THE JERSEY SHORE GETS “nor’easters,” massive storms that dump tons of water or snow on our heads. They’re fun to live through, if you can escape massive flooding — my wife and I live in a noisy apartment, and we can hear the wind whistling through the windows as we sleep. Whenever one starts blowing in, I put on my poncho and head to the Asbury Park boardwalk, where I can watch massive waves break on the jetties.
There was a famous nor’easter that happened decades ago, part of a disaster that is permanently linked with the little stretch of beach I would watch the waves from. In the 1930’s, Havana was a popular travel destination for New Yorkers, and the best way to get there was over ocean liners. The SS Morro Castle took passengers straight down the Atlantic Coast to Havana and back. But on a return trip in September of 1934, a few disasters struck at once.
First, a nor’easter hit. This alone a typical ocean liner could handle. But on September 7th, the captain died suddenly of a heart attack. And then on the morning of September 8th, a fire started.
The Burning of Morro Castle
A ship can’t send an SOS without the captain’s approval. But the new acting captain didn’t recognize the man who was sent to inform him of the fire, and didn’t give permission. Other ships began radioing the Morro Castle to ask them if they were on fire — they could see it from afar. The SOS got sent a half an hour later than it should have. And the new captain, believing the ship was under control, kept speeding along the Jersey coast, adding wind to the flames.
A fire is a bigger deal on a ship than most people realize — you think, “Well, we’re surrounded by water. We’ll be okay if something burns.” But you hardly have access to the water that surrounds you. On a big ship, there aren’t buckets just hanging over the railing that you can lower into the water in case of a fire.
The fire on the Morro Castle began to corner the passengers. They hadn’t been taught any fire safety procedures, and the new crew had all been promoted to new positions the day before, as a result of the captain’s death. No one knew what they were doing. So passengers had to choose — burn or jump into the choppy waters of the nor’easter.
Only some of the lifeboats were launched — some people tossed things overboard to the floundering passengers, others just disappeared into the Atlantic. But when the sun came up, the Morro Castle was still burning, and was eventually totally abandoned. A smoldering, empty ship floated along the Jersey coast, eventually running aground directly in front of the Asbury Park Convention Hall. 137 people died.
The ghost ship
The husk of the Morro Castle became a tourist attraction. It couldn’t be quickly moved, so it stayed there in front of Convention Hall for 5 months before being towed off. Asbury Park, like most shore towns, is subject to strange weather. The eeriest weather is the mists — it rolls through the town like a wall, stopping abruptly a few hundred yards in, or just hovering off the shore. Where you’re standing may be clear as day, but 20 feet away is a haunted soup.
This is what I imagine when I think of the Morro Castle: A ghost ship, just peaking out behind a wall of fog, just beyond the boardwalk.
There’s a memorial for the Morro Castle outside of Convention Hall today. It was a scandal at the time — there were whispers that the Captain hadn’t died of a heart attack, that he’d been murdered. One of the crew — who’d behaved heroically during the fire — was nonetheless agitating for the creation of a union, and thus became suspected as a saboteur. And the radio operator, who had a criminal past, would later lose his failing business in a mysterious fire, and would be convicted of trying to kill a coworker with an improvised bomb.
Morro Castle today
I was nervous when we moved to the Jersey Shore in 2014. My wife was from the shore, and I wasn’t — I’d only lived in cities for the last 5 years, and wasn’t sure I wanted to leave the cities behind. I loved cities — there was history on every street corner. Big important things had happened in cities. But Asbury Park was coming out of 4 decades of deep economic depression (Springsteen’s song “My City of Ruins” is written about Asbury Park). Springsteen aside, I thought, there was no history there, just decay. I didn’t know anyone. I worked from home, so I didn’t even have real coworkers. The town looked eerie in the fog, and it made me feel like I’d stumbled into some weird, Lovecraftian hellscape. Eventually, I realized that if I stayed in the house all day, I’d go slowly insane.
So I started taking walks along the Asbury Park boardwalk, some 7 minutes from my doorstep. And the first thing I noticed, just outside of Convention Hall, was the bust of a man named Patriarch Athenagoras. The bust had no explanation attached explaining who Patriarch Athenagoras was, except that he was a “Man of Love.”
I would stop and enjoy this from time to time — at the suggestion of a friend, I refused to look up the Man of Love online, instead choosing to make up stories of who he could’ve been in my head.
And then one day — September 8th, actually — I looked just beyond the bust and noticed the SS Morro Castle memorial for the first time. I stared for a minute, and then I turned and peered just beyond Convention Hall. I pulled out my phone and looked the disaster up, sitting there on the bench for a half an hour, reading stories about it.
When I stood up again, I felt a little bit lighter. I lived 5 blocks from an honest-to-god ghost ship. The corrupt glamor of Capitol Hill, where I’d lived just before in DC, didn’t have a ghost ship. Neither did the Ripper-haunted streets of Whitechapel in London, where I’d lived before that. History was everywhere, if I cared to look. Even here on the Jersey Shore.