By Paul Hashagen
In this month’s column, I present historic fires or significant events in the fire service from March 1918. A reminder: Readers are encouraged to share information from their departments.
March 3, 1918: Greenwich, Connecticut: The large King Street home owned by John Bowman, the proprietor of the famed Biltmore Hotel in New York City, went up in flames during the early evening hours. The fire started in the attic and gained so much headway before the arrival of the firefighters that little could be done to save the building. Most of the furnishings were saved, however, as firefighters struggled to prevent the fire from spreading to several nearby buildings. The large home, built in 1805, burned to the ground.
March 8, 1918: New York, New York: An overturned oil lamp ignited a fire on the second floor of a six-story tenement at 65 East 4th Street in Manhattan. The flames spread quickly from room to room, and soon the entire second floor was a wall of flames trapping several families on the floors above. Arriving firefighters, under the command of Battalion Chief John McLoughlin, made an aggressive attack, and several children were rescued and passed out onto the crowded fire escape. A mother and her three children were rescued from the third floor as the chief and his nozzle team pressed up the blazing stairs. Suddenly, the staircase collapsed, plunging the chief and four of his men into a pile of broken timbers and glowing embers. The men were rushed, along with several injured civilians, to a nearby hospital. Chief McLaughlin suffered several serious injuries.
March 10, 1918: Norfolk, New York: A fire was discovered in the hallway between a grocery store and a hardware store as the owners were closing up for the evening. One owner, Leslie Crabbe, ran back into his store to retrieve the company books while the other owner, Mr. King, ran out into a blizzard to turn in the alarm. The flames spread quickly through the two-story wood frame building and cut off Crabbe’s escape route. The frigid weather hampered pumping from the nearby Raquette River, and the flames soon spread to the adjoining buildings. Crabbe’s body was found the following day.
March 24, 1918: Newark, New Jersey: A flash of flame followed by an explosion rocked a chemical company building on Canary Island in the Passaic River. The plant, which processed picric acid and trinitrotoluol (TNT), was soon a pile of burning rubble as explosion after explosion rocked separate small wooden plant buildings. When the fire was extinguished, it was realized two workers were missing. It was believed the original blast was caused by friction in one of the machines.
March 25, 1918: New York, New York: A fire was discovered by a watchman shortly after 6:00 a.m. at Twelfth Avenue and West 30th Street in Manhattan. The first arriving fire officer, Captain Buttonshone of Engine Company 19, saw the flames spreading through the rear yard of the Crane & Clark Lumber Yards and transmitted a second alarm. Three additional alarms were transmitted as the fire spread rapidly through the stored lumber and ignited exposed buildings nearby. This was the exact location of a serious fire in 1905 that took the lives of three firefighters. Things took an almost deadly turn when a huge pile of lumber toppled onto the members of Engine 23, who were operating a hoseline. They were dug out and pulled to safety by other firefighters, several of whom were also injured. It took 30 fire companies and five fireboats to extinguish the fire.
March 26, 1918: Jersey City, New Jersey: A carelessly discarded cigarette apparently ignited a pile of loose chlorate of potash inside a riverfront warehouse. About three minutes later, a series of explosions shook the huge four-block-long building. Two heavy explosions showered the nearby Erie Railroad shops with flaming debris, igniting the building. Firefighters under the command of Chief Roger Boyle were hard pressed as they battled the oil- and grease-soaked wooden building. Thirteen steam engines were destroyed in the fire. The first-due fire station, only a block away on Henderson Street, was itself rocked by the initial blast. The explosions also sent flaming wind-driven brands across the North River (Hudson) that ignited a serious fire in lower Manhattan. By a strange coincidence, the New York City fire was also on Erie Railroad property, an old ferry house and pier, at the foot of Chambers Street. The old pier was nestled between two newer piers and burned furiously. A third alarm was needed to battle this fire. The loss on the Jersey side was estimated at $2 million.
March 28, 1918: Detroit, Michigan: United States Army officials were investigating a fire that destroyed the leather goods plant of Armstrong & Graham. The fire destroyed a half-million dollars worth of saddles and harnesses recently finished and ready to be shipped to the army. A total of 24,000 sets of saddles and harnesses were lost in the fire that was being investigated as incendiary and ignited by enemy agents.
Paul Hashagen is a 40-year veteran of the fire service. He retired from the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) after 25 years of service, with 20 of those years in Rescue Company 1. Hashagen is a former chief of the Freeport (NY) Fire Department and is still a member of Truck Company 1. He has written several books and numerous stories on the history of the fire service, including his new book Stories of Fire and One Hundred Years of Valor: Rescue Company 1 New York City Fire Department Rescue 1915-2015, both of which are available at paulhashagen.com. Visit his Facebook page at Paul Hashagen-author.