Rekindles: July 1996

If there was a significant fire or emergency that occurred 100 years ago in your department, or your department's 100th anniversary is coming up, please drop us a line for possible inclusion in "Rekindles" in an upcoming issue.

July 2, 1896: PHILADELPHIA, PA An exploding gasoline lamp spread a fire through a pool hall on Green Street. Three people were caught by the flames and were killed; others had to jump from second-floor windows.

July 2, 1896: GALVESTON, TX A devastating fire swept across a four-block area of the waterfront. Twenty-six railroad cars, 5,000 bales of jute and numerous other stored goods were lost. Damage was estimated at $300,000.

July 4, 1896: JOHNSTOWN, PA A fire that started during the morning hours spread from the Danger & Co. millinery store on Main Street. Flames quickly spread to adjoining buildings occupied by a jewelry company and a clothing company. Poor water supplies hampered the firefighting efforts.

July 4, 1896: ELLENVILLE, NY During the fire department's annual parade, a cannon loaded with dynamite exploded and blew off both legs of the man in charge of firing the weapon. Many other people were hurt by flying pieces of the cannon. (Similar accidents were reported in Putnam and Rockville, CT, and Woodstock, VT.)

July 8, 1896: BUFFALO, NY An exploding oil lamp filled a three-story brick dwelling on Elm Street with flames. The fire extended so quickly that two women and a baby were killed before the fire department arrived. An elderly man broke his back when he jumped from a window.

July 11, 1896: NASHVILLE, TN Fire broke out on the third floor of a North Cherry Street dry goods store. Within an hour, flames had spread to other buildings and firemen had all they could do to hold the fire to one block. A policeman was injured by exploding bullets from a gun and cartridge store.

July 12, 1896: BROOKLYN, NY Flames were seen in the Roman Catholic Church of the Visitation on Verona Street just before midnight. The priests were awakened by a passerby and were able to save the sacred items and altar pieces. The building was soon filled with raging fire and three alarms' worth of firefighters worked hard to prevent extension to nearby buildings. Firemen manning a hoseline protecting a warehouse had to wet down continually with a hose to hold their position.

July 12, 1896: WEST NEW YORK, NJ A four-story, 100-by-250-foot building used as a plant for the Peter Cooper Glue Works burned during the early-morning hours. Firemen from West New York and Guttenberg battled the flames with the help of an FDNY fireboat, The New Yorker. The tremendous fire was held to the original building but lit the night sky and attracted large crowds on both sides of the Hudson River.

July 14, 1896: SAN FRANCISCO, CA A fire caused by an exploding oil lamp engulfed a Jackson Street shoe store and trapped a family living in the apartment above. Seven people were killed above the store and flames spread to exposures on both sides.

July 14, 1896: BALTIMORE, MD A fire started by a kerosene lamp took the lives of two elderly women in their home on Riverside Avenue. Both women were burned as the lamp fell and exploded, covering them with the flaming liquid.

July 18, 1896: CHICAGO, IL The car barns of the Chicago City Railway Co. on Cottage Grove Avenue were destroyed during a late-night fire. One hundred open cars, 180 closed cars, 50 grip cars and 50 horses were lost. Quick work by the fire department stopped the spread of the fire. A collapsing wall destroyed a steam fire engine.

July 29,1896: DETROIT, MI A car struck an oil wagon on Gratoit Avenue, filling the street with the flammable liquid that soon was ignited by a spark from a passing vehicle. In minutes, the street was a sheet of flames that surrounded a butcher wagon stopped at the curb. The wagon driver was burned as he made his escape. A fireman was thrown from his hose wagon and broke his collarbone as he arrived at the scene.

CENTENNIALS: The Noroton, CT, Fire Department marked its 100th anniversary in June 1996 … The Malcom, IA, Volunteer Fire Department was organized on June 25, 1896. Equipment consisted of several hundred feet of hose, a hand-pulled hose cart and a warning bell.



The volunteer firemen of New York, NY, were a good cross-section of "big-city Americans" in 1863. When regiments were needed to fight in the Civil War, the firemen answered the call. The First Fire Zouaves left the city in April 1861 with 1,100 men, followed two weeks later by the Second Fire Zouaves with 810 men.

By 1863, the army was in need of more recruits, so Congress passed a conscription law. The draft lottery began in New York on July 11, 1863. On July 13, a crowd, including members of Engine Company 33 who thought they should be exempt from the draft, stormed the Provost Marshal's Office at Third Avenue and 47th Street and set the building on fire. Thus started three days of rioting, arson, looting and lynching.

Firefighting difficulties came to a head on July 14. The rioters headed to an orphanage on Fifth Avenue between 43rd and 44th streets and set it on fire. The firemen were led by Chief John Decker, who stormed into the crowd. As the burly chief fought with the mob's leaders, 200 children were whisked to safety out the back door. The firemen then tried to save Decker, now in the hands of the rioters. The chief, with a rope around his neck, was hustled to a nearby tree. Realizing his desperate position, Decker asked the crowd, "What good will it do to hang me? You'll only stop my draft, not the government's." Soon the laughing mob stepped aside and let the chief rejoin his men and battle the fire.

By July 15, troops arrived and order was restored. The losses were staggering: 1,200 people killed and $2 million in property damaged. The New York Herald reported, "Chief John Decker is especially entitled to the gratitude of the owners and occupants of real estate in upper sections of the city. That he absolutely saved for them their homes and contents is conceded by everybody."

Paul Hashagen

Compiled by Paul Hashagen