Sunday, July 1, 2012

Farenheit 1900; The Hoboken Pier Fire of 1900

Today, when people think of Hoboken, New Jersey there are a few things that come to mind. All of which are unrelated to this article. People think of Frank Sinatra, beautiful views of New York City, classic brownstone homes, the Saint Patrick's Day celebration, and the reality TV show Cake Boss. But what most people don't know about, including many Hoboken residents, is the disastrous Hoboken Dock Fire of 1900. The Hoboken waterfront was home to several shipping lines during the turn of the century and Hoboken was a completely different town. However, it would be this event that would go on to be forgotten, even though it was not just an intricate part of the town's history but of passenger ship history as well. 

 
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June 30, 1900 started out like any other Saturday in Hoboken, New Jersey. People went along with their day unsuspecting of the horrors that they would soon witness. The Hoboken waterfront was home to several trans-Atlantic shipping lines. The Hamburg-Amerika Line, Norddeutscher Llyod, Scandinavian America Line, and Holland-America Line all called the docks along River Street home. On this day, the Hamburg-Amerika Line's  SS Kaiser Fredrich der Grosse and Phoenicia were in port along with the Nordduetscher Llyod's SS Saale, Bremen, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse and Main. These ships were all docked and all being prepared for trips back to Europe the following week. Along with these ships and docks, River Street was also home to numerous warehouses. It would be the combination of this ships, docks, warehouses and their locations to each other that would go on to be one of the worst maritime disasters in New Jersey history.

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The fire started at Pier 3 located at 2nd and River Street around 2 o'clock. A warehouse storing bales of cotton caught fire and the flames, stroked by the strong winds, spread like wildfire. As one could imagine this was a recipe for disaster. The area was almost 90% wooden docks and storehouses. Matters were only made worse as some of these storehouses contained barrels of turpentine and oil. These barrels caught fire and exploded, sending flaming debris in every direction and onto the decks of the ships. The Norddeutscher Llyod Line would suffer, not only the greatest damages, but the greatest loss of life as well. The fire quickly spread across the docks and it was only a matter of time before panic set in. The NDL acted as quick as possible, however the damage was already done.

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As the ships began to burn, the NDL tried to save as many people and assets as they could. The SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, the NDL's crown jewel, was the first to be started and pulled from its dock. It was taken up the Hudson River until the fire was extinguished and she was then docked in New York. The fate of the SS Main, Bremen, Saale and those on board would not be as luckyAll three ships were held at their docks by mooring lines and wouldn't be freed until the fire burnt the docks completely to the waterline. It was after that the three ships drifted out into the Hudson as basically floating death traps. Both the Bremen and Main would burn for hours and in total almost 200 people would die on board the two ships. Both ships would be towed and beached of Weehawken, New Jersey and be left to burn out for two more days before any rescue attempts or assessment of the damage was fully understood. It is also noted that the death estimates are off because many jumped from the ships (from heights of roughly 60 ft) only to drown in the waters of the Hudson. However, the worst was far from over. Even though there were 16 survivors found on board the Main the Saale, she continued to drift down the Hudson, a raging inferno.


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When it comes to the SS Saale there seems to be some debate of what happened the June day. It is a fact that the Saale suffered the greatest and most horrific loss of life but the debate comes from the actual number. The Saale was the first ship to catch fire and was not freed from the dock until at about 4 o'clock. She drifted down river before being ran a ground to burn out. Numerous reports came from rescuers of the nightmarish deaths they witnessed that day. However, the death toll reported in the following days is certain in some aspects. Captain August Johann Mirow died in the fire, a group of women from Christian Endeavor and 100 bodies of crew members were found on board. The controversy however begins with these numbers. Some reports mark that June 30, 1900 was a "half-holiday" which in short means, there were no passengerson board as the ships were not scheduled for departure. But there are others that claim that the Saale was due to depart for Southampton the following day. The evidence that the Saale was full of passengers comes from eye witness accounts. Many of the passengers were seen trying to escape through portholes but ultimately burned alive. Others were seen jumping to their deaths. Many suspect that there may have been some type of cover up. Newspapers recorded the deaths of crew and dock workers but of none of the passengers on board, as if they weren't there. The debate is one that can go on forever, as there is no one left to settle this dispute and there is also no evidence of the ships manifest.

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After the fires were controlled and the ships finally at rest it is estimated that some 360 people died amongst the ships of the NDL that day. Again this number is disputed as it is believed by some that the bodies of those below deck were incinerated. The fire damage cost a total of $5.35 million dollars. Claims from NDL, Hamburg-Amerika, Scandinavian America, West Shore RR, Hoboken Shore RR and several warehouses all claimed in the loses of the day. But how does the events of June 30, 1900 fit into maritime history? Well, it would be the struggle of the victims who tried to escape through portholes that measured roughly 9 inches that would change passenger ship construction. All ships after the fire were required to have portholes at least 11x13 inches as it would be easier to serve as an emergency exit in time of crisis. Also, fire proof docks were then standard for any dock built afterwards. When NDL rebuilt its docks, steel was used and they were located in the same locations of the original piers. Along with the new piers all three ships the Bremen, Main and Saale all returned to service and continued to call Hoboken home until World War I.

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Today, this is the only reminder of the Hoboken Pier Fire of 1900. A mass grave for the bodies recovered can be found in Flower Hill Cemetery in North Bergen, New Jersey.  This fire would go on to become the known as the worst disaster in New York and New Jersey Harbors. Yet, today amongst the new waterfront made up of overpriced condos and restaurants, the events of that day go completely unknown to the 50,000 plus residents and countless visitors to the area. Everyday people walk in the footprints of those Norddeustcher Lloyd piers and in the memory of a disaster that claimed the lives of so many. And what are we left with? A mass grave which has gone unnoticed to everyone in the general area? It is events like these that are our history, an intricate part of what makes the past a reality and something that should be remembered at site, not in a distant cemetery. I don't think the town of Hoboken will erect a memorial to the victims or events of the day but I do think it is their responsibility to ensure that this like so many other historical events does not burn out into a dying ember of the past.

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for this article. My great grand father, along with most of my male ancestors, worked on the Hoboken docks. I have a picture of him days after the fire helping with the clean-up.

    Carol-Anne

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  2. Carol-Anne,

    That is amazing, I'd really love to see them. Have you visited the Hoboken Museum? They have some great photos and newspaper front pages.

    Thanks for reading,

    Mike Maring

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    1. Hi Mike,

      I only have one picture with a few men, one being my great grandfather, searching through the rubble. The picture is not very good unfortunately. Is there a way to send a jpeg of it to you or this site?

      Carol-Anne Trier
      Ft Lauderdale FL

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    2. Carol-Anne,

      Thank you so much and you can always email it to me at info@mikethehistoryguy.com.

      Mike Maring

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  3. My great grandfather, Christian Ludwigsen, died in the fire. It was his first day on the job.

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  4. My great grandfather, John Herren Tammen, worked for the North German Lloyd Steamship Company. My grandmother said that she, her mother and her other siblings were sick with worry. The skies were black and the fires raged all day. They were never so happy when at 6 pm her father stood in the door covered with black soot and oil. He had jumped into the river and saved himself as did others who were lucky to be able.

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  5. I just found an original 1900 newspaper of the account of that day and it is the same as the people drawn leaning out of the portholes. Did not know about this disaster until I found the newspaper and found your site describing it. Thank you for the information. Tonya

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  6. My grand uncle also died in that disaster. He worked for the Norh German Lloyd. Are there any lists of the deceased to be foünd?
    Anke

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  7. I came across this story because my aunt told me that the ship Cuba/Spain would dock in Hoboken in the 40s when she travel from Havana. The ferry would take them into Ny. So i began to look at its history. Were there gas tanks that exploaded in the town?

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