Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 17, Part II

By Holice and Debbie

About five o'clock smoke was seen issuing from a large room in the north nave, and in front of the entrance on Forty-second Street. The flames spread with incredible rapidity in every direction. There were about two thousand persons scattered about the edifice at the time, all of whom, the moment the alarm of "Fire!" was raised, made a rush for the Sixth Avenue entrance, the doors of which were thrown open. The entrance on Fortieth Street was closed. Under the direction of ex-Captain Maynard, of the police, and several of the directors the crowd was conducted safely tot he street. Mr. Smith, an employee in charge of the jewelry department, saw the fire and ran back to his case of jewelry. He dragged the case from its fastenings along the gallery, down a flight of stairs, and into the street. He was almost the last person out, and had a narrow escape of his life. The view from the street and neighborhood was very grand, and thousands of persons flocked to the conflagration. The firemen of the district were soon on the spot, and twenty or thirty streams were thrown into the buildings, but without having any visible effect. Many firemen rushed into the edifice, hoping to save the apparatus that were on exhibition, but they were compelled to retreat on account of the smoke. Again and again they Gallantly rushed into the palace, and eventually succeeded in saving the carriage belonging to No. 40 Hose Company (Empire), and the carriage of No. 36 Hose Company (Oceanic). However, the carriages of No. 1 Hose Company (Eagle), and No. 6 Hose Company (Croton) Engine of No. 16 (Gotham), Hook and Ladder No. 1 (Mutual), and Engine No. 28 (Pacific) were destroyed.

Mr. Frederick W. Geissenhainer, chairman of the Board of Managers of the American Institute, was standing in the south nave when the fire broke out. He ran to the Forty-second Street entrance, where he discovered a quantity of wooden patterns of the ironwork used in the construction of the palace enveloped inflames. The pitch-pine floors only invited the flames, which licked over the planking, rolling up dense clouds of smoke, nearly suffocating those in the north nave. After despatching a man to turn off gas, Mr. Geissenhainer ran to a hydrant with hose attached, near the north nave, and caused the water to be turned on. Owing, however, to the lowness of the water in the reservoir it was to no avail. There was no hope of saving the building, and the employees and officers turned their attention to all the nooks and retired spots they could get at in order to drive out any lingering persons.

The flames ascended to the second floor and seemingly rolled along the surface of the woodwork like molten iron, at a speed as rapid as the ordinary pace of a pedestrian in the street. After going through two of the galleries, Mr. Geissenhainer proceeded to the picture gallery. He went behind the panorama, thinking that the men engaged in winding it for the evening exhibition might still be there. When he returned he found both stairways in a blaze. He ran to one of the towers, and finding one board displaced in the floor he easily removed another and slid down the iron pipe leading from the water tank to the floor below, and a moment after escaped from the building. The last person had scarcely left when the dome fell in with a terrible crash, just twelve minutes after the fire was discovered. One old gentleman was found senseless at the foot of one of the stairways, having failed to escape. He was rescued just before the dome fell.

It was said that the fire was the work of incendiaries who ignited papers in the lumber room. The amount of property destroyed was over five hundred thousand dollars. Among the property destroyed were several valuable steam engines, and some fine pictures belonging to Mr. Furis, of the "Root Gallery," corner of Broadway and Franklin Streets.

Next day thousands visited the ruins. Eight of the turrets and a portion of the iron framework of one of the galleries were left standing. The whole area to the depth of three or four feet was covered with broken pillars and columns, melted glass, and disordered machinery. Wandering among the rubbish were many exhibitors searching for any of their property that might be worth saving. A large heap of coal, about fifty tons, continued to burn all day, and all attempts to extinguish it were unavailing. Comptroller Flagg, when the palace fell into the hands of the city, had the concern insured for fifty thousand dollars in ten companies--five thousand dollars in each.

On October 8, three days after the fire, the chief engineer issued a call for a mass meeting of the Department at Firemen's hall, to consider the best mean of replacing the apparatus destroyed. Mr. Howard occupied the chair, and James F. Wenman officiated as secretary. The chief engineer stated that it was useless to petition the Common Council to replace the engines and hose carriages burned, as there was no appropriation for the purpose, and it might require years to get them to act on the matter. A resolution was offered to appoint a committee of thirty to solicit subscriptions toward rebuilding the machines. This was strenuously objected to on the part of many of the foremen, who held that it was the duty of the Common Council to make good the loss of corporation property, and at all events they contended that only officers of the Department were entitled to meet in that hall. But the resolution prevailed and the following committee was appointed:

David Milliken Wm. H. Wickham Matt T. Brennan
John S. Belder Noah L. Farnham John A. Cregier
Henry B. Venn Henry H. Graham Philip W. Engs
John Lynes Wm. A. Woodhull James Smith
Carlisle Norwood Charles McDougall William Williams
James A. Carolin Albert J. Delatour John Clancy
Alonzo Slote Zophar Mills Henry A. Burr
Andrew J. Garvey William Thompson John Fox
David Budd George R. Connor Walter Smith
William Raines Cora Osborne James Y. Watkins

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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