The Lehigh Valley lost an entertainment landmark yesterday when an early morning fire destroyed the Castle Garden ballroom at Dorney Park.

Three generations of music lovers had gone there to dance and listen to the sounds of the Big Bands, rock'n'roll, disco, country swing and lately the area's own musicians. Now nothing is left but memories.

The multi-alarm fire was spotted by a night watchman about 2:45 a.m., and fire officials said half the wooden building was engulfed when they arrived.

Six fire companies were called out, according to Police Chief Donald McConnell of South Whitehall Township, but they never caught up with the fire.

"It's an all-wood structure. That's why it went up so fast," McConnell said. No one was injured. The fire was under control at 5:30 a.m.

Three South Whitehall fire companies - Cetronia, Woodlawn and Greenawalds - responded and were assisted with ladder trucks from Western Salisbury, Wescosville and Allentown fire departments.

The Red Cross also was there to supply hot drinks and doughnuts.

Patrolman Harry Bensinger of South Whitehall police said that as he approached Castle Garden about 2:46 a.m., he saw a large amount of black smoke over the entire roof area.

Flames could be seen at the center of the structure and at its main entrance, Bensinger said.

Fire officials were on the scene until dark yesterday, sifting through the charred, wet debris with brooms, rakes and shovels to clear a small part of what was left of the dance floor. Smoke continued to rise from several locations.

McConnell said the fire broke out in the western end of the building near its main entrance. He estimated it may take a long time to determine the cause.

"It depends on how much of that (the dance floor) they have to uncover," he said. "I'm sure it may be quite a while before any conclusions can be made."

Neither Willis "Bud" Oswald, South Whitehall Township fire and electrical inspector, nor George Umberger, state police fire marshal, who both spent most of yesterday on the scene, was prepared to make any statement on the cause of the fire.

Yesterday afternoon, Chief Barry Albertson of the Cetronia Fire Co. said investigators were trying to put back all the pieces that were still there, around all the pieces that weren't. He said clues were slow in coming because of the devastation.

"There was tremendous heat," said a firefighter yesterday. "The building went up very quickly."

Flames apparently broke out in the front of the building, away from the kitchen and anything electrical, said Dorney Park spokesman and marketing director Michael Crowther.

Crowther said he arrived at the park about 3:30 a.m. yesterday. "There weren't a lot of orange, shooting flames," he said, "just a lot of smoke."

Castle Garden was a part of Lehigh Valley culture, said Crowther. "Half of the Lehigh Valley met their husbands or wives there.

"The place was in its second Golden Age. This weekend would have been the busiest of the season. Thanksgiving is when everybody comes home from college. A Magnum concert was scheduled for tonight," he said yesterday. "Everybody is just devastated."