A spectacular blaze, the cause of which is not definitely determined, destroyed the freight she and outer end of the Oak Bluffs steamboat wharf late Wednesday afternoon, involving a loss of property owned by Vincent’s Fish Market, on the dock property, the value of which was set at $30,000 and a loss to the Steamship Authority, covered by insurance, not yet even approximated. The fish market equipment was uninsured, according to David Vincent, the proprietor.
Blazing fiercely and sending huge columns of black smoke into the air and over the water, the fire worked its greatest havoc within less than an hour’s time. Spending fire to the timbering and piling, all heavily coated with creosote, it continued to keep firemen busy throughout the night, but had been brought under control by early morning yesterday, according to the Oak Bluffs fire chief, Nelson Amaral, who, with a number of men, had fought the blaze all night long.
The covered approach to the wharf and the office of the Steamship Authority were undamaged, and the books, and other valuables in the office were removed shortly after the fire was discovered.
Circumstances strongly suggest that a cigarette was dropped by a landing passenger from the steamer Nobska, which had docked at 4:30. This was the theory of Mr. Vincent, and Chief Amaral agreed, “unless,”as he said, “evidence of some other cause should be uncovered.”
The state fire marshall, Lieut. Edward Shay, arrived on the Island yesterday, and checked over the scene of the fire with Chief Amaral, examining the dock in detail. He, too, concluded that a cigarette was the probable cause of the fire. HE did not make a definite statement but went along with this reasoning.
Mr. Vincent said that the steamer landed passengers,  and that following her departure the lower end of the dock was closed and locked, and that men employed there left the place, apparently with all in order. Less than half an hour later, Mrs. Paul Mason, driving along Ocean avenue, saw flames at the corner of the pier, near the place where the passenger landing was located, and informed Mr. Vincent, who was at work in his market at the head of the pier. He instantly turned in the alarm.

“Like a Blowtorch”

“But the fresh easterly wind blew the fire through the building like a blowtorch,” Mr. Vincent said. In no time at all, the creosoted lumber had caught, and the place was an inferno. All units of the Oak Bluffs fire department turned out, and a truck from Vineyard Haven stood by at one of the Oak Bluffs fire stations in case of need. The harbor launch of the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard of Vineyard Haven, manned by Thomas Hale, the proprietor, and David Drew and equipped with fire-fighting apparatus, steamed to the scene and added its single water-jet to the volume which was being poured on the burning structure. Credit is given to Mr. Hale and Mr. Drew for their tremendous help. Hundreds of spectators lined the railing on Ocean avenue, or looked on from the vantage point of Highland Drive.
Prompt action by Police Chief Richard W. Blankenship, who called out all his officers and some extras, cleared the immediate area of cars and routed crosstown traffic away from the scene of the fire, and thus the gallery was principally on foot and out of harm’s way.
Once the huge wooden structure caught fire, there was little that could be done to quench it, but the effort to confine the blaze to the shed and end of the dock was successful, an accomplishment little short of miraculous, since all the supporting timbers and spiles are creosoted and highly inflammable. The fire-fighters were complimented by many unidentified onlookers, and remarkable again, no one was injured. In fact, the operation as viewed from the upper end of the dock was orderly from start to finish, revealing thoughtful planning.
Steamship Authority executives looked over the wharf yesterday, with a view to determining what should or might be done. But at the office of Frank B. Look, general manager, the Gazette was told that “pending a thorough examination and the discussion of possible plans, it is our understanding that we are all through at Oak Bluffs for the remainder of the season.”
It was learned that the steamer Nobska, which has been landing there, will dock at Vineyard Haven, at least for the time being.
As to the theory that the steamer Nobska, which has been landing there, will dock at Vineyard Haven, at least for the time being.
As to the theory that the fire started from a cigarette, it is recalled that the dock at Vineyard Haven has caught fire at least twice from such a cause, a cigarette having rolled into a seam in the decking, where it ignited the planking. In both instances men were at work on the wharf and extinguished the fire before it could gain any headway.

Dry Sprinkler System

The Oak Bluffs wharf and freight shed were equipped with an automatic sprinkler system, which was described as a dry system, wherein the air must be blown out of the pipes by water pressure before the water can reach the fire. Apparently this system operated as it was supposed to do, but one eyewitness declared that the jets of air which preceded the water fanned the flames to greater fury and that the water did not begin to flow until after the fire department had arrived.
The report of the state auditor for 1964, released last week, lists the cost of the Oak Bluffs wharf as $205,628.14. The dock is fully depreciated, and no net book value remains. Terminal equipment at the wharf is set at $693.03, with accumulated depreciation of $395.92 and a net book value of $297.11. Presumably the equipment, or most of it, was in the building at the head of the wharf facing the street.
The Authority in 1964 received $1,200 in rent from David J. Vincent whose fish market is on the dock.
The insurance coverage is not listed for the separate properties of the Authority. Total insurance premiums paid in 1964 came to $119,759.02.
In the annals of Vineyard fires, the burning of the steamboat dock is undoubtedly the most spectacular in recent years. Unlike other big fires in the last five years, or more, this one occurred during daylight and during the summer, and it also occurred out over the water. The gargantuan column of smoke attracted attention in Edgartown and in Vineyard Haven, and since the day was crystal clear, it must have been the object of curiosity on the Cape as well.

Smoke of Two Colors

During the height of the fire, the smoke pouring from the roof of the structure was of two distinct colors, one black and one a sulphurous yellow, rising separately to a lofty height where they were mingled by the wind. Flames reached high into these columns of smoke, and they also dipped down beneath the pier and licked the water.
Throughout the long battle, the Oak Bluffs ladder truck had its long ladder held over the roof of the ticket office, with a man up there training a spray of water on the roof. From a spectator’s vantage up on land, the spray seemed to be of no consequence, but obviously the work done by the fireman on his perch, and that of the other firefighters kept this particular portion of the structure from being consumed by the blaze, the same way the long shed was.
The skeleton of the shed, a black lacework of charred rafters and beams, seemed to remain standing for an impossibly long time, and when it did go, it seemed not so much to collapse as settle gracefully, much of its gridwork of timber still intact.
Late Wednesday night, the ladder was still being used, now over the collapsed section, with a spotlight picking out the spray of the hose from its top.
The pay telephone outside the fish market reaped a small bonanza during the fire, as spectators one after the other attempted to call friends to tell them of the fire. Judging by the expressions on the faces of most of the callers, not many received answers.
Long after it became apparent that the fire had destroyed much of the fish market property, Mr. Vincent, his wife and their employees stayed on in the darkened market. One of their first actions after the discovery of the fire had been to pull the electrical switches on the fuse boxes. Mr. Vincent was looking sadly in the direction of the fire, down on the dock, where he had kept his lobster tanks, his ice machine and a diesel motor, when a man came up and asked if he were the owner of the market. Mr. Vincent said he was.
“Well,” said the man, “this is probably a bad time but my wife and I just brought in a can full of bluefish and -”
He was stopped in mid-sentence by Mr. Vincent’s expression. Mr. Vincent was smiling a smile of patience commingled with disbelief, but it was the way he lifted his arms up in the air in a gesture of hopelessness that the man understood that it was indeed a bad time.

Second Wharf Fire

Wednesday’s Oak Bluffs wharf fire was the second in Island history, though the wharf - at the same location - damaged by the great Sea View Hotel fire of the night of Sept. 24, 1892, was an entirely different structure. That celebrated fire destroyed the original Sea View that stood at the head of the wharf, the tracks of the Martha’s Vineyard Railroad, and most of the wharf itself.
The ticket agent, at the outset of the fire, had run down on the wharf to save some papers, and had been forced to leap overboard to avoid the flames. After the fire, the railroad trains operated from Edgartown to Oak Bluffs with the locomotive speeding ahead: from Oak Bluffs to Edgartown the train ran backwards, because the turn-around had been burned.
The first wharf structure at this location was built at a cost of $5,000 by the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company in 1867. Up to that time all steamers and other vessels with passengers, baggage or freight for the Camp Ground, or for the settlement that grew around it, landed at Eastville at what was known as the Norris Wharf, just below the site of the old Eastville Inn, or at the wharf at the foot of New York avenue which was always called the New York Wharf because the New York and Portland steamers docked there.

In Bold Water

Both these landings were, of course, in the sheltered waters of Vineyard Haven harbor. Considerable doubt was expressed as to whether the new Oak Bluffs wharf, in bold water, would stand the buffeting of the waves. Many seafaring men predicted it would not, but it did. The success of the structure was such that in 1868 it was extended an additional eighty feet, and all through the booming times of the next few decades steamers arrived not only from New Bedford but from Providence, Newport, and other cities, to tie up there. A usual sight in summer was of several sidewheelers dock at once.
The wharf was maintained and, in effect, rebuilt many times before 1929 when it was enlarged by construction of the great freight shed at the end, and by the addition of the facilities familiar to the present generation. The managers of the boat line, then owned by the New England Steamship Line, in turn owned by the New Haven railroad, expected this terminal to serve the Island both for freight and passengers during the busy summer seasons of many years.

Changes Not Foreseen

But the management did not foresee either the crash of the fall of 1929, or the changes the automobile would make in the traffic patterns and customs of the Island. From the standpoint of its owners, the costly wharf proved a dismal mistake. Oddly enough, a ferry was tried under the New Haven management to handle Labor Day peak traffic, using improvised slips at Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven. But the ferry was not considered a success, and in later years the steamers, including the relatively mammoth and luxurious Naushon, were relied upon, and the great point of departure was the Oak Bluffs wharf.
Not until after World War I was the ferry system again tried and proved so successful that transportation to and from the Island was never the same again. The Naushon never returned to the line after the war, and the remodeled ferry Hackensack, veteran of Hudson River service, became the prototype for vessels of modern times. Thus the Oak Bluffs wharf and its mammoth freight shed stood empty most of the time while freight rolled off and on the ferry at Vineyard Haven in trucks or trailers.