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Saturday, June 21, 2008


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.