Saturday, June 21, 2008


In the early hours of Feb. 9, 1902, Box 451 at Main Street and Broadway was transmitted for the flames that started the Great Fire of Paterson - a blaze at the car barn of the Jersey City, Hoboken and Paterson Street Railroad Company.

Newspapers across the country published accounts of the disaster as the flames raged.

``It commenced in the car shed and was burning fiercely when one of the employes detected it,'' The State Journal of Lincoln, Nebraska, reported. ``It was leaping through the roof and the gale was lifting it in forks and swirls when the fire department came clanging into Broadway, Main and Van Houten streets.

``The firemen tried to hem it in but it speedily crossed Van Houten street in one direction, Main street in another and gaining vigor as it went burned unchecked down into the business district,'' The State Journal said. ``Every piece of fire mechanism in the city was called out but fire and gale were masters.''

According to The Washington Post:

``In its desolate wake are the embers and ashes of property valued in a preliminary estimate at $10,000,000. It burned its way through the business section of the city and claimed as its own a majority of the finer structures devoted to commercial, civic, educational, and religious use, as well as scores of houses.''

The New York Times

Business Portion of the the City Destroyed by Fierce Fire.
Churches and Other structures wiped Out -
Aid Summoned from Passaic and Newark.

PATERSON, N.J. Feb 9. - One of the largest fires that ever visited this city started shortly after midnight in the Paterson car sheds. A high wind was prevailing and it carried the flames and sparks to adjourning buildings. The First Baptist Church was burned to the ground.

Soon after the church was destroyed the flames seemed to start from a dozen places in the vicinity at the same time. The wind carried the burning embers high into the air. Anywhere they dropped flames I seemed to shoot up.

The firemen were hard at work at 2 A. M. but the wind only adds to the fury of the flames. The police say no reports of fatalities have been received. The names appear to be beyond control of the force at hand.

The old City Hall is in ruins at 3:30 this morning. Helvetia Hall is burned to the ground. Four of the blocks are not burning.

Paterson's business centre is rapidly being wiped out. The Paterson High School and the Daily Guardian newspaper structure rebuilt but a short time ago are again t burning. The Morning Call, one of the leading papers is threatened.

Engines from Passaic have just arrived. Newark has been asked for assistance. The citizens are demoralized. The street lights are out and the city, save for the flames, is in darkness.


Written for 100th anniversary

'A Whirlwind of Flames'

The New York Times - Feb. 3, 2002

JUST after midnight on Feb. 9, 1902, an overheated stove in a trolley shed in Paterson caught fire. Fanned by 60-mile-an-hour winds, the blaze tore through downtown Paterson and leapfrogged into Sandy Hill, a residential neighborhood to the east. Although there were only two deaths connected with the fire, it destroyed 459 buildings, more than a quarter of the city's structures, and 26 city blocks. Homes, stores, churches and banks were burned to the ground. The library, the city hall and the posh Hamilton Club were in ruins. The blaze finally burned itself out outside a cemetery at 1 p.m.

Edward A. Smyk, the historian of Passaic County, said one witness called the city ''a whirlwind of flames'' that day. It was the worst fire in New Jersey's history.

Beginning this weekend, Paterson will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the fire in a series of exhibitions and programs at the Passaic County Historical Society, the Paterson Museum, the Paterson Free Public Library, and the Hamilton Club Building of Passaic County Community College.

And at the American Labor Museum Botto House National Landmark in Haledon, there will be a lecture about connections between the fire and the strike of silk workers in Paterson later in 1902.

The driving force behind these events is Glenn Corbett, who teaches fire science -- the study of firefighting, fire-protection systems and the behavior of fires -- at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. Mr. Corbett is also a captain in the fire department in Waldwick, where he lives. He is writing a book about the fire and wil give a lecture at the historical society on Friday at 7 p.m.

Mr. Corbett's father grew up in Paterson and was chief of the Waldwick Fire Department. Mr. Corbett said he has long been fascinated by firefighting and Paterson.

''The fire was too important an event to let go by without recognition of its importance to Paterson,'' Mr. Corbett said.

Many departments from the surrounding area helped fight the 1902 fire. But the Paterson Fire Department, which played the major role, was ill equipped with old fire engines that threw weak streams of water, Mr. Corbett said.

He added: ''One of the biggest mistakes is that they did not send fire companies downwind to the residential neighborhood to take care of the embers and firebrands dropping down on the wood frame homes and shingled roofs. In my opinion, the second leg of that fire in Sandy Hill didn't have to happen.''

The show at the historical society, ''By Flames Are We Tested: The Great Fire of Paterson 1902,'' features photographs of the city before and after the fire.

''Some reveal a city that looks like London after the Blitz,'' said Andrew Shick, the society's director. ''It's very haunting.''

Objects salvaged from the fire will also be on display, among them the collection box from St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church at Market and Carroll Streets. The church was reduced to ashes after the blaze, and the coins in the collection box melted together. But the metal box survived. The church was rebuilt and reopened by 1903.

The show at the museum, ''Firefighters and the Great Paterson Fire,'' concentrates on firefighting artifacts. It also includes photographs with panoramic views of the city before and after the fire and other prints developed for the first time from glass-plate negatives made after the blaze. These pictures reveal a dazed world of ladies in black, men in bowler hats, doughboys and carriages against a burned-out wintry landscape.

The city's reconstruction is chronicled at the library in ''The New Paterson: A Phoenix Arises from the Ashes.'' The library was the first public one in the state, with 37,000 volumes. Its building was the former home of the Danforth family, which built its fortune in Paterson manufacturing locomotives and machinery for the textile industry.

After the fire, when the library was destroyed, Mary Ryle Danforth donated money to help build the new library, which was designed by Henry Bacon, who would go on to design the Lincoln Memorial. Photographs of the old library along with Bacon's designs for the new one are among the items on display.

The Hamilton Club, a businessman's club on Church and Ellison Streets, where three American presidents enjoyed the hospitality, was also destroyed. But just over a year later, a new clubhouse restored in minute detail reopened. ''The Great Paterson Fire: The Hamilton Club Rebuilt,'' an exhibition at the club, now part of Passaic County Community College, tells the story of its reconstruction.

The fire caused $6 million in damages. Reconstruction was financed by local banks, insurance money and private donations, and the wealthy paid for relief to local families, said Giacomo De Stefano, director of the Paterson Museum. Mayor John Hinchcliffe refused outside capital, even offers of help from other parts of the state, he added.

''The mayor wanted to show Paterson's strength, that the fire was nothing but a minor setback, that Paterson could really take care of itself,'' Mr. De Stefano said.

He added: ''In those days we were a prosperous city, an industrial force. Paterson was one of the major manufacturing centers in the United States, with its silks and textiles, locomotives and machine shops.''

Although that era is long gone, Mr. De Stefano evoked its spirit.

''A city like Paterson had no problem taking care of itself and putting it back just the way it was,'' he said. ''We were a strong city. We didn't need help.''