Shortly after joining the Fire Department of New York in 1978, I began researching and writing about the history of the fire service, and my work soon began appearing in magazines and books. This column will carry on in this tradition. In each issue, I will present historic fires or significant events in the fire service from 100 years ago. Readers are encouraged to share information from their departments (please remember there is a three-month lead time in printing a magazine).
January 3, 1916: Worcester, Massachusetts: Forty guests wearing only their night clothes were driven into a raging hailstorm as smoke and flames filled their hotel. Many fled down the stairs as others negotiated a dangerous jump from their fifth-floor windows to the roof of the adjoining four-story building. Firefighters carried seven people down ladders from the smoke-filled fifth floor at the height of the blaze. Amazingly, all escaped without injury.
January 4, 1916: Spotswood, New Jersey: The spark from an electric light used by an employee working in the Lake Ruth Manufacturing Company caused an explosion and fire that destroyed the plant. The worker carried the light, attached to a long wire, through the naphtha room when the spark ignited fumes from several hundred gallons of flammable liquids stored there. Two employees were injured.
January 9, 1916: Silver Lake, New Jersey: A fire, believed to be started by defective wiring, ignited inside a corrugated-steel building belonging to Thomas Edison. The 200-foot-long and 80-foot-deep structure was used for making carbolic acid. The local fire department, reinforced by units from the Newark Fire Department, kept the flames from spreading to other exposed buildings. Notified of the fire, Edison stated: “I’ll have that building replaced within 48 hours!” He then hurried home to begin designing new machinery.
January 10, 1916: Haddonfield, New Jersey: Ten pounds of flashlight powder (used in photography) exploded in the dining room of a home, blowing out one wall and setting the building on fire. Two people had been mixing the ingredients when the blast hurled a woman, the photographer’s wife, through a window and out onto the lawn. The man was propelled into the hallway and then through a closed door. The couple’s daughter was blasted through the floor and into the basement. The photographer ran from his studio nearby and helped the injured woman, who suffered serious burns. Firefighters quickly extinguished the fire. However, the house was so badly damaged it had to be torn down.
January 11, 1916: Camden, New Jersey: At 10:00 p.m., an alarm was received for a fire at the State Street Methodist Church at State and Sixth streets. Fire companies rolled out into the frigid temperatures and found an advanced fire raging in the main auditorium of the church. Three alarms were transmitted in quick succession with heavy fire threatening to extend to the roof, organ loft, altar area, and classrooms. Members of Engine 3, Chemical Co. 1, and Ladder 1 were making an aggressive interior attack when they were suddenly caught under a collapsing roof section. Despite extreme conditions, the firefighters were able to dig themselves free and help each other to safety. Chief of Department Peter Carter was also injured in a fall and spent several days in the hospital. A magnificent stained glass window on the south side of the church somehow survived the tremendous heat and remained untouched as the fire was brought under control.
January 15, 1916: Bergen, Norway: A small accidental fire inside a scrap iron dealers shed quickly blossomed into a raging wind-driven fire extending along Strandgaten (Beach Street). The gale force winds fanned flames that soon ignited warehouses along Torget (Market Square). Firefighters were faced with a daunting task: Realizing the fire could not be controlled along Strandgaten, they focused on protecting the Stock Exchange and Bank Building. To the west, flames were leaping from building to building, including the fire station. With the help of the military, firefighters kept the flames from spreading south, saving the art museum. Some of the historic buildings lost dated back to the Middle Ages. Firefighters battled the blaze for 10 hours before it could be brought under control. In one night, 380 buildings were reduced to cinders, leaving 2,700 people homeless.
January 16, 1916: Chestertown, Maryland: An early morning fire wrecked William Smith Hall, the main building of Washington College. The fire spread so quickly all the archives, including many historical documents, some handwritten by George Washington, were consumed. The hall bore the name of the college’s first president, the Reverend William Smith. The college itself was named “in honorable and perpetual memory of his excellency General Washington.”
January 19, 1916: Galeton, Pennsylvania: Fifteen commercial buildings and 20 homes were destroyed by a wind-driven fire during the early morning hours. The fire was the worst ever seen in Potter County. Low water pressure and a driving wind hampered firefighting efforts. To stop the conflagration, seven buildings were blown up with dynamite.
January 23, 1916: Boston, Massachusetts: A short circuit in or near the electrical switchboard in the rear stage of the Tremont Theatre ignited a fire that tore through the entire stage area and the front of the auditorium to the balcony. Everything from the back wall forward, including all the props and costumes of the company performing the show “Daddy Long-Legs,” were also lost.
January 24, 1916: Buffalo, New York: A major explosion tore through the Kelker Blower Company, manufacturers of plating mill exhaust systems, on Harrison Street. Five people were killed and a dozen injured as the gas explosion blew out the walls of the two-story frame structure. Large sections of the concrete foundation were torn out, causing the flaming roof to collapse onto the rubble. Responding firefighters passed two blocks of shattered windows and damaged buildings before arriving to find the demolished factory and a nearby home in flames.