This article originally appeared in the Riverside Signal on July 13th, 2010. It has been reprinted below. The Riverside Signal can be found at www.RiversideSignal.com
by Erik Weber
BEACHWOOD – Last week, thousands of area residents lined the banks and side streets along the Toms River to witness the borough’s Fourth of July fireworks display, here.
Many in attendance likely did not know that the show, which today is a carefully planned and executed annual volley of pyrotechnic glory put on by a professional contractor, holds roots dating back to earlier days of the borough fire company, when million-dollar event insurance was a fantasy, funds for each successive year were collected by passed-around tin cans, and the explosives were purchased and transported from Maryland in the back of a station wagon.
Fireworks on the Toms River: A Look Back
George W. Symington, a 56-year member and past chief of the borough fire company, recalled earlier incarnations of the fireworks display and Fourth of July daytime games, which have not been held for many years.
Confirming earlier memories given by Beverly Clayton, a borough councilwoman, lifetime resident and current member of the borough fireworks committee, he said that the earlier fireworks displays were dug into the sand at the beach and then lit by members of the fire company with cigars.
“We had a few close calls, but thank God nobody ever got hurt bad,” the past fire chief said. “But then, we were very good at it.”
He said that the collection of funds for the following year’s display started even while the current year’s show was going on.
“We had rowboats with outboard motors on them, and four containers, and we went to every boat in the water,” Mr. Symington said. “There used to be, oh God, hundreds of boats out there – you almost could walk across river on top of the boats.”
“While that was going on, other people in the fire company auxiliary went anyplace [the fireworks] could be seen from,” he continued. “They walked the beach up to Toms River, down past the golf course to Point ‘O’ Woods and down the river on this side to Pine Beach.”
“Whatever we collected – nickels, dimes, quarters, maybe $1,000 or $1,500 – all had to be hand counted and hand rolled and taken to the bank,” the longtime fire company member said. “That’s what we used for the next year’s fireworks.”
After sufficient funds were totaled and deposited, he said that he would order next year’s batch from Keystone Fireworks of Pennsylvania, who would ship them down near the state border at Elkton, Maryland. Mr. Symington then jumped in his station for the over two-hour drive.
“The station wagon would be loaded from front to back, top to bottom, with just enough room for me to sit and drive,” he recalled. “I would then drive across the Delaware Memorial Bridge, stop for lunch with the loaded car sitting there in the parking lot, and then when I got home I loaded it all into the basement of my house for safe keeping til the Fourth of July.”
“It could probably have put the house in orbit if it ever caught fire,” the past fire chief speculated, laughing about his memories driving the explosives cache across the interstate bridge and leaving it to sit next to the diner where he ate lunch.
When Independence Day finally arrived, he said, the entire waterfront was a beehive of activity for most of the day, with land and water games bringing many borough and area residents and their families out to celebrate the holiday together.
“The first aid squad and fire company went down to the ballpark on top of the hill there, and we ran the land games from 10 til noon,” Mr. Symington stated. “Three-legged races, egg tosses, stuff like that – then we went home for lunch.”
An hour later, he said, everyone returned to begin the water games.
“We had diving contests, swimming races, stuff like that until maybe about four,” the past chief continued. “Then at six we came back to the beach to start digging the trenches to put the steel mortars in.”
The size of the shot used at the time for the regular part of the show, he recalled, were between three and five inches in diameter, while the finale packs came in at about twelve.
“It was like a 60-shot finale, and we had to fuse them ourselves and tie the string around and make sure it was tight so that it carried from one twelve inch to the next,” Mr. Symington said. “Also, there used to be a permanent 8-foot by 10 foot floating dock in the water maybe 75 or 100 feet offshore, and in the afternoon myself, my son and a couple of firemen would float out on top of a rowboat and put two set pieces on top of it – one had the American flag, and the other said ‘Goodnight.’”
His son, George C. “Mickey” Symington, joined the fire company in 1979 and is today also a past chief.
As daylight turned to twilight and eventually night, the firemen were joined by first aid squad members who stood by as thousands of area residents and tourists filled the beach, bluffs and general waterfront areas, with hundreds more small craft moored offshore for the show.
As the show went on and the fund-raising cans were passed around the riverfront, Mr. Symington said he and his son would slip away and prepare for part of the grand finale.
“Pretty close to the end, my son and I would swim out on our backs with cigars in our mouths to the floating dock,” he recalled. “On my signal the guys on the shore would light off the finale, and as soon as the finale was just about done my son and I would light the two pieces, shake hands, dive the hell overboard and swim back.”
“We always shook hands,” he noted.
Longtime Beachwood resident Geoff Brown remembered watching the fireworks while growing up.
“As a family we watched the fireworks from the yacht club dock in the 50s [today the T-dock in front of the Community Center, which is the former site of the earlier yacht club building], as it was at the foot of our street, Brigantine,” he said. “The show was about 20 minutes [long] and always ended with a parachute with an American flag.”
“There were still few ‘speedboats’ on the river,” he added. “However, some would race in the dark to capture the flag.”
Over the years, the past fire chief said, the culture of the waterfront and putting on the fireworks display changed with the introduction of more regulations, pollution of the Toms River by the Ciba-Geigy chemical plant and influx of new residents not as heavily involved in the annual tradition.
After the fire company stopped hosting the land and water games, he recalled, the borough recreation commission kept it up for a while but also eventually abandoned it due to lack of interest.
“I was also a lifeguard and we used to have about 400 people a day on that beach,” said Mr. Symington. “But then with people starting to get pools and Ciba dumping into the river, everything like that sort of dwindled down.”
“It’s a sin, we’ve got the most beautiful beach on the river and now it only gets about a half dozen people a day,” he added.
After a woman was killed as a result of a fireworks accident in the Seaside Heights area, Mr. Symington said, the fire company was told they would need to come up with a million-dollar insurance policy for the annual display.
From there, he stated, the borough established a “Bang Committee” with members of the fire company, first aid squad and other residents in town that was able to continue the annual event through sponsors and contracted pyrotechnic firms.
Fireworks on the Toms River: The Modern Era
Above, Beachwood’s Fireworks on the Toms River grand finale, as shot by YouTube member Stealthlsc.
Today, the fireworks display on the Toms River is still hosted by Beachwood Borough through the contemporary equivalent of the “Bang Committee,” said Gerald W. “Jerry” Lacrosse, a former councilman and current member of what is now called simply the Fireworks on the Toms River Committee.
With feedback from the 2010 display, particularly the grand finale, sitting squarely in the “very positive” end of the spectrum, he said the year-round work to hold the event was well worth it.
“I’ve gotten nothing but compliments on it,” the committee member said, adding that during the show, “the boats out in river just went bananas,” sounding horns and sirens and flashing lights, and that “the crowd was very pleased with it.”
Picking up where the fire company left off, he recalled that he was first asked to serve on the committee sometime in the early 1990s by then-Mayor William T. “Bill” Hornidge, who wanted to form a coalition committee with surrounding municipalities in order to meet the growing demand for regulation and high insurance costs.
Included in the early coalition were Dover Township Mayor Clarence E. “Bud” Aldrich III, Island Heights Mayor David Siddons, and Pine Beach Mayor Russell Corby.
“Those four guys put together what we call the ‘Fireworks on the Toms River Committee’, and off we went,” said Mr. Lacrosse, who said early sponsors were Adelphia Cable, before it was purchased and became Comcast Cable; the Asbury Park Press, before it was purchased and became a Gannett-run publication; and 92.7 WOBM. Comcast and 92.7 WOBM continue as sponsors today.
“It just snowballed – we hired professional pyrotechnic outfits to put on the show, rather than us going out and purchasing five, ten or fifteen thousand dollars’ worth of fireworks,” he continued, adding that a lot of contributions came in from area residents. “We had little canisters in a lot of different stores, and people put in dimes, quarters, dollars and whatever else, and we had enough to hire the companies that came in.”
In the years since the formation of the committee, the former councilman said, between four and five different pyrotechnic firms were hired. The current company, Pennsylvania-based Schaefer Pyrotechnics, was contracted for the 2010 through 2012 displays.
For about the past decade, he added, the committee and display have “mostly been a Beachwood effort,” as the original mayors from surrounding municipalities who formed the committee either retired or passed away. The current committee consists of former Beachwood mayor, Hal Morris, current Beachwood councilwoman, Beverly Clayton, Mr. Lacrosse and Kevin Williams from 92.7 WOBM.
Although sponsorship continues from some of the original corporate entities, “a good portion of the money that goes to put the show on comes from the general population,” Mr. Lacrosse said.
“It has always been a Beachwood kind of show, ever since the fire company started it way back when the Borough of Beachwood had their own committee that used taxpayer money [for funding],” he stated, noting that the scale of the display since the new committee took it over has increased. “I believe this year something like 7,200 shells went off, all in 27 minutes, so that’s a lot of booms going off in the air, that’s for darn sure.”
“And a lot of oohs and aahs, too,” the committee member added. “We tried to estimate the area of the sky they take up, and someone said 750 feet or more – that’s a huge explosion.”
In planning this year’s display, billed as the 70th but with acknowledgment that fireworks displays appear to have been hosted by Beachwood even earlier than 1940, Mr. Lacrosse said the committee “wanted something special – you have a lot to see in the finale, a lot of fireworks, but we said, ‘Can we throw in something a little different that people would remember for the next year, at least?’”
The result, he said, was a series of stars, hearts, and red, white and blue bursts alongside their regular synchronization to patriotic music played through 92.7 WOBM, both on the radio and through a sound system at the beach.
In the years since the current committee took on the task of providing the Toms River area with their yearly fix of explosions and color, the committee member noted that they had never once been rained out.
“We’ve come close, and it’s rained right up to the point where we were going to set them off, but we got a one-hour window where the rain stopped for the show, and twenty minutes after the grand finale, it came down in buckets,” he said, joking that he is in charge of the weather on the committee.
In the end, Mr. Lacrosse said, it’s the knowledge that borough and area residents will be able to go home with a smile on their face and the knowledge that next year the show will be there, in bigger and better form, to take their families and friends to.
Area residents interested in seeing the annual show continue to go on are encouraged to make their donations to Fireworks on the Toms River – Beachwood, c/o Beachwood Borough Hall, 1600 Pinewald Road, Beachwood, N.J. 08722. Contributions are accepted year-round.