Camden Fire Department
"Along the Road
to Kaighnton"

Besides putting out fires and engaging in fire prevention activities, A firehouse and its members are part of the fabric that makes up a neighborhood. The article below, from the book Camden Fire Department 1869-1994 125th Anniversary", is about the neighborhood along Kaighn Avenue near Engine Company 7, located a few doors east of Mount Ephraim Avenue; and near the old Engine 8 and Ladder 2 firehouse at 619 Kaighn Avenue. Members of the Camden Fire Department have long served the city in ways far outside the scope of their normal activities. On this page you will find accounts of such service, as well as accounts of those who lived in the neighborhood and who interacted with the firemen on a daily basis. The people mentioned and events described are from a time long gone..... this website is honored to have the opportunity to post the article here for you to read and learn.

Phil Cohen
April 23rd, 2010 


Kaighn Avenue west of South 8th Street, late 1980s-early 1990s
Click on Image for Enlarged View


By Joseph Marini

The countless stories which represent the history of a Fire Department are inseparably bound to the community that is served. Indeed the history of the Fire Department is also a history of the City and it is not possible to tell the story of one, without achieving some understanding of the other. To understand the evolution of urban America and the societal impact upon its citizenry, is to also understand the occupational lives of fire fighters and the neighborhoods in which they worked. The following compilation of [SHORT STORIES] are based upon the community's experience and interaction among its fire fighters. It endeavors to portray the sometimes humorous and often tragic events and circumstances that are so much a part of the fire fighter's life. While most of the cited events and characters reportedly took place on or near one particular thorofare in the City of Camden, their occurrence remains incidental to many other similar incidents that also occurred in other areas of the City, and certainly in other urban communities as well.

The Old Highway

From the early 1800s until after the turn of the 20th Century, Camden was a city of community districts with long since forgotten names and locations. Wrightsville, Bridgeville, Fettersville and Cooper Hill were just a few of many long established community districts throughout the City of Camden. The section called Kaighnton encompassed an area of some twenty square blocks from Front Street to the west; east along Chestnut Street to Union Avenue (5th St.) at the Cooper Creek Road (Newton Ave.); and south along Fourth Street from Atlantic Avenue west to the river. The principal thorofare in the district of Kaighnton was a road that would be later called Kaighns Avenue named after Kaighn's Point, a major commercial and transportation terminus on the Delaware River founded by Joseph Kaighn on or about 1803. Among other subsequent streets and highways, the Kaighn's Point Road was known as the first road to Kaighnton.

In 1879 the Kaighns Point Road ended at the city limits at what is presently the intersection of Mt. Ephraim Avenue. By 1900 and the annexation of adjoining territories from Newton Township, the road to Kaighnton traversed all of South Camden, from the Delaware River eastward to the current municipal boundaries of what would later become the Airport Circle - the first traffic rotary in the United States. With the advent of the City's industrial revolution amid booming growth in both population and new residential construction, the old road to Kaighnton soon became one of the City's most prominent boulevards. Rapid growth posed extraordinary demands for fire services and precipitated the organization of several fire companies and two firehouses. These are the stories of a century old relationship between the men in those firehouses and the community that lived, worked, played, and often died - along the road to Kaighnton.

A Moment of Truth

Foggy Bottom as it was called, was an area of lower Kaighns Avenue from the Delaware River to about Locust Street. Thanksgiving Day on Hyde Park dawned as a gray November morning with freezing drizzle and a damp, biting cold that was more seasonal to early January rather than late autumn. The Marshals said the fire started near a can of bunker oil at the entrance to the basement under the first floor stairs. The flames roared up the open stairway trapping and killing the occupants of the building. A father, mother and three children were incinerated in the path of the vicious onslaught. At the scene of the killing grounds, there was little left for fire fighters to do after the blaze was extinguished, except to wait patiently by for the Marshals to complete their investigation, to be followed by the gruesome task of removing the dead. The Captain sensed the tragic uneasiness in his new man who had joined the company just three weeks before. When the Marshals were finished, the Captain held the rest of the company outside and took the Probie upstairs for his first look. It was evident that the remains of at least two children were so badly burned that they no longer resembled human beings in form. The Captain allowed the new man a brief glimpse at the terrible carnage, and then promptly dispatched him to the street with a reassuring grasp of the shoulder as the other men of the company quietly put on their gloves and entered the dark ruins to perform their ghastly duties.

Despite the Best Laid Plans

The Fourth of July was a sunny, warm Sunday morning with cloudless blue skies and a light breeze blowing along the avenue. The Captain was on vacation and command of the company was entrusted to a senior Fireman in acting status. Residents from the neighborhoods beyond Louis Street and Haddon Avenue could be seen walking up Kaighns Avenue in clustering waves, passed the firehouse on their way to Sunday Mass at Saint Joseph's. Between Rose Street and the firehouse the avenue was spanned by a railroad bridge that carried the elevated train line. Hanging from the underside of the trestle was an enormous hornet's nest, the hive some three to four feet long and containing thousands of swarming, menacing wasps. That several churchgoers were strafed and at least one badly stung while walking under the bridge, caused concern on the part of the firemen. Because it happened to be both a Sunday and a holiday, a phone call to the Fire Dispatcher hoping to summon some pest control agency proved fruitless. Clearly as action oriented people, the firemen would not allow the situation to go unmitigated. They were duty bound to protect the community and a decision was made to rid the neighborhood of the scourge. The means would be a powerful turret stream of water from the apparatus. That the apparatus was connected to a hydrant almost immediately adjoining the overhead span proved early on, to be a serious "tactical" error.

The powerful stream emerged from the deckpipe with great force. Almost immediately, the hive detached from the elevated and fell to the pavement with a heavy clunk, splitting wide open like a watermelon and catapulting hordes of angry hornets everywhere. Izzy Fox, the upholstering man who was exiting his shop near the corner of Mt. Ephraim Avenue, said that the unleashed swarm of ascending insects resembled a plague of locusts of Biblical proportion. As the apparatus was hastily abandoned by the dumb struck fire fighters running for cover, at least two members and a boy on a passing bicycle were badly stung. The angry swarm fanned out over the avenue with reports of innocent bystanders being assailed as far as four blocks away. When the storm had finally subsided, the apparatus was promptly withdrawn to the firehouse along with the men who were left to lick their wounds. For sure, nothing remarkable was reported to the Captain upon his return from vacation leave.

The Characters of Kaighnton

The neighborhoods adjoining the boulevard called Kaighns Avenue contained a diverse population of people from all walks of life. Among its share of urban professionals including doctors, lawyers and expert tradesmen, there was also a large blue collar community working among so many of the City's diverse industries. As well, the neighborhood also harbored a segment of society's permanent underclass. Her name was Zelda and she was a 250 pound Prostitute that darkened many a doorway along Kaighns Avenue for nearly two decades. Her haunt included nearly the entire length and breadth of the avenue from the Green Goose Cafe at Locust Street, all the way up to the S & S Public Tavern near Haddon Avenue. Not surprisingly, a host of other flavorful and no less forgettable characters also made their home along the sidewalks of the avenue. Many of these less fortunate souls shared a long and enduring friendship with neighborhood fire fighters as each other's lives were unalterably intertwined within the environment that they shared.

He was affectionately known as Scaramouche among the fire fighters and he was seldom seen sober, regardless of the day or night. While he was inherently a trust worthy soul, his exorbitant dependency upon alcohol certainly affected his demeanor and judgement to say the least. As fire fighters would occasionally toss him a tip for running some brief errand to a nearby store, "Mooch" would occasionally get half way up the block and then legitimately forget the purpose of his assigned mission. On some other occasions, Mooch would endeavor to seek refuge in the firehouse particularly during the late night hours as he scared more than a few half-dozing Housewatchmen, while climbing through a side alley window.

Another character of the avenue was known as "Old Soldier" although no one ever knew if he held any former military service. In winter he could be seen shuffling up the street, rags bundled about his feet, wearing a wool olive drab ankle length overcoat that resembled World War I issue. He would walk several paces and call out marching cadence in vigorous form: "Hee-Yup! Hee-Yup!" and then would abruptly stop and engage in a screaming monologue with some invisible person. If challenged in his boisterous tirade, he would holler and throw rocks or bottles at the front of the firehouse.

A Long Lost Comrade

His name was Friday and he was a fixture along the avenue for as long as anyone could remember. A decorated and disabled veteran of the Second World War, he had been seriously wounded in the Solomon Islands and in later years, had no known family. During the cold winter months he was said to occupy an unheated garage somewhere along Baxter Street. But in summer, he was the undisputed Ester Williams of Kaighns Avenue. For more than fifty years, the nine and ten hundred blocks of the avenue would flood under as much as five feet of water during heavy summer storms. The cellars, basements and ground floors of buildings along the block would be inundated with filthy sewer water. A floating flotsam of trash, sewage, hypodermic needles and terrible organisms that fostered potential diseases like typhoid, tetanus and polio, were always awash in the rising tide. Children who were among the poorest of the poor, would frolic in the impromptu lake and were mesmerized by Friday who in best form, could be seen out in the center of the avenue doing back strokes and belly flops.

One spring morning, poor Friday was found dead in the men's room of the old Merit Gas Station at the corner of Mt. Ephraim and Kaighns Avenue. While awaiting burial in Potters Field, the timely intervention of a fellow veteran and retired fire fighter got Friday his last resting place of honor in a veteran's cemetery. It was reported that a Marine Corp Honor Guard rendered a final salute to its very long lost comrade.

Among Other Remarkable Characters

They called him Snake-eyes and he was very much an anatomical wonder. Some said he was born with two stomachs and a redundancy of other internal organs. His ability to consume food and drink was nothing less than astounding as witnessed by more than just a few neighborhood locals. It was reported that at the outbreak of the Korean War, he arrived at the Army Reception Center and managed to swallow 73 hot dogs while waiting for his induction interview. Needless to say, he was promptly dismissed from the service of his country. Whenever they would see him along the avenue, fire fighters would routinely ask him what he had had during his most recent meal. Snake-eyes would respond in a stuttering baritone voice: "two...two...two loaves of bread four....four ....four fried chicken, five...five...five pounds of potatoes and two of ice tea" - all while maintaining an unremarkable body weight of about 185 Ibs. Along with his sidekick named Magic - an Isaac Hayes look alike, who was also known to possess an infinite capacity for port wine, Snake-eyes would seldom stray farther than a block or two from the avenue.

Life, Liberty & Occasional Happiness

Every neighborhood along the avenue had its local watering hole and some neighborhoods enjoyed several. At or near the intersection of Mt. Ephraim Avenue, the resident clientele most frequented the La Victoria; Winnie's Grove; or Pete Krouse's. Each cafe harbored its own exclusive clique and the same faces patronized their establishment of choice for many years. There was Ashie Cole, a physically imposing man who was related to a neighborhood fire fighter. He was employed as a night watchman in Parkside, and his daily lunch parcel always contained one sandwich, one apple, and two six packs of Ortliebs. Then there was Manny and the Queen. Manny was a short and frail gentleman who had resided in Parkside many years before when the community was of predominant Jewish faith. When the neighborhood got rougher, he continued to live alone and over the years had befriended many fire fighters along the avenue. His companion of late was a woman who everyone called the Queen. Decades of over indulgence in copious quantities of hard liquor had long taken their toll. If one looked carefully however, the traces of a once youthful beauty were still faintly discernible. Nevertheless the Queen's style and comportment of risque attire appeared far better suited to someone more than half her age, but it certainly didn't seem to bother Manny.

During afternoons and evenings they could be seen strolling in armful bliss, up the avenue toward the La Victoria. That both were mugged and bludgeoned on more than one occasion clearly testified to the hostility and meanness that now pervaded the old neighborhood. But it would not dissuade their presence nor curtail their personal freedom to conduct their chosen lives within the long since changed environment.

With Justice For All

The brawl started near Tenth Street outside of Hoskin's Dry Cleaners and worked its way up the avenue to the sidewalk in front of the B & G Bar. Zelda was locked in mortal combat with another maiden named Arlene who slashed her with a barber's straight razor, opening a nasty wound from the armpit to the elbow. Zelda vigorously responded in kind and was well along to finishing off her opponent with a metal milk crate, when the cavalry arrived. It took three Cops, two Firemen and Babe Bobiak from the TV repair shop, to separate the carnivores. One poor Policeman who was slashed on the hand while attempting to quell the altercation, provided ample cause to exert reasonable force upon the combatants. That the use of such force produced a highly negative response from an arriving Lieutenant of Police, was quite understandable as he observed at least one fire fighter wielding a two foot long nightstick that had been commandeered from a nearby patrol wagon. Several hours and many sutures later, Zelda sought shelter along the avenue and made access to the firehouse by way of the rear hose tower door while the company was out. Upon their return to quarters, the startled fire fighters found her comfortably asleep and snoring loudly at the housewatch desk.

What Is Past Is Prologue

While few could ever remember his last name, old Lou spent nearly his entire life residing along the avenue. He was born an only child and occupied his parents home since before the turn of the century. His absence to participate in the First World War was the only time his lifelong tenure was broken. A bachelor, Lou would survive his parents and mark the passing of an eightieth birthday, while living alone in the same building of his birth. Born in a radically different time so very long ago, life both in America and along the avenue of his youth reflected a much kinder, more gentile society. With remarkable clarity, Lou would recall the incessant drive of the steam shovel as it excavated the foundation for the new firehouse across the street from his home. It was the spring of 1909. And the following summer when a grand inauguration of the new facility was held amid colorful bunting and speeches by the Mayor and other City Officials. He recalled the presentation of four handsome horses in matching pairs to the Captain of the new company. And how so very little would change in the street scenes along the avenue more than fifty years later. That a fire alarm in the nineteen sixties would summon at least six pieces of apparatus roaring out Kaighns Avenue toward Parkside, first the Dodge hose wagon and American La France pumper of Engine 7, soon followed by the CMC hose wagon and La France pumper of Engine 8. Close behind was the imposing Pirsch apparatus of Ladder Company 2, finally followed by Battalion 3's bright red station wagon with sirens wailing.

And how some fifty years earlier, the scene was nearly identical despite a radically different technology. How Engine 7's double horse hitch pulled the hose wagon out of the firehouse; the magnificent steamer right behind it with a pair of matching grays straining at the harness. How a few minutes later Engine Company 8 would come clattering up the avenue, the chugging of the apparatus belching sparks and smoke. Followed by the four big horses of the Hook & Ladder Company in coupled tandem, the chauffeur with the reins firmly in his hands sitting shoulder to shoulder with the Officer, and the tillerman at the rear perched precariously in his seat upon the swaying apparatus. And finally after a few minutes, the clanging bell in the distance emerging ever louder that would finally herald a single black horse pulling a sleek black buggy as the Battalion Chief and his Aide went quickly trotting by.

Lost and Found

Then there was "little Benji", a tyke of about three or four years old who came from a very poor home somewhere over near Warnock Place. In summer he could be seen running along the dirty sidewalks of the avenue in bare feet, sometimes clad in only his underwear. The men of the firehouse would treat him to a cold soda or a much appreciated sandwich, and little Benji would grin an angelic smile that could melt the heart of the most hardened fire fighter. He would come by the firehouse several times a week and would grasp in his tiny hands, a bottle of pop that looked almost as big as himself. When he was finished drinking the refreshing treat, he would shyly lower his eyes to the floor and quietly say thank you, or he might embrace the legs of a fire fighter with a big hug and then quickly run out of the firehouse. When the companies would turnout for an alarm, Benji could be seen waving frantically to his heros near the corner of 8th Street as the Engine and the Truck went roaring out Kaighns Avenue.

Then one day the fire fighters noted that little Benji had stopped coming around. While some wondered what became of the little boy, the weeks turned into months and the years quickly passed. Then one summer night, the Elks Lodge adjoining the firehouse was hosting a gala event and the fire fighters watched with interest, as scores of persons finely attired in evening wear, arrived in caravans of luxurious automobiles. A very handsome young black man accompanied by a stunningly beautiful woman, paused briefly before going into the hall. The gentleman left his escort speaking to some other arrivals and walked briskly to where the fire fighters were sitting on a bench in front of the firehouse. He asked how the men were doing and said it had been years since he was in the neighborhood. He asked for at least one fire fighter by name who had long since retired and then said, "my name is Benjamin and I just wanted to say hello". In an instant the years came rushing back and several senior members immediately recognized the ragged little boy who had grown into the remarkable young man before them. As the men firmly exchanged handshakes, the eyes of the veteran fire fighters were filled with pride and affection while the young man demonstrated a genuine respect and gratitude for his old friends. Indeed, Benji had come back one last time to honor the heros of his childhood.

A Making of Angels

The Captain conducted the drill in quarters and the subject of the in station training had been rescue operations. The fire fighters discussed a variety of past mishaps that had demanded the physical extrication of victims, some of which were quite gruesome in nature. One particular incident involved the Brakeman on a slow moving train who missed the slippery rung of a ladder and fell between the rolling cars. When fire fighters arrived at the scene they could not at first locate the victim on the dark, rain slicked street because the body had been dragged under the train to another location nearly two blocks away. The train that moved along Front Street had uncoupled some cars and pushed them on to a siding as the Brakeman had fallen. Equipped with lanterns while walking the narrow columns between the trains, the fire fighters first discovered the ghastly evidence when they saw shreds of tattered clothing and flesh upon the cobble stone street. The remains of the Brakeman were found further along the tracks, wedged under the wheel carriage of a box car. The train had to be jacked, shored, and lifted to remove the body.

The discussion of the Brakeman and the training exercise had just finished when the fire fighters heard a faint thump outside the station. A few moments later a frantic motorist came running into the firehouse to report that a child had been hit by a train on the nearby elevated. The Captain notified the Fire Dispatcher and turned the company out for "a local" reporting a railroad emergency near quarters. The two children, a six year old boy and his four year old sister had lived several blocks away and were often seen playing on the streets of the neighborhood. They were a pair of the most beautiful children, the boy with freckles and flaming red hair, the girl a golden blonde with brilliant blue eyes and dimples. The little girl and her brother gained access to the elevated line from the rear of the vending warehouse. They climbed the hill and marveled at the elevated view of the avenue. They didn't hear the passenger train fast approaching at 60 MPH. The lead car struck the girl with such force that she was thrown like a missile at great speed, hitting her brother more than twenty feet away and killing him instantly. When the fire fighters arrived, both children were found lying at the bottom of the hill. Except for some smudges of dirt on their faces, they did not appear to have a mark on them but each had died of massive internal injuries, the result of blunt force trauma. The Captain of the company wept openly upon discovering the little forms laying like discarded rag dolls along the trash strewn embankment. Their tiny soiled faces appeared angelic in form. Indeed at the site of their graves among two little white coffins, the priest spoke of their tragic deaths as a making of angels. The men of the firehouse however could not be consoled, for they had witnessed the terrible transition from worldly existence to spiritual immortality.

Lions, Tigers and Bears

Each spring the Department of Health sponsored a free rabies vaccination program for resident's pets., and the program would be conducted at designated fire stations throughout the City. The apparatus was move outside of quarters and the rear of the apparatus floor would serve as an inoculation clinic. Scores of neighborhood residents would line up in the alleyway adjoining the firehouse and would enter by way of the rear hose tower door. Each pet would receive an injection by the attending Veterinarian and then with master in tow, would exit the front of quarters. The firehouse alley would resemble a menagerie of growling, yelping dogs of all sizes and breeds. An annoyed Poodle would snap at a stately Bull Mastiff, and a nearby Chihuahua would seemingly giggle. With great humor the firemen watched the endless parade of animals - that is until the arrival of the blue station wagon. In the deepest recess of anyone's mind among those who were there that day, it would always be remembered as [the blue station wagon.] It stopped briefly out front, and the lady with her son lowered the tail gate and removed a large cardboard box from the back. The box appeared to have originally held some sort of appliance, but the presence of ventilation holes did not bode well.

The lady and boy stood patiently in line, advancing the parcel every few steps until they finally reached the vaccination table. Upon removing the lid from the carton, what emerged was almost beyond description. In every sense it had the physical appearance of a domestic house cat, only three times larger with paws the size of boxing gloves. Instantly the firehouse erupted into roaring pandemonium with howling dogs scattering in every direction, down the stairs into the cellar; up the staircase to the second floor; over fences; under parked cars; everywhere! One poor hound was seriously clawed about the face and muzzle by the huge feline. Several more canines bit their masters and each other during the frantic escape. A wild eyed Collie broke free and was nearly run over by a passing truck with air horns blaring. A panic stricken German Shepherd of bad tempered disposition, bolted halfway down the block and attacked Dick Friar, the proprietor of the La Victoria Cafe, nearly stripping the little guy down to his shorts and inflicting several puncture wounds in the process. It was said that almost an hour after the fracas was over, the Captain of the company retired to his quarters on the second floor only to find a trembling Chihuahua hiding under his bunk.

The Historical Fabric

Over many decades spanning more than a century, the changes that would come to the once great boulevard called Kaighns Avenue would far surpass anyone's imagination. Its extraordinary development from an early path along a rural frontier, to a principal artery in a once thriving metropolis; and later its horrific decline to the bowels of urban decay that would amplify the profound societal changes so common among many other urban areas.

During the era of Prohibition the avenue would foster numerous speakeasies from the lower end to the blocks above Broadway, earning the name of the Barbary Coast by many of its patrons. And in the much later decades of the sixties and seventies when the demand for narcotics replaced the rave for alcohol, the five and six hundred blocks would be known as the infamous "strip" - a two block stretch of one of the most perverse and dangerous streets in America, frequented by more addicts, murderers, cut throats and he-shes than anywhere else in the State of New Jersey. And through it all, the Fire Fighters of the Barbary Coast would perform more fire duty and rescue more people from burning buildings, than most other fire companies in the United States.

They are all gone now - Friday, Zelda, old Lou, and the Queen. The avenue has changed considerably but the ancient firehouses still stand to protect the community. And numerous generations of past fire fighters, many among the very best to have ever done the job, have also long since left through retirements, transfers or the achievement of their eternal rest. But the characters of the avenue have forever become an indelible part of the historical fabric, that was woven -Along the Road to Kaighnton.

The above photograph is from the limited edition book "Fire Department Camden NJ 125 Anniversary 1869-1994". Others found on the site are courtesy of Bob Bartosz and Joel Bain of the Camden Fire Department, as well as other sources and contributors..