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March 1916 Fires

Issue 3 and Volume 11.

In this month’s column, I present historic fires or significant events in the fire service from March 1916. A reminder: Readers are encouraged to share information from their departments.

March 3, 1916: Hastings-On-Hudson, New York: A bursting gas pipe on the first floor ignited a fire that quickly spread through the inner walls of a large frame tenement in Depot Square. The building was occupied by 50 families; the men of the families all worked for the National Conduit Cable Company, located just across the railroad tracks. With the significant profits being made by the company because of the war in Europe, the workers were said to be making as much as $50 a week (a handsome sum in those days). Most workers were disinclined to put their money in banks, so they kept their funds hidden in their rooms. Flames began extending in the rambling house, driving the tenants to the street. Arriving fire companies found the crowd to be extremely excited. Firefighters moved into the thick smoke. Pulling incandescent lamps on long wires across clotheslines from the building next door, they tried to find the hidden flames and save the furniture.

A big sofa was pushed out a first-floor window and then was quickly surrounded by a dozen men and women who began to tear it apart, dragging rolls of bills from hiding places where family and boarders had secreted them. From other rooms came pillows, a mattress, and a chest of drawers. People who’d hidden monies inside each of the objects descended, hoping to retrieve their cash. Eventually the flames burst through the walls, causing major damage to the interior of the building. Several families lost all of their money. Others reported seeing a man running down the block with a flaming mattress on his shoulders.

March 4, 1916: New York City, New York: Two watchmen making their rounds along the Standard Oil Company pier at the foot of West 48th Street saw a glow and moved closer to investigate. They found a fire in the cabin area of a 300-foot barge moored to the south side of the pier. They battled the flames for several minutes in vain. At 7:15 p.m., a passing police officer hurried to a nearby alarm box and notified the fire department. The first-arriving officer, Battalion Chief Owen McKiernan, was faced with quite a dilemma. The wood and steel craft, known as Lighter 130, was filled with 15,000 gallons of gasoline, and 50 feet to its south lay another barge with similar contents. Hoping to avoid a major explosion, the chief ordered the fireboat James Duane to tow the burning barge out into the river. The fire was still in the cabin and decks and had yet to reach the fuel as the towing operation started. A hawser (a thick rope) was run from the Duane to the lighter and made fast. The fireboat then began to pull the burning vessel into the middle of the river. Fireboat Willard arrived and fastened a second hawser to the barge to help pull it upstream.

As they reached 70th Street, the fire reached the stored gasoline, and one after the other, the barrels began to explode. Seeing the lighter could not be saved, the chief ordered the fireboats to drop their lines. The barge drifted south until it ran aground on a mud bank 400 feet from shore near Weehawken. With flames now leaping 100 feet into the air, the pillar of fire illuminated the bluffs of the Jersey shore and the west side of Manhattan. As the explosions continued, flaming cans rocketed from the barge, arching into the night sky and spreading a river of fire across the water. The two fireboats moved in a way that directed their streams at the flames, pushing the burning fuel back toward the barge. The fire burned brightly for nearly three hours before the flames could be brought under control.

March 21, 1916: Paris, Texas: Around 5:30 p.m., flames broke out near the storage warehouse of S.J. Long at the foot of South 18th Street adjoining the Texas and Pacific Railway tracks at the southwest city limits. Before it was discovered, the flames had spread to a cotton compress and ignited hundreds of stored bales. Driven by gale-force winds, the fire was soon out of control. In less than two hours, 30 blocks of business and residential properties were in flames. Firefighters of the small paid department battled both the flames and low water pressure as the fire continued growing. The water supply came from a storage tank six miles to the west and was delivered to town by an electric pump. The town’s electric power plant was destroyed early in the fire, but word never reached the water supply engineer to start the emergency pumps. In town, firefighters laid hoselines but were unable to develop adequate streams to halt the flames.

By 9:30 p.m., the fire was still raging northward as mutual-aid companies began to arrive. A hose wagon from Hugo, Oklahoma, arrived by rail; later, an auto-driven pumper from Bonham, Texas, arrived. At 10:00 p.m., a pumper and hose wagon from Cooper, Texas, arrived. A large pumper and hose wagon from Dallas arrived by train around 1:00 a.m. the next morning. These units and most of the men living in the town worked together on the eastern edge of the fire with some success.

The fire was finally stopped the following day at 4:00 a.m.; 1,440 buildings were destroyed, including the Federal Building, the post office, the Lamar County Court House and jail, several churches, and City Hall. It was estimated that 8,000 people were homeless and two women lost their lives.