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Stranger Than Fiction- Fire at Naval Section Base 9

Chapter One of Thicker Than Water opens on the 4th of July, 1916.

Lights dim. The orchestra finishes tuning up for what promises to be a Star-Spangled night to remember. Later that month, on July 30, 1916, German agents attacked the munitions operation at the Black Tom railroad yard (now part of NJ's Liberty State Park).

Set against the backdrop of the U.S. entry into World War One, the novel follows two very different couples, subtly examining how the pending mobilization impacts each of their lives.

Flash forward to another Independence Day.

July 4, 1918 — an explosion rocks the cape. Plumes of thick, black smoke are seen to the horror of spectators lined up for the city’s parade. Has the enemy attacked again?

*photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

The History Behind Naval Section Base #9 and Wissahickon Barracks

You may recall my previous post covering submarine warfare and the events of Black Sunday.

Following the bombings at Black Tom (which occurred just across from lower Manhattan and NY Harbor), officials made the decision to secure the southern portion of the state and provide defenses for the Delaware Bay and, in turn, Philadelphia.

In 1917, the Navy acquired land on the east side of Cape May (now the grounds of the USCG Training Center Cape May). The property included an old amusement park, the Fun Factory, that had been damaged as a result of winter storms.

The military soon put the structures to new use; the skating rink turned into both a barracks and a dining hall, the former "Barrel of Fun" used as the brig.

*photos courtesy of (left to right): Don Pocher, the Library of Congress, and H. Gerald MacDonald

The War Department additionally secured land to the north of Schellenger's Landing (across the harbor from the Naval base) for a training facility. Wissahickon Naval Training Center, or "Camp Wissahickon" as it was sometimes called, was soon built on a property formerly held by Henry Ford.

It consisted of 30 barracks and approximately 3,000 reservists.

Air support and reconnaissance were also important components of the U.S. defenses. The base built the largest hangar in the world to house dirigible (blimp) SSZ-23.

*photos courtesy of Flicker

Other branches of the military also utilized Cape May during the war. The Hotel Cape May, which some may better remember as the late Christian Admiral, was turned into an Army hospital.

Meanwhile, along Higbee Beach, the Bethlehem Steel company operated a munitions testing facility. Prior to the American entry into the war, the corporation reportedly had contracts with the Russia, France, and Britain to manufacture arms, and shells were frequently fired into the sand and dunes.

A narrow-gauge rail line carried the supplies from the city to the bay. The tracks are still there, buried under the sand along the barren beach. Occasionally, after a coastal storm, they'll resurface, and are affectionately dubbed by locals as the Ghost Tracks.

On July 4th, 1918, a suspicious fire broke out at the Fun Factory. Thankfully, no sailors or personnel were reportedly injured, as most of the men were lined up for the city's Independence Day parade at the time.

However, by the time the flames were extinguished, the base was almost entirely destroyed. As with Black Tom, and the Eddystone bombing outside of Philadelphia (which is referenced in my novel's narrative), sabotage was initially suspected as the fire's origin. It was later ruled out.

The City of Cape May continues to hold an Independence Day Parade annually. This year's event is scheduled for Saturday, July 2, 2022 at 1 pm. For a full schedule of summer activities, including free movies, concerts, and fireworks displays, I recommend following their Facebook.

Until next time, wishing you and your families a safe and happy 4th!

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