Published on May 1, 2020.

Beach Blaze 

The 1922 Arverne conflagration 


It was a warm, sunny afternoon on June 15, 1922, in Arverne, Queens, a beachfront resort area on the Rockaway Peninsula near New York City. Around 5 p.m., a painter at the three-story Hotel Nautilus dropped a cigarette onto the wooden shingle roof of the single-story section of the building. A fire broke out, and workers attempted to extinguish it with buckets of water. The flames continued to spread, however, and the fire department was contacted around 5:15 p.m.

When firefighters arrived at the scene, the hotel was engulfed in flames and the surrounding houses were also on fire. Fire hydrants closest to the hotel were inaccessible due to the intense heat. As additional companies arrived, high winds spread the fire to buildings north of the Nautilus by carrying burning embers to their wooden shingle roofs. Less than an hour after the fire started, five alarms had been called in, and several other companies were brought in from the mainland to assist. By 6 p.m., the blaze had spread approximately 1,500 feet north to Rockaway Boulevard, preventing mainland companies from reaching the west side of the fire. They battled the fire on the east side in a congested area with few fire hydrants until the wind slowed later in the evening, allowing firefighters to reach the west side of the fire and extinguish the remaining burning buildings.

By then, though, the damage had been done. Fire destroyed more than 140 structures, including hotels, boarding houses, private homes, and an orphanage, resulting in about $2 million in damage. Several firefighters were injured, and scores of residents were left homeless.

In a National Board of Fire Underwriters report on the Arverne conflagration, Joseph “Smoky Joe” Martin, chief officer in command of the Arverne fire, described the wooden shingle roofs as “a conflagration breeder and spreader,” especially in congested areas such as Arverne and many other districts of greater New York. Martin requested that wooden shingle roofs receive special attention as fire hazards, and called for the development of fire-resistant substitutes for wood shingles, which, he argued, “should be taboo.”

The report also emphasized the importance of a dependable fire alarm service for areas like Arverne, as well as “quickly available” firefighting resources, an ample water supply with close grouping of hydrants, and improved accessibility through better street layout. After the fire, a new fire station was built on Rockaway Beach Boulevard, and the city issued an order to the water company to install 200 additional hydrants in the area.

According to a 1945 issue of With New York Firemen Magazine, “Not long after the Arverne debacle, legislation regarding fire-resistive roof construction was enacted in New York City.”

CAITLIN WALKER is a digital asset librarian at NFPA. Top photograph: NFPA