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Throwback Thursday: The Garden State Park fire

Friday, April 14, marked the 40th anniversary of the fire at Garden State Park racetrack in Cherry Hill.

A gate house that was once part of Garden State Park race track still stands along Route 70.

April 14, 2017, marked the 40th anniversary of possibly the most well known fire in Cherry Hill’s history. On April 14, 1977, a massive fire burned down the original Garden State Park racetrack. Many who lived in or around Cherry Hill on that day in 1977 still recall the fire to this day and the effect it had on the township.

There are many media accounts and books detailing the story of what happened the day of the Garden State Park fire. One of the more detailed accounts can be found in Mike Mathis and Lisa Mangiafico’s “Cherry Hill: A Brief History.” According to the book, a short-circuited kitchen light fixture sparked the blaze. The fire quickly spread and burned down the wood grandstand. Smoke could be seen as far away as Trenton, with debris and ash being carried as far away as Winslow Twp. Three people died in the blaze and 20 people were injured.

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The impact of the event goes beyond the fire, however. Garden State Park was an icon of Cherry Hill. Eugene Mori received permission to build the track in October of 1941. Mori originally wanted to build the structured with metal, glass and stone, but used wood due to a shortage of steel during World War II. Less than a year after receiving approval to build, Garden State Park opened on July 18, 1942. It became one of the more well-known race tracks in the region and was the original host of the Jersey Derby from the track’s opening until the 1977 fire. Garden State Park is cited as the structure that led a building boom in the township.

Cherry Hill A Brief History

Mathis and Mangiafico likewise cite the Garden State Park fire as an event, “that marked the end of Cherry Hill’s prominence as South Jersey’s center of entertainment and recreation.” Five years after the fire, International Thoroughbred Breeders Inc. bought the racetrack and re-built it. Garden State Park re-opened in 1985, but Mathis and Mangiafico note the racetrack was never able to return to its former glory.

A series of money losing season in the 1990s helped lead to the race track’s closure in May of 2001. In an article for ESPN.com, columnist Bill Finley noted, “There has been never been a bigger disaster in horse racing than the modern Garden State Park. It was a $140 million white elephant and it had to go.” Finley goes on to say the racetrack was never the same after the 1977 fire.

The racetrack property would be re-developed into a mixed-use development today known as Garden State Park. There is little remaining of the racetrack. The only part of the old racetrack still standing is an old gate house sitting along Route 70.

Though it’s been 40 years, memories from the fire still live on. Last Friday, many users on social media shared old photos from the day of the fire. In addition, video of the fire is available to watch on YouTube. According to the video description, the footage was taken by race patrol on the roof of the grandstand as the fire took place.

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