If you hear an alarm bell coming from 213 Bloomfield St., don’t be alarmed. It’s just a kid pretending to be a firefighter, sitting in the vintage 1932 fire truck at Hoboken’s Fire Department Museum. On weekends from noon to 5, anyone who’s ever dreamed of being a firefighter can live the fantasy or delve into the trove of photos and stories to learn what a challenging job it can be.
The sign on the front of the building says “Ass’n. of Exempt Firemen” because the earliest organized firefighters were volunteers, who were “exempt” from paying city taxes in exchange for their service. By 1891, the force was converted to paid employment, due to the severity of the fires and the need for a full-time, professional firefighting corps.
In Hoboken’s early days, major conflagrations were a common occurrence on Hoboken’s piers, and in factories, theaters, and residential buildings, before modern building codes and fire safety practices reduced the risk.
The biggest blaze in Hoboken’s history was the pier fire of June 30, 1900. The fire caused more than $5 million worth of damage (in 1900 dollars). The plume of smoke was so large, it was seen by more than a million people, from Manhattan down to the Jersey Shore.
The fire started in a bale of cotton in a warehouse on a pier belonging to the North German Lloyd shipping line, near the foot of Fourth Street. With dry, windy conditions, and ready fuel in the wooden piers—boats, sheds, and stored supplies—fire quickly consumed two other piers, three major ships, and 27 smaller boats and barges. The fire even spread to Pier 18 in Manhattan, when one of the burning ships was cut loose from Hoboken and floated across the river.
As bad as it was, it would have been worse without the quick action of firefighters to cut a fire halt on a neighboring pier, and of crew and tugboat operators who worked to save neighboring vessels.
Three large passenger and cargo ships, the Saale, Bremen, and Main, were almost completely destroyed, but the line’s flagship Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was saved. Her crew freed the ship, and tugboats pulled it to safety. Although it was badly scorched on one side and the bow partially burned, the ship was still able to depart from a Manhattan pier for its scheduled voyage to Europe the following week.
The catastrophe cost the lives of an estimated 400 people, among them passengers, crew, and longshoremen, who were trapped on the burning boats and piers, some of whom were unable to swim, and drowned. Miraculously, a group of 15 men were saved after being trapped for eight hours in a coal bin in the hull of the Main, which had been towed to the Weehawken mud flats when the flames could not be extinguished. The survivors had managed to seal out the smoke by stuffing their clothes into the crevices of the compartment.
Then, as now, major fires attracted huge crowds. Disaster photos often became the viral images of their time through the popular penny postcard; people wanted to share what they witnessed with friends and family. These postcards and news reports about fires are part of the rich archive about life in early Hoboken in the collections of both the Fire Department Museum and the Hoboken Historical Museum. A growing portion of the museum’s collections are online, at hobokenmuseum.org/research/collections.
Without these images and stories, we wouldn’t know about many of the historic buildings that have succumbed to the ravages of fire, such as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) building, which was located at 412 Washington St.. A picture of it appeared in the debut issue of 07030, Summer 2012.
After the IOOF building burned down in the early 1920s, it was replaced with a building that housed a lining store at street level and a dance hall on the second floor, called the Palace Gardens. After only a year, on Jan. 29, 1923, there was another noteworthy fire, in which some 400 people narrowly escaped, thanks to the local hook-and-ladder companies.
The famous 1905 Lackawanna Terminal fire claimed two ferries, the terminal building, and the famous Duke’s House tavern and restaurant, which stood where the Baker office building now stands. The replacement terminal building, built in 1907, still stands more than a hundred years later, a testament to more modern, fire-resistant materials. The building also reminds us of the economic boom of the early 20th century, with its fancy molded copper decoration, Tiffany glass skylight, and gilded clock.
In some cases, an empty space marks the site of a major fire. In 1906, a gas storage tank at the Hoboken Gas Works, on the corner of Twelfth and Clinton Streets, burst into flames that shot a hundred feet into the air, with a plume of smoke that rose for thousands of feet, visible in New York. The fire, which was covered by the New York Times, burned for six days, threatening a nearby oil tank, causing officials to evacuate neighboring apartment buildings.
Over the years, Hoboken’s fire department can pride itself on its role in historic preservation by preventing fires from spreading in a tightly packed city of factories alongside residences and entertainment halls—as famous fires transformed Chicago and London. Even so, individual building fires can reshape a city, as in the 1970s and 1980s, when Hoboken suffered a rash of suspicious fires at a time when many buildings were being converted to condominiums
To imagine what it’s like to be a firefighter, just pick up a copy of the oral history chapbook The Firehouse, Recollections of Bill Bergin, a retired Hoboken firefighter who grew up here chasing fire engines and fulfilling his dreams with a long career in the department. He was the driving force behind the Fire Department Museum. The oral history series is a cooperative effort by the Hoboken Historical Museum and the Friends of the Hoboken Library.—07030
Hoboken Historical Museum Associate Ian Maxen assisted with this story.
Hoboken Historical Museum
1301 Hudson St.
Hoboken Fire Department Museum
213 Bloomfield St.