May 1917 Fires

May 10, 1917: Firefighters battle a fire that destroyed the cupola on top of city hall in downtown Manhattan. (Photo courtesy of the Paul Hashagen collection.)
May 10, 1917: Firefighters battle a fire that destroyed the cupola on top of city hall in downtown Manhattan. (Photo courtesy of the Paul Hashagen collection.)

In this month’s column, I present historic fires or significant events in the fire service from May 1917. A reminder: Readers are encouraged to share information from their departments.

May 4, 1917: New Brunswick, New Jersey: Two men working in a Central Railroad freight warehouse were burned to death as an oil-fed fire cut off their escape. The two men, a freight agent and a driver, were working when the fire broke out. Several other workers were burned while attempting to reach the men. Members of the National Guard who were stationed nearby joined firefighters as they battled the blaze. The concrete structure remained, but the contents were destroyed.

May 7, 1917: Fort Lee, New Jersey: An actress named Kitty Gordon was seriously burned while filming a scene in a Paragon Motion Picture Company production. Gordon, playing a Red Cross nurse, rushed across a field set up as a battlefield, to rescue another actress also playing a nurse. As she passed close to a special effects “electrical bomb,” her clothing caught fire. She was badly burned about the body and face. The flames also injured her costar. Gordon was taken home, where a physician treated her. It was said she missed several weeks of work because of her injury.

May 10, 1917: New York, New York: Workers repairing the cupola atop city hall neglected to extinguish fire in a charcoal pot before leaving for lunch. The pot ignited a wooden gutter, and the flames quickly spread to the old wooden cupola. As teams of firefighters struggled to stretch hoses to the roof of the building, others joined city hall personnel in safeguarding valuable objects of art and important documents. Water did damage the Aldermanic chambers and its furnishings. For a time, the spectacular flames attracted large crowds. After two hours of difficult work, firefighters placed the fire under control.

May 12, 1917: Orange, New Jersey: Sparks from a motor in the mixing and drying room ignited a fire shortly before midnight in Building 19 of the disk record department of the huge Edison plant. Chief James Sheehand complained the alarm was delayed as members of the factory department tried unsuccessfully to extinguish the flames. The fire destroyed a large section of the record manufacturing plant. At the height of the fire, a plant guard failed to recognize Thomas Edison and ordered the inventor and his wife from the grounds. Edison was forced to take a circuitous route through his plant offices to the fire area. Damages were estimated at $50,000.

May, 21, 1917: Atlanta, Georgia: The Atlanta Fire Department was having a very busy day: a small fire at a warehouse at 11:39 a.m., three homes on fire at 11:43 a.m., then another blaze that took 10 homes at 12:15 p.m. The clear, warm, sunny day featured a brisk southerly breeze, a breeze that would soon take its toll. While companies were still operating at these alarms, a call came in for a fire in a small warehouse just north of Decatur Street between Fort and Hilliard. An unequipped crew arrived to find a small blaze burning. Before the proper equipment could arrive, the flames began spreading north up Edgewood Avenue before sweeping across the residential area known as Sweet Auburn. Chief W.B. Cody mustered his 240 firefighters and, operating nine American LaFrance steamers, five American LaFrance motor pumping engines, and one Webb motor pumping engine, began to battle the growing conflagration. Mutual aid came from nine Georgia towns including Macon and Augusta, as well as companies from Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tennessee. These combined firefighters stretched 60,000 feet of hose during their 12-hour battle. The damage was extensive: 1,938 buildings covering 73 city blocks (300 acres) were destroyed. Ten thousand people were left homeless. The damages were estimated at $5 million. This fire caused the local building codes to change, banning wood-shingle roofs.

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