Fire Buffs promote the general welfare of the fire and rescue service and protect its heritage and history. Famous Fire Buffs through the years include New York Fire Surgeon Harry Archer, Boston Pops Conductor Arthur Fiedler, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and - legend has it - President George Washington.

Monday, June 30, 2008


On Aug. 14, 1897, Paterson firefighters rescued workers trapped by 1,200 tons of coal that slid out of a storage bin at the Edison Electric and Illuminating Co. 

The falling coal also crushed the plant's steam pipes and plunged Paterson  into darkness.

The shovelers ``were caught in the rush, but it came gradually at first, and no one was injured by it,'' according to The New York Times.

``No one could get out, and a dozen men were pinned in the coal, but they were quickly gotten out by the firemen who were summoned,'' the Times said.


On July 15, 1911, Paterson firefighter James Campbell, of Engine Co. 9, raced into a burning building at 568 Main Street and rescued two little boys - David Walker, 5, and his brother Robert, 3.

``Engine 9 was the first to reach the burning building and Campbell rushed up the stairs to the Walker apartment,'' according to The New York Times. 

''He found the place filled with smoke and flames. Groping his way about, he found the children on the floor, overcome by smoke. Wrapping them in his coat he made his way to the street,'' the Times said.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


  • Paterson was once a thriving a textile town called the ``Silk City'' and the fire department protected a population of Old World immigrants - Italians, Jews and others - drawn to the looms. Following a tenement fire on Main Street: ``The fire department reported without qualification that twenty-one families and one band of gypsies had been left homeless,'' according to the 1974 book ``About Paterson'' by Christopher Norwood.
  • Mayor Frank X. Graves - an old-school politician who served as chief executive from 1961-1966 and 1982 until his death in 1990 - patroled Paterson's streets in a black sedan equipped with police and fire radios. ``When he spotted a problem - a littered street, perhaps, or graffiti on a monument - he would use one of his two-way radios to demand immediate action from the appropriate municipal agency,'' The New York Times said in his obituary. ``He kept a child's doll and a softball in the car, which he gave to children at fire and accident scenes to calm them.''
  • Paterson has languished since the textile mills started shutting down in the 1960s. Many buildings became abandoned - and some burned. In the Herald & News in March 2000, Paterson Deputy Fire Chief James Tice said: ``What we run into, time and again, are buildings where the owner files for bankruptcy, the heat gets turned off, the sprinkler pipes freeze and burst, and the system has to be shut down … We can take the owners to court and try to force them to fix it, but you can't get blood out of a stone.''

Friday, June 27, 2008


May 8, 1923

``Firemen, policemen and civilians, working in relays until they were exhausted, burned and battered their way through an almost impregnable steel vault in a bank in Paterson, N.J., last night and, at the end of four hours desperate strife, brought out alive a 19-year-old clerk who had been locked in accidentally at 6 o'clock in the evening with a man-defying time lock set for 8:15 this morning,'' according to the May 9, 1923 edition of The New York Times.


Photo: Civil Defense Museum
In 1954, Paterson acquired a Civil Defense rescue truck similar to this photo. It was housed at fire headquarters at 115 Van Houten Street until 1968 when it was relocated to the Getty Avenue station.



On Feb. 15, 1981, a four-alarm fire struck a row of frame buildings at Broadway and Madison Avenue in Paterson, sending a man diving out a third-floor apartment window to escape the flames.

The jumper, identified as James Lawson, was admitted to the intensive care unit at St. Joseph's Hospital, according to the Paterson News. Lawson said someone stole his wallet after he landed on the ground.

Box 265 was transmitted for 469-471 Broadway at 6:40 a.m., with the blaze leaving nine families homeless and several vehicles heavily damage. Prospect Park, Clifton and Passaic provided mutual aid.

Photos: Collection of Bruno Wendt

Thursday, June 26, 2008


"The Figure 5 in Gold" (above) by Charles Demuth. Williams' poem inspired the 1928 painting.
Williams Carlos Williams, 1883-1963, was a physician and influential American poet whose epic "Paterson'' is considered a personification of and tribute to the city.

Williams - who practiced at the Passaic General Hospital - penned many other poems, including these lines about an encounter with a fire engine in New York in the 1920s:

The Great Figure
Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
fire truck
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

Wednesday, June 25, 2008



After twenty-two hours of digging in the ruins of yesterday's explosion at Paterson, N.J., work ceased this afternoon, and it is now believed all the bodies have been recovered. There are now seventeen. - The Washington Post

On June 21, 1901, fireworks exploded in a shop in a four-story tenement at 440 Main St., killing 17 people and trapping others.

Three firefighters were injured.

Rescuers used ladders and life nets to save people ``hanging from the windows ready to drop'' when the engines arrived, according to The New York Times.

The Times described the saving of John McGlone and his wife, who lived on the top floor:

``McGlone climbed out of the front window and hung on with one hand while he held his wife to his breast with the other. The ladders were all busy, and one of the life nets from Truck 1 was called into use. Twenty men held it, and McGlone was told to drop.

``With a superb show of strength he swung so as to carry his wife away from the building and then let go of her. She dropped into the net through the flame. As soon as she could be rolled out Of the net, it was placed for her husband, and he, too, landed safely in it.''

Still, the husband and wife were ``badly burned by their flight through the flames bursting from the windows below,'' according to the newspaper.


The following was published in the Sandusky Daily Star of Ohio:

Paterson, N. J., June 22. - So far as known there were 12 people killed and a number of others were injured in a fire following an explosion among a quantity of fireworks in the store of ABRAHAM M. RITTENBERG. The store was on the ground floor of a 4-story frame tenement building. The cause of the explosion is not known. The property loss is $35,000.

The following were killed:

MRS. CHARLES WILLIAMSON, burned while trying to rescue her husband.
CHARLES WILLIAMSON, helpless cripple, unable to leave bed.
HAROLD RITTENBERG, 10-months-old child of the keeper of the fireworks store.
WILLIE ELSASSER, six weeks old.
MRS. BERT BAMBER, whose husband is in the hospital.
JOHN BAMBER, 6-months-old child.
MRS. ANDREW ELVIN, head only found, trunk missing.
CLARENCE BURNS, six years old, found clasped in his mother's arms.
Total number of bodies recovered, 12.

The missing:

JOSEPH ELVIN, two weeks old, mother's head found.
Two Nephews of MRS. LANNIGAN, whose body has been found.
MRS. MARY ELSASSER, kept baker shop, child's body found.

The Injured Are:

J. JESSUP, bruised about the head and body and burned about the head.
MRS. J. JESSUP, bruised and burned about the body.
I. BAMBURGER, head and face bruised.
NICHOLAS HILLMAN, cut on head.
GEORGE SODER, cut on face.
Fireman EDWARD LINGLAND, injured by falling wall.
MR. and MRS. JOHN McGLONE, burned about face and body.

The building in which the explosion occurred was a frame tenement four stories high, with stores on the ground floor. The middle store was occupied by RITTENBERG. Ten families occupied flats in the building. So great was the force of the explosion that a boy playing in the street half a block away was lifted to his feet and hurled against an iron fence, one of his legs being broken. A trolley car was directly in front of the building when the explosion occurred. The burst of flame blown out into the street scorched the sides of the car and singed the hair of the passengers.

A number of those who were on the upper floors of the building when the explosion took place were either stunned or burned to death or found escape cut off and were suffocated. After the first explosion there was a succession of smaller ones, and then came a second big explosion, which was muffled and deadened, and probably occurred in the cellar.

Every window seemed to be spouting flames within a minute after the first explosion. A woman, her clothing on fire, leaped out of one of the windows and fell to the yard below. Her body was dragged out of reach of the flames, but the flesh was roasted and dropped from the bones. She later proved to be a MRS. WILLIAMS.

MRS. WILLIAMS' husband was a cripple. His wife is supposed to have remained longer than she could with safety in an effort to save him. He was found burned to a crisp on his bed.

Some of the occupants of the rooms dropped from the windows and were bruised. Others hung from the windows until the firemen came, and twenty persons were taken down in this way through the fire and smoke by the firemen, while others dropped into life nets.

RITTENBERG will probably be arrested pending an investigation. In the debris was found the head of a man or woman.


Horses joined the Paterson Fire Department on May 1, 1884, along with the city's first paid fireman - William Whittaker, a driver for Engine Co. 1.

That's according to the 1985 book ``Taking the Heat'' by the Honor Legion Firefighters of Northern New Jersey. Before the horses, the early volunteers used brute force to move their apparatus, hence the phrase ``Making a run.''

Paterson placed its first motorized fire engine in service in 1910 and continued using horses for another decade. The final run of Paterson's fire horses was made on July 4, 1920 to Box 634 - East 18th Street and Third Avenue - for a fire at 755 River Street.

It has often been said that fire horses received better treatment than firemen. The following news dispatch from Paterson - published in The Washington Post via The New York Telegram on Sept. 24, 1910 - supports that argument:

``An operation performed today by Dr. Matthew A. Pierce, city veterinarian, on a horse in Fire Engine Company No. 4, to ascertain the cause of a lump which had been raised on the animal's shoulder, resulted in finding a 10-cent piece. It was imbedded in the flesh nearly an inch."

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Photo: Passaic County Historical Society
Ruins of at 680 Main St.

A tornado churned across South Paterson, Sandy Hill and East Side Park on July 22, 1903 - causing several deaths, toppling homes and damaging mills, h
ospitals and other structures.

``Firemen were summoned from all parts of the city to the stricken sections to aid in searching for the dead and caring for the injured,'' The New York Times said.

The tornado was the third disaster to strike Paterson in little over a year.

In 1902, the Great Fire swept much of the city. A flood followed a few weeks later.

Monday, June 23, 2008





On Jan. 6, 1914, a general alarm fire gutted the Paterson Opera House, spread to the adjacent Donahue Building and triggered a backdraft that scorched firefighters .  

Trouble with the municipal fire alarm telegraph lines sent engines to the wrong address, allowing flames time to gain headway at the rear of the opera house.

At its height, the blaze threatened an entire block along Main Street between Market and Ward, including the Lockwood Brothers furniture business and the McBride Building, according to the Morning Call newspaper.

"There was a panic among the Italians living in the neighboring tenements, and many were rescued scantily clad,'' The New York Times said.

Firefighters advanced a hose line through the front of the opera house and under the stage and positioned another from a adjacent saloon owned by Joseph Donahue. Others attacked the blaze from the rear of the building.

On Main Street street, crews raised tower pipes to cascade water onto the flames.

"They jumped in and fought like tigers," said Fire Chief Thomas Coyle, quoted by the Paterson Press. 

The backdraft sent 
men "stumbling out of the lobby,'' the Morning Call said. "When the great cloud of hot air and smoke shot through (sic) the men on the lines had the instinct to hold fast to their water," the newspaper said.

Six firefighters were injured at the blaze. Newspapers identified them as Captain Frank Boyle of Truck 3, Louis Shauger and Andrew "Andy" Green of Company 6, Dennis Toomey of Engine 7 and Lieutenant Martin Gleason and Edward Hepp of Engine 9.

Box 52 served as the fire alarm station for block. But the bells initially tapped out Box 512, sending apparatus to Ellison and Mill streets, the Morning Call said. It was suspected that "wires burned by the heat" scrambled a signal from an auxiliary alarm station in the opera house, Box 522.    

The Opera House was considered a ``vanity house,'' according to the Passaic County Historical Society, "owned, supported, managed and patronized by the rising business and managerial classes of Paterson."

Citing its influence in the community, the historical society said: "The theatre reviewer of the Daily Press concerned himself more with a description of the audience than with the presentation on stage'' when attending a performance.

In 1916, a movie house - the United States Theatre - opened on the site.


Removing victims

Alexander Hamilton Hotel in its heyday
Photo: The Ledger - Google News Archives

Woman trapped by fire on 8th floor of Alexander Hamilton Hotel in Paterson in October 1984 clasps towel to breath. The blaze, set by an arsonist, claimed 15 lives.
By Vinny Del Giudice

On Oct. 18, 1984, an arson fire swept the shabby Alexander Hamilton Hotel in downtown Paterson - a once elegant building that fell into disrepair - killing 15 people and injuring about 60 others.

"People were screaming, trying to tie sheets and blankets together to get out the windows," said hotel resident Lusylvia Rivera, 33, quoted by the Associated Press. She fled with her three children from a room on the first floor of the residential hotel. "The ones who were more scared just went ahead and jumped," Rivera said.

Box 181 - Market and Church streets - was transmitted at 12:14 a.m. and the incident ``quickly escalated to three alarms and all of the city's fire units responded, as did firefighters from five nearby towns,'' The New York Times said. ''We have people trapped, we have people jumping,'' Paterson Fire Capt. Domenick Cotroneo told The Times.

Fire Chief William Comer, quoted by the AP, said "the fire spread so fast and the flames were so intense" that the blaze jumped from the third floor through air ducts and engulfed four or five floors of the eight-story hotel.

Battalion Chief Frank Crampton said Paterson firefighters encountered "very poor visibility, panicky people, unconscious people lying on floors," according to the AP.

Harry Moore, who escaped from the second floor with his wife and two babies, said "It happened all of the sudden," according to the AP. "A girl knocked on the door and screamed, 'Get out of the place,'" Moore said. "When we got out, the place was in flames. We grabbed what we could, the babies first of course."

Some victims succumbed to their injuries days later, including Christino Ramirez, 53, who died Oct. 24 at Hackensack Medical Center's burn unit. ''When he arrived here he had third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body,'' said Lisa Hoffman, a hospital spokeswoman quoted by United Press International.

Russell W. Conklin, 44, a TV repairman and resident of the hotel, was convicted of manslaughter and arson and sentenced to prison on Nov. 6, 1985. The Washington Post described Conklin as "an embittered handyman who may have been drunk."

Paterson Mayor Frank X. Graves, quoted by the AP, said Conklin "had a fight with the night manager. He's the one that supposedly started the fire. The manager locked the guy in the room. He lit the sheets on fire and climbed out the back window. The suspect is saying this."

served more than a decade behind bars and was released from a state prison on April 23, 1997, according to the web site of the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

Investigators determined paint and other materials stored in the hotel fueled the flames.

Passaic, Clifton and Hawthorne were among the communities to send mutual aid.

The Hamilton tragedy recalled an arson fire that killed six people at the Midtown Hotel on Dec. 10, 1968. Box 141 was transmitted at 10:58 p.m. for 2 Park Ave. and escalated to a general alarm.

Another arson fire on Oct. 15, 1981 killed eight people at an apartment building at 89 Park Ave.

An even deadlier fire on Nov. 4, 1917 claimed 19 lives at the Salvation Army Rescue Mission. That fire was apparently an accident.

The Alexander Hamilton Hotel was named for the first U.S. Treasury secretary. In 1791, Hamilton led a group of investors in creating the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures, which led to the creation of the city. The society was organized to harness the power of the Great Falls on the Passaic River.

In June 1995, The Times published a story about plans to renovate hotel:

``When people talked about fancy hotels in those days, they talked about the Alexander Hamilton. Built in 1930, the 170-room hotel was a natural magnet for the rich and powerful, a handsome eight-story brick building just two blocks from City Hall and surrounded by cigar and fedora stores and the famed Fabian Theater. ... But as the city declined in the 1960's, so did the hotel. Factories closed because of labor unrest and high costs, the well-to-do fled to the suburbs, crime and unemployment rose and the hotel fell into disrepair.''

When the arsonist struck, ``The ballrooms were stacked to the ceiling with mattresses. Garbage was everywhere and there was a stench of sewage. People passed out in the stairwells. Only the cockroaches thrived,'' the newspaper said.


Photos: and Thomas Dayspring
Paterson Engines 12, 5 and 3



In 1894, a man named William Nelson published an account of firefighting in Paterson, New Jersey, in the years before the Civil War entitled "Records of the Paterson Fire Association 1821-1854.''

The subtitles of Nelson's book were ``With the Laws Relating to the Association'' as well as ``Accounts of Fires and other Matters of Interest, From Contemporary Newspapers.''

In the introduction, Nelson said: ``No record is known of the first organization in Paterson to combat fire. It is believed, however, that Engine Co. No. 1 was formed about 1815.'' In doing his research, Nelson said ``a careful search through the records of Paterson from 1815 to 1819 has brought to light'' only a two brief items related to fires.

The first was an account of a blaze at the residence on the inventor Samuel Colt, who lived at 120 Market Street, on Dec. 31, 1815. The second was about a fire in late June or early July 1819 at the home of John Amens. The Colt residence was saved. The Amens residence was not.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Photo: Bill Tompkins,
General Alarm - Fulton St. lumber yard fire - Aug. 13, 2006
"Firefighters faced a heavy fire condition, water problems, access problems and many exposure problems,'' according to

34-334 Market St. - Nov. 3, 2003.
"After an aggressive interior attack, companies were forced to evacuate the building and operate from the exterior as the structure became fully involved on the top floor," according to
General Alarm - 559 Main St. - Oct. 29, 2000
Winds turned a house fire into a conflagration - destroying three dwellings, damaging six others and leaving 55 people homeless, The New York Times said. The general alarm fire started at about 2:05 p.m. in a two-and-a-half-story wood-frame row house, Battalion Chief Edward McLaughlin told The Times.


Paterson Morning Call

May 5, 1938

Twenty three persons including six firemen of Engine Company No.9 were injured shortly before 11 O’clock last night when a Paterson – Passaic bus owned by the Public Service Transportation Company crashed into the side of the apparatus of Engine Co. 9 in front of the fire company’s quarters on Main Street near Van Winkle.

  • Capt. Hobart Strathern
  • Driver Stephen Walls
  • Fireman William McCorry
  • Fireman Daniel Stevens
  • Fireman David Quakenbush
  • Fireman Joseph Carr


Ruins of Colt Gun Mill

Spectacular fires have plagued Paterson's mills since the first settlers, from a blaze that destroyed the Little Beaver Mill in 1832 to a series of arson fires 150 years later that gutted the historic Colt Gun Mill.

The Fulton Street Fire - a general alarm at Box 151 - started on April 29, 1978 and devoured mills and adjacent buildings as well as three fire department vehicles - Engine 2, Engine 5 and Battalion 2. Hundreds of firefighters from across North Jersey provided mutual aid.

General alarm fires also destroyed the Ashley-Bailey Mill in 1904, the Lamond Robertson Carpet Mill in 1930, the Ramsey & Gore Mill in 1939, the Appel Mill in 1944 and St. Anthony's Guild in 1973. Mill fires requiring second- and a third-alarm assignments were commonplace.

An account of the Little Beaver Mill fire, published in the Paterson Intelligencer of May 2, 1832, said: ``In a very few minutes the whole premises were involved in a sheet of flame. The firemen soon arrived with their engines, but the progress of the fire was already such, that little else could be done that to preserve the buildings adjacent."

In a story headlined ``The Paterson Hemp and Rope Manufactory Almost Wholly Destroyed,'' The Washington Post reported on a July 21, 1890 fire at the ``extensive machine works of S. J. C. Todd, one of the oldest manufacturing establishments in this city.''

Later that year, The New York Times reported: ``Fire was discovered in the engine room which adjoins the main building of the extensive silk mill of Bamford Brothers on Rip Van Winkle Avenue'' on Nov. 22, 1890 and ``an hour later the entire establishment was completely destroyed.''

On Dec. 10, 1926, ``The old Van Kirk mills, a series of two and three story brick buildings occupied by forty silk manufacturers, were destroyed by fire,'' The Times said. ``Because of a number of explosions during the blaze Fire Chief Thomas Coyle started an investigation to learn if the fire was of incendiary origin.''

As for Samuel Colt's gun works, the four-story brownstone at the Great Falls opened in 1836 and over five years produced 5,000 rifles and revolvers. Various manufacturers occupied after Colt's company failed in 1842. By the 1980s, the mill had fallen into disrepair and arsonists finished it off.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


On May 8, 1916, a Paterson police squadron rescued five firefighters who were overcome by smoke in a fire at the Barbour Flax Spinning Company storehouse. The seven-story brick structure was located at Dale Avenue and Slater Street. `Police Lieutenant Joseph Mosley and fourteen officers formed a rescue squad and carried out the unconscious firemen,'' according to The New York Times. ``This burning flax caused a dense black smoke to arise, accounting for so many men being overcome.''


Firefighting is a dangerous business and over the years a number of Paterson firefighters have died or been injured in the line of duty - including five men at the Quackenbush Co. department store warehouse on March 12, 1938.

A deputy chief and the crew of Engine Co. 5 were buried in the rubble of a collapsed wall at Box 474 - 51-55 Prospect St. -
after the four-alarm fire had been extinguished.

``Only two or three fire crews were at the scene when tonight's tragedy occured, their job being not only to wet down the ruins but also to remove debris that might endanger public safety,'' The New York Times reported. ``At the time the wall collapsed, the firemen were devising a means to to pull it down because they knew it was in danger of falling.''

The fallen:

  • Deputy Chief James Sweeny, 58
  • Capt. John Davenport, 44, of Engine 5
  • Fireman Louis Rodesky, 49, of Engine 5
  • Fireman Matthew O'Neill, 45, of Engine 5
  • Fireman William Lynch, 37, of Engine 5

Five other firefighters were injured, according to The Times. Fireman William McCorry suffered smoke inhalation. Captain Paul Schaub was hurt during the collapse. Firemen John Heinzelman, John Farrell and Robert Travis suffered cuts to their hands.

Several years earlier - on May 8, 1934 - nine Paterson firemen were injured when a wall collapsed at a fire at St. Bonaventure's Lyceum on Ramsey Street.

The Quackenbush fire was the third incident in a decade to claim the life of more than one Paterson firefighter.

On May 7, 1934, two firemen - John O'Neill of Engine 9 and Allen Saal of Truck 3 - were fatally injured at Box 413, the St. Bonaventure Lyceum at Carlisle Avenue and Ramsey Street.

On April 27, 1928, two firemen - Edward Tribe of Engine 1 and Marinus Baker of Engine 4 - died at Box 451, the Linn's Economy Drug Goods store at 135 Main St., according to The Times.

Tragedy struck again during the War Years.

Two members - Fireman August Schneider and Auxiliary Fireman William Conklin, both of Engine 4 - were

 fatally injured in a vehicle accident at Grand and Mill streets on Aug. 19, 1942.

Other firefighters have made the Supreme Sacrifice, according the 1985 history book ``Taking The Heat,'' the National Firefighters Memorial and newspaper accounts:

  • On July 9, 1891, Callman James Moser, of Engine 1, was killed by the bursting of a soda water tank.
  • On May 5, 1893, Callman Christopher Murphy, of Truck 3, fell from the appartus.
  • On Jan. 15, 1904, Fireman Harry Kelley, of Engine 7, and two others fell from a ladder at the Hinchliffe Brewery fire. Kelley died and Capt. James O'Neill and Fireman Thomas McGill were injured. The brewery was located at Governor and Ann Streets.
  • On Aug. 11, 1909, Acting Assistant Chief William Cook suffered burns at the Zabriske Stables fire.
  • On March 31, 1931, Fireman David Johnstone, of Engine 8, struck by a car at the Manhattan Hotel fire on Market Street.
  • On July 26, 1951, Chief's Aide Joseph Dow killed in a wreck at Broadway and Madison Avenue.
  • On March 4, 1961, Capt. Lester Reiche, of Engine 7, collapsed at a fire on Ellison Street.
  • On March 1, 1973, Capt. Frank Mancinelli, of Truck 3, fell from a roof at a three-alarm fire on Paterson Street.
  • On April 5, 1975, Capt. Fred Armona, of Engine 11, died in a roof collapse at the Christian Reformed Church fire at Fourth Avenue and East 19th Street.
  • On May 8, 1978, Firefighter Thomas Calamita, of Engine 2, collapsed at a fire on Lyons Street.
  • On Jan. 17, 1991, Firefighter John A. Nicosia, 28, of Engine 4, went missing in a fire that started at the old Meyer Brothers Department Store at 161 Main Street and spread to other buildings. His body was located two days later.
  • On Oct. 24, 1998, Firefighter Walter Bitner, 38, of Engine 5, died of injuries sustained in an apparatus accident a decade earlier. Bitner had been paralyzed.


``Paterson, N.J., March 2 -- This city, so recently swept by fire, is now overwhelmed by flood. Three weeks ago the greater part of its business section was burned out, and to-day the quarter occupied by the houses of the poorer classes is inundated. Hundreds of families have been made homeless by the overflow of the Passaic River, and the country for miles around the city is under water.'' - Washington Post


City Hall

St. Joseph's Church where the flames were stopped

Hamilton Club
Cooling off a safe at the First National Bank 
Soldier standing guard at car barn where fire started
Park Avenue Baptist Church
Paterson Public Library
Public School No. 15
View of downtown from City Hall
Path of flames

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.

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.''


Excerpts from newspapers of February 1902:

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.


The State Journal of Lincoln, Nebraska

``It commenced in the car shed and was burning fiercely when one of the employees detected it. 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. Every piece of fire mechanism in the city was called out but fire and gale were masters.''


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 Piqua Daily Call, Piqua, Ohio

Paterson, N. J., Feb. 10. -- Property valued at from $7,500,000 to $10,000,000 was devoured by a conflagration that raged from midnight Saturday until late Sunday afternoon.  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. A number of persons were injured, hundreds are homeless and thousands are left without employment. A relief movement for the care of those unsheltered and unprovided for has already been organized, and MR. GANS and Mayor HENCHCLIFFE said that Paterson would be able to care for her own without appealing to the charity of other communities and states. The great manufacturing plants of the place are safe, and the community, temporarily dazed by the calamity, has already commenced the work of reorganization and restoration.

The fire began its work of far reaching destruction at the power house of the Jersey City, Hoboken and Paterson Traction company, which fronted on Broadway and extended a block to the rear on Van Houten street. It commenced in the carshed and was burning fiercely when one of the employes detected it. It was leaping through the roof and the gale was lifting it in forks and swirls when the fire apparatus came clanging into Broadway, Main and Van Houten. 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 into the business district. Every piece of fire mechanism in the city was called out, but fire and gale were masters. A great torch of flame rose high in the air, lighting up the country for many miles and carrying a threat and warning to the people and property in its path. There were efforts to rescue furniture and stock, but the speed with which the fire moved gave the rescuers little time. Property was often moved to a place of presumed safety only to be eventually reached and destroyed. The warning to many was brief, and they were forced to flee, scantily clad, into streets glazed over with ice and swept by the keen wind.

Main street was soon arched over with a canopy of fire for a block, and then for two blocks, as the flames hurled themselves upon building after building. The firemen fought with every resource of their craft, but the flames found new avenues in Ellison and Market streets and got beyond all control. Calls for relief went out to every city in this portion of the state, and the jaded firemen labored on through the hopeless hours of the morning. The city hall, a magnificent structure, surmounted by a great clock tower, situated on Washington, Ellison and Market streets, finally caught and with it went all of the splendid business structures that surrounded it. They made a great furnace of fire that burned with a fierce roar.

There was a series of explosions and scores of walls fell when the fire left them strengthless. Flying firebrands carried the conflagration over some buildings and around others, and it therefore burned in an irregular course. These brands finally cleared the tracks of the Erie railroad and Ramapo avenue, and, alighting on Straight street, started another great area of fire, in which the destruction and desolation wrought was nearly as great as in the other.

This second great fire started at the angle of Park avenue and Washington street and swept almost unchecked until on these two thoroughfares there was no more fuel. On the right hand side of Market street it encountered Sandy Hill cemetery as a barrier to check it, but on the left hand side, at Carroll street, it claimed St. Joseph's church, a great classic stone building. It was on this second great fire that the volunteer firemen from the outside cities did their most heroic and effective work.

The final and one of the most desperate fights of the day occurred in mid-afternoon back in the first fire area, at the Hamilton club, situated at the corner of Church and Ellison streets. The handsome clubhouse caught and the exhausted firemen were rallied around it. They were anxious to save the structure, and, besides, failure meant that the fire might take new headway among the properties adjoining the clubhouse. The building was doomed, however, but a torrent of water kept the fire to the premises. The four walls of the clubhouse stood, but the roof collapsed and the inner part was completely burned out.

Scores of persons were hurt and burned, but the loss of life is not thought to be great. There are many persons supposed to be missing, but in the excitement and flight most of these are supposed to be separated from their families and friends. Until order is brought out of the chaos nothing definite can be known. What started the fire is not certain, but it is thought that one of the feed wires running into the car barns was responsible. Paterson has a population of 106,000.

The area of destruction foots up roughly 25 city blocks. The estimate of $10,000,000 damage covers the losses broadly, and this estimate may be scaled down to $8,000,000.
A partial list of the properties destroyed follows:

City hall, public library, old city hall, police station, No. 1 engine house, patrol stables, high school, school No. 10.
Churches: First Baptist, Second Presbyterian, Park Avenue Baptist, St. Mark's Episcopal, St. Joseph's Roman Catholic.
Banks: First National, Second National (partially), Paterson National, Silk City Trust, Paterson Trust.
Club houses: Young Men's Christian association, Knights of Columbus, Progress club, St. Joseph's hall, Hamilton club.
Office buildings: ROMALINE building, KATZ building, MARSHALL & BALL, COHN building, old Town Clock, old KINNE building, STEVENSON building.
Telegraph companies: Western Union, Postal Telegraph.
Theater: The Garden.
Newspapers: The Evening News, Sunday Chronicle.
QUACKENBUSH & Company, dry goods.
Boston Store, dry goods.
Globe, dry goods.
National Clothing company.
KENT'S drug store.
KINSELLA'S drug store.
MUZZY'S hardware and general merchandise.
MARSHALL & BALL clothiers.
OBERG'S grocery.
P. H. & W. G. SHIELDS' grocery.
The Patterson, dry goods.
JONES, piano store.
SAUTER & Company, pianos.
FEDER & McNAIR, shoes.
SENDLER'S confectionery.
TAPPAN'S tea store.
RAGOWSKI'S millinery.
C. E. BEACH, automobiles.
MOREHEAD & Son, clothiers.
Paterson Gas and Electric company.
SKYES drug store.
MACKINTOSH drug store.