Rekindles: June 1996

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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.

June 3, 1896: NEW YORK, NY A burning rag blown from the chimney of a restaurant on Sixth Avenue, near 13th Street, ignited the wooden cupola of the American Musee, formerly known as Worth's Museum. The fire department arrived and extinguished the small fire but not before a hole was burned through the wood. The hole was little worry to the management, but three trained doves escaped from the cupola and flew away. This left the star performer a magician appearing that night without most of his act.

June 8, 1896: TORONTO, ONTARIO Fire broke out at 7 P.M. in the McKendry & Co.'s large department store on Yonge Street. The building was quickly filled with flames and the fire threatened another large department store and structures. Diligent work by firemen held the fire to the original building.

June 11, 1896: NEW YORK, NY Fire swept through the American Horse Exchange on the corner of Broadway and 50th Street. More than 100 horses perished in the blaze. One hundred carriages, many of them extremely expensive, were destroyed. Four alarms were transmitted and arriving firemen had to contend with sheets of flames that shot from the hay lofts and had to dodge excited horses running loose in the streets.

June 11, 1896: PIKES PEAK, CO Strong winds pushed a forest fire up the northwestern slopes of the famous mountain, damaging several square miles. The smoke column extended a mile over the 14,110-foot peak.

June 19, 1896: BARCELONA, SPAIN A large blast in an explosives factory shook the country's second-largest city and chief port. A panic followed as frightened citizens believed anarchists were blowing up the city. Firemen moved in and extinguished the remaining flames to prevent further explosions. One person was killed and three were injured.

June 19, 1896: LONDON, ENGLAND The International Fire Brigade Tournament was opened in the Royal Agricultural Hall. U.S. attendees included those from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, Michigan and Florida. Montreal and Hamilton represented Canada.

June 21, 1896: WEST CARTHAGE, NY A disastrous fire swept through the town during a quiet Sunday afternoon. The blaze originated in a furniture factory, then spread to two mills and a butter tub factory.

June 22, 1896: SAN FRANCISCO, CA A three-story wood-frame building on the corner of Fifth Street and Mint Avenue collapsed during the afternoon. The building, occupied as a restaurant on the lower floor and a lodging house above, was burning briskly as firemen arrived. Rescuers controlled the flames and dug out a dozen injured and trapped people.

June 26, 1896: POINT PLEASANT, WV Flames leaped from the Denton millinery store to the Harper Brothers furniture store, then to the Filsen Brothers hardware store. Several small buildings and the Harf Opera House were also destroyed.

June 29, 1896: ST. JOHN'S, NEWFOUNDLAND Forest fires burned across the northern portion of the island, leaving 20 families homeless in Botwoodville. Flames also destroyed a Methodist church, Salvation Army barracks, the court house and 35 homes on Pilley's Island. Great efforts saved an exposed powder magazine.

June 29, 1896: HOUSTON, TX A three-story building that was home to The Daily Age newspaper on Congress Street was the scene of an explosion at about 3 P.M. The building's engineer was operating the boiler when it exploded and rocketed through the rear wall of the newspaper building, across a vacant lot and crashed through the wall of the Southern Pacific Railway Office. The mangled heating unit killed two people in the railroad building before coming to rest over 300 feet from its boiler room. The building engineer was also killed; his hand was found some distance away, still clutching the water valve.

CENTENNIAL CELEBRATIONS: The Hyannis, MA, Fire Department marked its 100th anniversary on May 6, 1996 … The Clifton Heights, PA, Fire Company is celebrating its 100th year of service this month.

TIME CAPSULE

JUNE 1876: WHAT WERE FIREFIGHTERS UP TO WHILE CUSTER WAS MAKING HIS "LAST STAND"?

A large building belonging to the West Mount Vernon Nitroglycerine and Giant Powder Co. in Westchester County, NY, caught fire during the night. The cause of the blaze was believed to be a chemical reaction within the structure. The night before, a thunderstorm moved through Groverton Junction, NH, and a bolt of lightning struck a steam mill owned by George Stewart. Within a few minutes, the mill was engulfed in flames and burned to the ground.

In 1876, fire departments in the United States were trying to cope with both the advances of modern technology and the forces of nature, battles that continue to this day. America was celebrating its centennial in 1876, and the country was expanding in leaps and bounds. Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his new invention, the telephone. In short order, 250 subscribers in New York City were signed up and could talk to each other for $20 per month.

To place fire history in perspective with American history, another benchmark occurred in 1876, on June 25. While paid firemen were battling blazes in the big cities back east, the Plains Indians were battling the United States Cavalry not that far to the west. On June 24, the young General George Armstrong Custer discovered a camp of Sioux Indians on the Little Big Horn River in Montana. Believing speed was necessary, Custer prepared for an attack.

The strength of the combined camp of Sioux and Cheyenne was greatly underestimated by Custer, who split his forces. In an attack that would become infamous as "Custer's Last Stand," the young officer led some 265 men in a direct charge of the Indian camp. Following the leadership of Chief Sitting Bull and the renowned warrior Crazy Horse, the Indians engaged the army forces in defense of their village. Custer and his entire battalion were killed.

Although victorious, the Indians split up and by the end of the year most had been driven from the Black Hills. Word of the battle took a few weeks to reach the cities in the east, where people could not believe what they were reading in the newspapers. But as is typical to this day, within a few days the story was out of the headlines and people began worrying about their own problems.

To the firemen of 1876, the increasing size of buildings was making firefighting more and more difficult. Aerial ladders were being developed, but as New York City had learned the year before, the price of modern technology was high. A wooden aerial ladder that was being demonstrated broke, killing three firemen, including one of the city's most heroic fire chiefs, William Nash.

A tremendous advance in firefighting occurred in November 1876, when Albert and Abner Greenleaf and John Logan patented their water tower. The trio had manufactured the three-section wagon-mounted apparatus in the Greenleafs' shop in Baltimore, MD.

The water tower, raised by cranks, elevated the mast 50 feet into the air, where the nozzle at the tip could direct water into the upper floors of a burning building. The apparatus was shipped on a flatbed rail car to New York, where it was used by the FDNY on a trial basis. Two years later, the department purchased the water tower and the fire service had taken another big step in an attempt to keep up with the cities rising up around them.

Paul Hashagen


Compiled by Paul Hashagen

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