March 3, 1902: NEW YORK CITY - A fire believed to have started in a box of waste celluloid and rubber spread quickly to a large stock of celluloid and was soon out of control. The building at 212 Canal St. was soon a mass of climbing flames that trapped many employees. The original alarm was received at 8:12 A.M., turning out nearby companies who were then faced with severe fire conditions and major exposure problems upon arrival. Second, third and fourth alarms followed quickly. Stairways and fire escapes were filled with people as firemen pushed into the thick smoke and made several spectacular rescues. Despite the best efforts of the firemen, numerous civilians suffered serious injuries and at least one died.
March 8, 1902: PLAINFIELD, NJ - An early-morning fire in the five-story Babcock Building in the heart of the business district leaped to the two-story wooden structures on both sides and created a wall of flame for responding firemen. A collapsing wall did further damage before the flames could be controlled.
March 11, 1902: CHICAGO - A late-night fire in the five-story brick warehouse at the corner of Wells and Superior streets tested the leather lungs of firemen who had to brave smoke laced with ammonia. The attack, hampered by the threat of an explosion, stayed the flames, but only after a $175,000 loss.
March 12, 1902: RAHWAY, NJ - A woman dashed back into her smoke-filled apartment to save her lost child. Firemen entered the rooms and pressed a difficult search to find the two civilians. As the woman and her child were removed, firemen found one of their own, Foreman John Tuffts, unconscious on the floor. He was quickly removed in serious condition. The fire was believed to have been electrical in nature and caused major damage. During the American Revolution, the building was used by the Continental Army.
March 15, 1902: NEW YORK CITY - The engineer of a Sixth Avenue elevated train was southbound when he noticed smoke pumping from a fourth-floor window of a hardware store on Murray Street in lower Manhattan. He brought his train around a curve, stopped above the quarters of Fire Patrol 1 and sounded his horn a number of times. He hung out of the cab window and informed the startled officer about the fire around the block. An hour and a half later, three alarms had been sounded before fire was declared under control.
March 15, 1902: CLEVELAND - An explosion rocked the Fairmount Manufacturing Company on Euclid Avenue. The front of the two-story building, used to mix powder, was blown completely off. A major fire developed and several women working in the plant were injured.
March 27, 1902: CHIHUAHUA, Mexico - The roundhouse, carpenter shop and plant of the Chihuahua and Pacific Railroad Company were destroyed by a fast-moving fire. All but two of the steam engines owned by the railroad were lost.
MARCH 18, 1902: HOBOKEN, NJ - FIRE THREATENS PIERS AND ENTIRE HARBOR
A small fire on the north side of the Phoenix Steamship Line pier at the foot of Seventh Street in Hoboken quickly grew to a major threat to the entire area. Flames first visible in a pile of wicker baskets soon raced across bales of stored cotton and ignited the wooden pier structure. Within minutes, fire enveloped the liner British Queen. The flames quickly spread to the entire pier shed, the liner, and numerous lighters and barges moored alongside. Responding firemen were reminded of the huge conflagration along the Hoboken piers in 1900.
The fire was reported at 7:40 A.M., and within minutes hundreds of sailors, longshoremen and workers were running for their lives. As the flames spread from the liner to the barges, barrels of oils and alcohol were suddenly burning and the situation was worsening by the minute. Several captains pulled their ships from the piers as radiant heat blistered the paint on their hulls. Two nearby grain elevators were soon roaring and two more lighters were in flames as firemen scrambled to get lines onto the large firefront. One man was hauled up the mast of a nearby barge with a nozzle to direct a stream on the growing flames.
Sailors darted among the blazing vessels, pulling men from the water into the relative safety of their rowboats. It was decided to pull some of the fire-filled craft away from the land to weaken the firefront. As tugs pulled the burning hulk of the British Queen into the river, an oil-filled barge exploded nearby, spewing the fiery liquid 50 yards in every direction. The river was now on fire. Tugboats pulled ships to safety, fireboats pressed in close from the river-side as land firemen pushed hoselines into extreme conditions, battling mountainous flames. Several blazing craft drifting with the current and winds were run down and diverted in the nick of time.
After being battled the entire day, the flames were finally quenched. The smoldering ruins of more than $1 million worth of ships and piers sent clouds of steam and smoke skyward for days. Firemen took up their hoses, returned to quarters and waited for the next one.
Paul Hashagen, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an FDNY firefighter 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 recently published history of the New York City Fire Department, and other fire service history books.