Cruising between New York City and Havana on September 8, 1934, guests aboard the SS Morro Castle awoke in the dead of night to find their ship on fire off the New Jersey coast. Within twenty minutes, the flames had burned through electrical cables and hydraulic lines, plunging the ship into total darkness with no radio, no steering, and no sight. Passengers who made it on deck were forced to jump or burn. All told, the disaster claimed the lives of 137 passengers and crew. The fire’s genesis remains an unsolved mystery.
In the hours following the disaster, the Coast Guard cutter Tampa was towing this “floating hotel” to New York City when rough seas from a nor’easter snapped the tow lines, prompting the lifeless ship to drift alone up the eastern seaboard. That night, from the second-floor promenade of Asbury Park’s Convention Hall, WCAP radio station manager Thomas F. Burley, Jr. was broadcasting live around 7:30 PM when he first witnessed the blazing vessel barreling towards him through the black water. As the ship approached the shore, Burley exclaimed on air, “She’s here! The Morro Castle is coming right toward our studio!” The floating inferno barely avoided making contact, beaching “a stone’s throw from the Convention Hall pier.” Asbury Park, by some twisted form of providence, had just received its newest tourist attraction.
Reflecting on his visit to the seaside resort town as an eight-year-old boy, Max Shoenwalder Jr. said, “My parents packed three kids in the back of the car—me, my sister and brother. News of the fire spread like wildfire over the radio and across back fences.” Within the first two days of the disaster, it is estimated that between 100,000 and 250,000 people flocked to Asbury Park. Signs littered New Jersey and New York roads, directing drivers to the Morro Castle. The sensation at one point caused a four-and-a-half hour traffic jam in the Holland Tunnel. Once in Asbury Park, the heat coming from the black ship could be felt just standing on the boardwalk.
Local businesses that had closed for the season after Labor Day reopened five days later to find unprecedented crowds. Its season suddenly extended, Asbury Park could now combat the ill effects of the Depression, which had a devastating impact on towns that relied almost exclusively on a three-month summer tourist season. Vendors sold unofficial photographs of the wreckage, postcards, and souvenir pennies. An innate desire to be a part of this experience transcended Depression-era struggles faced by so many families at the time.
Planes flew overhead providing aerial views of the wreckage. Inside Convention Hall, a typically overlooked pay-per-view telescope became a hot commodity, with visitors paying twenty cents (increased from ten) to get a closer look at the charred skeleton of the ship that lay before them. Boardwalk hotels set up makeshift seats to help customers relax during their viewing, and City Councilman James Digney charged twenty-five cents for the “perfect view” from Convention Hall’s eastern, seaside walkway. On Sunday, September 9 alone, the city collected $2,800 from curious onlookers in this fashion.
In an attempt to cool down the ship, firemen doused it with water from Convention Hall for over a week. To facilitate the removal of charred bodies, the Coast Guard used a Lyle gun to attach several ropes to the Morro Castle, creating a breeches buoy that could ferry authorities and inspectors in a bucket between the stern of the ship and Convention Hall’s ground floor. During his inspection, local Coast Guard commander R.W. Hodge found the body of a boy that had melted into the deck. Feeling his stomach turn, he grabbed the rail to steady himself, but burned his hand instead. Upon leaving the ship, he noticed that the soles of his shoes had melted. Once the official inspection concluded, city officials opened up the breeches buoy as a sort of “sky ride.” Anyone who could afford to pay a hefty fare was allowed to climb aboard the smoldering deck, which remained hot for weeks. When reporters arrived, they were charged $5 to tour the hulk. Once on deck, they were charged another $5 to rent obligatory gas masks. The level of “official” endorsement of this “attraction” remains a source of contention even today.
Given the fortuitous financial windfall brought on by the Morro Castle‘s ghostly presence, it is no surprise that an article in The New York Times noted three days after the disaster that “city authorities decided today to attempt to make the fire-blackened vessel a permanent addition to the beach attractions.” Believing that “possession is nine points of the law,” city officials thought they could keep the ship “without paying a nickel,” but would “dicker with the [Ward Line] owners” if need be. Radio station manager Thomas Burley stated in a council meeting that there was no need to buy the ship: “There she is in the city’s front yard. Raise a city flag on her and make your claim.”
One resident voiced what was on all minds in the municipality. With the Morro Castle established as a permanent edifice, Asbury Park would finally be able to “push Atlantic City off the map” as New Jersey’s premiere seaside resort center. No amount of Enoch “Nucky” Johnson’s money in Atlantic City could recreate this visceral of an experience. Nevertheless, the city was unsuccessful in keeping the ship, which the Ward Line declared a total loss and towed away on March 14, 1935. In the six months the Morro Castle lay beached at Asbury Park, it attracted an estimated 10,000 visitors per day.
Should we deem the town’s profiteering morally reprehensible given the suffering and death that took place on the doomed ship? Within the context of the Great Depression, it seems harder to do so. But the municipality’s desire to take advantage of the situation transcends simply surviving as a city. Asbury Park, as a seaside resort, maintained intense competition with other towns like Atlantic City, not only for tourist dollars, but for civic pride. If the council meeting discussions reported on September 11 suggest anything, it is that at least some residents were motivated by a sense of civic competition with rival seaside resorts when considering what to do with the charred hulk. Though supporting the local economy was of primary importance, putting Atlantic City “off the map” was central in the minds of officials to the Morro Castle’s merit as a tourist attraction.
Can we blame the tourists for their morbid curiosity? This phenomenon represents what Professors John Lennon and Malcolm Foley of Glasgow Caledonian University coined in 1996 as “dark tourism.” Dr. Philip Stone, Executive Director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research, which was founded in 2012 at the University of Central Lancashire, states that dark tourism is any travel associated with death, disaster, or the macabre. “It’s the commercialization of death,” he explains. One chief characteristic of dark tourism, says Stone, is its lack of boundaries. Death becomes accessible. The artificial barrier created by society that normally separates life and death disappears. Suffering and living often occur simultaneously, creating an uncanny and surreal experience.
What makes the Morro Castle phenomenon unique is the immediacy of a semi-organized tourist response at Asbury Park, which can at least in part be attributed to the centrality of its location at an already established tourist town, and the economic opportunity it offered. A preexisting infrastructure was already in place to not only exploit it, but do so on a large scale with unprecedented crowds. The beach, the boardwalk, and surrounding buildings all functioned as various sections of a theater, with the Morro Castle taking center stage in the shallow water.
Then there is the issue of chronological distance. When an event is situated safely in the past and has been blocked into history, the process of commercialization and exploitation becomes more palpable. The Morro Castle was most definitely not safely in the past. The window of time in which the disaster unfolded encouraged an immediate municipal response that often bordered on utter impropriety. But it also meant that visitors witnessed the disaster unfiltered. The experience that ensued was both exhilarating and haunting. As maritime historians Gretchen Coyle and Deb Whitcraft have stated succinctly, “The burning ship left a lasting impression.”
Experts in the field agree that, despite there being no code of conduct for how to behave at such disaster sites, nor a set of rules for how to memorialize them, there is a necessary time and place for their existence. It is a natural part of the human experience—often offering a sense of understanding and catharsis through visceral, direct engagement. New York journalist Jason Feifer says, “I think most people are going to these places with a purity of curiosity.” Dr. Stone believes that “there is no such thing as a dark tourist, only people who are interested in the world around them.” Engagement with such places is one way we, as humans, can look in a mirror, confront our own mortality, and ultimately, try to understand our place in the world. Tragedy, a normal part of life, reclaims its rightful place in the narrative of human experience with disaster sites like that of the Morro Castle. Humanity’s insatiable curiosity with such phenomena only reinforces the truth behind this macabre façade.
Bill Jaker, Frank Sulek, and Peter Kanze, The Airwaves of New York: Illustrated Histories of 156 Am Stations in the Metropolitan Area, 1921-1996, 1998, Reprint, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2008.
Brian Hicks, When the Dancing Stopped: The Real Story of the Morro Castle Disaster and Its Deadly Wake, New York City, NY: Free Press, 2006.
Gretchen F. Coyle and Deborah C. Whitcraft, Inferno at Sea: Stories of Death and Survival Aboard the Morro Castle, West Creek, NJ: Down the Shore Publishing, 2012.
Joseph Bilby and Harry Ziegler, Asbury Park: A Brief History, Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012.
Staff Correspondent, “Asbury to Claim Morro Castle as Museum; Sightseeing Fees Bring in $2,800 in a Day,” in The New York Times, September 11, 1934.
Thomas Gallagher, Fire at Sea: The Mysterious Tragedy of the Morro Castle, Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2003.