into the air. The fear was that the fire would ignite a nearby 20,000-gallon diesel fuel storage tank, causing a massive explosion. Firemen poured water on the tank and were able to keep it cooled sufficiently to avoid detonation. The Star and Wave reported that the heat was so intense, paint blistered on the diesel tank and on an empty 4,000 gallon gasoline tank. Newspapers reported the flames were fed by 10,000 wax cartons, dozens of wooden boxes, plus ten 55-gallon drums of motor oil that had been delivered to the docks the previous day.
Firemen fought the stubborn blaze for three hours, and a breeze from the southeast made their efforts more challenging. Wister (Barney) Dougherty, who was Cape May’s volunteer chief for 25 years, says that a problem fighting dock fires is the draft that invariably develops underneath, acting as a chimney, intensifying the flames.
Keith Laudeman, the current owner of the Lobster House, was in sixth grade when the fire happened. He recalls that his father Wally said the fire was of electrical origin. The Star and Wave reported damages of $75,000, which included the loss of a new fish transfer machine and a fork lift. There were no injuries and the restaurant sustained no damage. Crews worked around the clock to clean up the debris and repair docks to be prepared for the approaching Memorial Day weekend.
Just a year earlier, a May 9th fire destroyed the Lobster House Restaurant. The 9am alarm was turned in by a volunteer firefighter who happened to be eating at the coffee shop and saw flames in the adjoining kitchen. The Star and Wave reported that a strong southwesterly wind kept the flames from destroying the wharf and touching off an explosion of two 30,000-gallon tanks of diesel fuel used for fishing vessels. Though the restaurant could not be saved, firemen were able to protect the Schooner American, the 125-foot vessel that had recently arrived at the dock from Nova Scotia and was under renovation to become a floating bar and restaurant. (The Schooner American is now a Lobster House tradition, and the third such ship was specially designed and built and towed to the wharf in 2001.)
Keith Laudeman says that though the 1966 fire burned out the restaurant, the location of the business in such a small and tightly knit community meant that all hands literally were on deck to rebuild. “The fire was around Mother’s Day,” he says. “And by July 4th, the restaurant was able to serve customers. The building trades dropped everything to help get the place back on its feet.”
The most recent fire was reported at 3am on September 26, 2005. An exhaust fan in an upstairs storage area for linens and utensils malfunctioned, according to fire investigators. The kitchen was destroyed. The restaurant and banquet hall sustained heavy smoke as well as water damage from sprinklers. Restoration took several months, and the restaurant reopened in the spring of 2006.
The Lobster House today has the five-dining room restaurant, the Schooner American cocktail lounge, the Fish Market, the Coffee Shop, the Take-Out Shop and the Raw Bar. It is one of the most popular restaurants in the country, and shares Fisherman’s Wharf with the Laudeman family’s Cold Spring Fish and Supply Company, which handles more than 11 million pounds of fish a year, distributing around the nation and internationally. Keith Laudeman is a fourth generation of the family to “be at the docks,” as he says. His great-grandfather Cap Johnson ran party boats. His grandfather Jesse Laudeman operated a seafood business and purchased the small restaurant which Keith’s father Wally and his wife Marijane developed into the Lobster House Restaurant, with its signature seafood specialties and red and white checkered tablecloths. Keith grew up selling fish, mopping the docks, and heading out to sea as a scalloper. He now owns a fleet of scallop boats and oversees the wholesale fishing and restaurant businesses. Cape May is the second largest fishing port on the East Coast, with fishing its second largest industry next to tourism.
As for Carol Henry and Marjorie Taylor, the daughters of that photographer who captured the dramatic photos of the 1967 fire, they say that they think of their father while enjoying dinners at the Lobster House and lunches on Fisherman’s Wharf.
And Marjorie, now a retired nurse, lives full time in that Villas bayside cottage her grandparents bought more than 60 years ago “when the Villas was being developed and you had to walk through the woods to get to the water.”