Bizarre Tales: The Day Ocean Park Burned – 1912

Bizarre Tales: The Day Ocean Park Burned (Bizarre Los Angeles)

Bizarre Tales: The Day Ocean Park Burned

Scene of Multitude’s Pleasure Quickly Turned Into Red Cauldron from Which All Must Fly –One Party Trapped at End of Pier Dead – Story of the Terrible Fire Battle

THE LOS ANGELES TIMES – September 4, 1912 — Fed by a thousand flimsy wooden and painted canvas walls, it was a resistless conflagration that poured over the little seaside city of Ocean Park yesterday afternoon and swept in a magnificent but terrible mantle of livid flame over Fraser’s famous Million-Dollar Pier, the Royal Gorge amusement resort, and leaping across Ocean Front, seized in its fiery arms the entire business section of the little city embraced between Navy street on the south and Ashland avenue on the north and back over half way to Trolleyway, leaving in its track nothing but smoldering embers and gaunt brick and stone walls which were busy hives of business a few short hours before.

Scenes of almost indescribable confusion arose. The great pleasure pier extending 1100 feet into the Pacific was alive with approximately 1000 pleasure seekers. The Casino was well filled with diners. The Breakers, another dining place, was well filled. The rink standing three stories high was a-hum as the skaters swung about the smooth floor. Out at the end of the pier a dance was in progress and a hundred couples of young folk, all unaware of the demon that was soon to burst upon them, were enjoying themselves. At the various concessions hundreds of vacationists were moving about and “doing” the famous Pike and Midway.

Across the Ocean Front the sturdy brick buildings of the business places were alive with visitors from all over the Southland.


Suddenly out the big gaunt Casino building came a leaping flash of flame. It seemed to leap straight up through the center of the big structure. The doors burst open and out poured a screaming, shrieking mass of people, followed by a hysterical crowd of waiters who rushed about yelling “Fire!” “Fire!”

There was a sudden lull in the noisy gaiety that overran the pleasure city. Earl Gillman, one of the owners of the Casino, rushed into the midst of the shrieking waiters.

“Get back in there,” he cried, pounding and striking the shrinking men, “get those fire extinguishers and stop the fire.” Headed by Gilman, the terrorized waiters rushed back into the Casino and with the few fire extinguishers that could be secured, and with buckets of water and wet tablecloths, beat and fought at the flames.

Their efforts were useless. The fire had started in the basement of the frame building in the Japanese servants’ sleeping quarters. It is thought that a lighted cigarette thrown into the bedding was the beginning. The fire must have smouldered for several hours unnoticed to gain the terrific headway that is showed so suddenly.


There was a strong wind from the ocean and this fanned the flames. The frame of the building was as dry as tinder and made superb food for the flames. The sparks leaped skyward to a height of 200 feet and fell like fiery bath over the flimsy-painted canvas walss and light grill work of gaudy trimmings of the big pier. In a moment cries of “fire” were sounding from a dozen directions. It seemed that wherever the sparks fell they immediately ignited the cloth or woodwork upon which they dropped.

The Venice and Ocean Park fire departments rushed up but with the slight, inadequate apparatus, were powerless.

The employees of the various concessions on the pier, probably 300 strong, gave of their energies eagerly to stay the fire that threatened to devour everything. Suddenly the cry of “Fire” came from the big skating rink. This structure was entirely of wood and dry as tinder. In a moment it was blazing in a dozen places. Then came cries from a dozen other small concessions midway between the skating rink and the big dancing pavilion at the end of the pier.

Mayor Holbrook of Venice was one of the first on the scene, and as he saw the steady wind blowing the flames from the pier over to the town, he rushed to the telephone and called up Chief Eley of the Los Angeles fire department, and told of the doom that was threatening. The telephone call was answered and Chief Eley sprang to the general alarm, and within three minutes reinforcements were on the way. The run from Los Angeles was made in twenty-seven minutes and the arrival of Chief Eley stayed the fire at Navy street and Ocean Front.


In the meantime the flames of the burning Casino and skating rink had got beyond control. They were raging veritable infernos and vomited sparks and red-hot embers over the city and pier like a volcanic eruption.

Terror-stricken, the little fire-fighting brigade of employees of the pier concessions and the local departments fled from the doomed pier—all but six men and one girl. These were hemmed in on the far side of the skating rink. So far, the dancing pavilion had not become ignited, and the little party fought its way toward this place for safety.

Their safety was short-lived. Within a few moments this, too, caught fire, and they were hemmed in and seemingly doomed to a fiery death.

The crowd on the beach saw silhouetted against the background of the flames the black figures of the little group. Their cries could not be heard, so terrific was the roar of the flames.

A lifeboat put off from the beach to rescue them, but it foundered. The occupants struggled to shore. The big dancing pavilion was a seething cauldron of flame. Suddenly the big dome-like roof swayed and fell crashing into the fiery pit. This was the final blow to the little group on the end of the pier and with waving arms and faint cries they jumped into the Pacific and began to struggle for land.

On the beach were David Moreno and Frank Newton, life guards. As they saw the little party leap into the water they plunged into the surf and started out to rescue them.


Five of the men and the girl proved to be good swimmers, and as the life guards met them they cried to them to continue on and not bother about them, but to look for H.B. Locke, an old man who was cashier in the Casino, who was injured and was having trouble getting in. The life guards, their figures thrown into brilliant relief in the water by the mighty conflagration, swam steadily outward and heard a faint call still further out. Like men possessed they tore ahead through the water and struggled to locate the sound. They saw a dark object ahead and found it to be a bench that had been torn from the pier. As they were leaving the bench in their search for Locke the next high breaker hurled Locke toward them. The two life guards dived after him as he was sinking. He had held to the bench as long as possible, and his fingers became numb and it gradually slipped away from his support just as the life guards came into view. The guards secured hold of him, and keeping the head above water, worked their way back to the beach. Locke was unconscious and all efforts to resuscitate him failed. Death came within a few moments after bringing him to shore. The body was taken to the Bresee brothers’ morgue in this city.

In the meanwhile the fiery demon had been rushing unconfined toward its prey on the shore. The long tongues of flame had leaped the narrow Ocean Front way and in a dozen spots broke out in the various business buildings along the Ocean Front. The fire-fighting apparatus did not avail.


Long before business concerns had begun a frantic effort to save a little of their goods, windows flew open and household material and wearing apparel were flung desperately out to the ground. The little summer cottages back of the first row of brick buildings turned out their occupants by hundreds. Their goods were pitched into the street and then began a long trek to carry them to places of safety.

The flames had spread to the three-story brick building occupied by the Hoskell Drug Company, a poolroom and a photographer’s store, above which were furnished rooms. The roof of this building burst into flames and almost simultaneously two adjoining brick buildings began spouting fire.

Four companies of the Los Angeles fire department had arrived and two companies from Santa Monica were on hand. The salt water mains from Venice were well supplied as to pressure, and an extra force of men and pumps was rushed into the pumping station at Venice.

As fast as the firemen would subdue one incipient flame the roaring volcano that had once been the famous Fraser pier would send a red shower of burning brands, drenching the buildings anew and starting a dozen fires. Through the open windows the red sparks flew in clouds and flames were bursting from a hundred points.

The efforts of the firemen seemed hopeless. They struggled persistently but the fire steadily ate into the very bowels of the buildings fronting the ocean and one after the other they seemed to melt into red maw.


At the Hotel Decatur, where a hundred guests were living, consternation reigned. Efforts were made to get furniture out without avail. The strong wind from the ocean was hurling a veritable death shower over the building and quickly the roof broke into blaze. A dozen buildings were burning fiercely by this time, and everything in the path of the devouring flames seemed doomed.

The members of Co. E, Seventh Regiment N.G.C., were hurriedly summoned to the armory at Santa Monica and descended upon the blazing city, establishing fire lines which they maintained with drawn bayonets against a terrified rabble of half-hysterical men and women.

The spectacle was terrifying. All lights were out but the great conflagration threw everything into daylight relief. Telephone and telegraph communications had stopped a few moments after Mayor Holbrook had summoned aid from Los Angeles, and the city was isolated from the world and seemingly left to fight out its destiny.

The Hotel Decatur was a mass of flames shooting a hundred feet into the sky. The adjoining buildings were flame-enshrouded and adding their vomit of fiery embers to the volcano of the doomed pier.

At the south the fire fighters had taken a sturdy stand behind the breastworks of the Ocean Park Bathhouse. Engine No. 26 and Hose No. 5 of the Los Angeles department had entrenched themselves on the roof of the bath-house and directed four streams of salt water against the burning Decatur. The bath-house was saved.

On the north of the flames had leaped from the pier to the Dragon Gorge, a pleasure establishment covering about half an acre of beach front. The light painted canvas and woodwork caught eagerly at the flames and in a trice it was a roaring furnace, sweeping all opposition before it. Across the Ocean Front promenade the flames leaped again and began their devastating work on the brick and frame buildings at Ashland avenue.

Between Navy street, at the bath-house, and Ashland avenue on the north, not one building was free from the flames on the Ocean Front. All were seen to be doomed and at Ashland the fire fighters again drew a dead line, as they had at the bath-house, and a fight began to stay the flames.

A giant column of fire and smoke had mounted into the sky and lighted the country around for ten miles. The wind had died out and the column of fire was pointed straight upward. In another part of the city a prayer meeting was in progress and on bended knees a party of devout Christians were praying without cessation that the wind would change.

Discouraged and grimy fire fighters were hurled back time and again from their attack. Higher and higher the flames seemed to mount as new material, in the form of additional buildings, was added for the fuel.

Across Trolleyway were piled high household goods from half a thousand little homes and apartments. Women stood about weeping over their losses and whimpering from the very fear of the awful catastrophe that they were witnessing. As far away as Venice business men and merchants were beginning to move out their goods to places of safety as the flames seemed to be beyond control and sure to sweep everything.


When all hope seemed abandoned a little bent old man with a flowing gray beard walked out into the middle of Ashland avenue and pointing to the sky with one long, bony finger called out in a shrill voice: “The wind is changing. The wind is changing. See the smoke column is swaying toward the sea.”

And slowly before the eyes of thousands of frightened and helpless fighters and onlookers the giant column swayed a little and slowly began to bend toward the ocean. The land breeze was starting and the fighters took heart. No longer did the awful shower of embers fall over the city, but drifted out to sea and fell harmless on the breast of the Pacific.

This was the turning point. With the valiant fighters at the bath-house holding the fort and the little band at Ashland unyielding the flames were held to a limited area an by 8:30 o’clock all further danger was over.

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