100 Years Ago

BALTIMORE, MD: DEC. 2, 1909 — The largest fire in the city's business district since the conflagration of 1904 occurred during the night. Five large buildings were destroyed and three others were badly damaged. The fire started at 6 P.M. on the fourth floor of the Spear Building, a five-story brick structure on Hopkins Place. The streets became so congested with spectators that responding fire apparatus could barely move. Extra police were sent to control the crowds as firemen struggled to catch up to the advanced fire. After the flames had eaten through to the fifth and third floors, there was a tremendous explosion that sent firemen running for cover as glass and debris rained down. Four firemen were injured battling the blaze and several others were overcome by heat and exhaustion.

BRONX, NY: DEC. 3, 1909 — While firemen were fighting a two-alarm blaze in an unoccupied two-story frame structure at 4706 White Plains Road, Battalion Chief Short heard a rumbling noise. As he shouted a warning to the men, the roof and walls of the building began to collapse. Firemen scrambled to safety, with many jumping to the roof of an adjoining structure. Just as the last fireman reached safety, the entire structure collapsed. The ruins then burned for an hour before the fire could be brought under control.

KALAMAZOO, MI: DEC. 9, 1909 — Property valued at more than $750,000 was destroyed as one of the best-known hotels in southern Michigan, the Burdick House, caught fire. The hotel's 160 guests were rushed outside to safety and, amazingly, no one was killed. The blaze was soon out of control and the great fire began to spread. The Battle Creek and Grand Rapids fire departments rushed to help as the flames raged for over 15 hours. Little remained of the hotel except the entrance, and a dozen more buildings were left in smoldering ruins, including the Postal Telegraph Co., American Express, City National Bank, Marshall Field and six saloons.

NEW YORK CITY: DEC. 11, 1909 — An early-morning fire at 1418 Broadway, a six-story office building in Manhattan, trapped the only occupant, Mrs. Caroline Richmond, the owner of a fourth-floor business. The woman was at the front windows crying for help as Engines 26 and 54 and Ladder 4 arrived at the scene. Fireman Robert Nelson of Ladder 4 sprang into action, ascending a 35-foot portable ladder with a 16-foot scaling ladder in hand. As Nelson lifted the scaling ladder into position, other firemen deployed a life-saving net below just in case. By the time Nelson reached her, the woman was in complete panic and had to be restrained. Nelson held the woman tightly as the aerial ladder was swung into position to let him pass the frantic woman off to other firemen. As they started down the ladder, Nelson descended the scaling ladder amidst smoke and flames. Nelson, no stranger to heroics, received a department medal for a spectacular rescue he made in March of the same year while working in Ladder 24.

RACINE, WI: DEC. 12, 1909 — The plant of the Racine Manufacturing Co., maker of automobile tops and piano stools, was destroyed by a fire that started in the mill room. Flames quickly spread to each of the plant's six buildings and then to the nearby Dania Brotherhood Hall, the Mitchell Wagon Works and several residences. The fire left more than 1,200 people out of work.

ELIZABETH, NJ: DEC. 14, 1909 — Flames broke out in the kitchen of a second-floor apartment at 410 Wall St. during the night. The apartment's occupant, Mrs. Steiner, was awakened by the smell of smoke that she saw was coming from the kitchen. She then attempted, barehanded, to extinguish the flames, but her hands and feet were badly burned and she became hysterical. She then apparently jumped from a window, breaking her arm and leg and sustaining serious internal injuries. Arriving firemen found her on the ground and took her to the hospital.

PAUL HASHAGEN, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired FDNY firefighter who was assigned to Rescue Company 1 in Manhattan. He is also an ex-chief of the Freeport, NY, Fire Department. Hashagen is the author of FDNY 1865–2000: Millennium Book, a history of the New York City Fire Department, and other fire service history books.