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For San Franciscans April 18, 1906 was indeed a day to remember. Why? In the early hours of Wednesday an earthquake struck. It lasted approximately a minute, but that was enough time to cause considerable damage. Chimneys were knocked over, bricks showered down burying humanity, horses and everything else that happened to be in the streets. Wooden homes were shaken with such a ferocity that most were only heaps of wood, when all was said and done. At the time of the quake most San Franciscans were still asleep, causing numerous people to be trapped in the rubble of their homes. Fred Hewitt, who was outdoors when the quake struck, described the second shock as being worse than the first.
The first portion of that shock was just a mild forerunning of what was to follow. The pause in the action of the earth’s surface couldn’t have been more than a fraction of a second. It was sufficient, however, to allow me to collect myself. In the center of two streets rose to my feet. Then came the second and more terrific crash. The street beds heaved in frightful fashion. The earth rocked and then came the blow that wrecked San Francisco from the bay shore to the Ocean Beach and from the Golden Gate to the end of the peninsula.
Before the quake animals became jumpy, the only warning anyone had that something was amiss. Not long before San Francisco was shaken to its very core, it was reported that horses had become upset. As evidenced by the animals during the 2004 tsunami, they appear to have a sixth sense.
Buildings sitting on former swamps sank before collapsing. The ground had turned into ‘liquid’ due to soil liquefaction. The Valencia St. Hotel was a prime example. The four story hotel sank three levels, killing the majority of the hotel residents. Aftershocks continued to, if possible, further wreck the city. Amidst the quakes, those who were brave enough and able, sought to help survivors out of the wreckage. James Hooper, who had been digging through debris, gave up looking for the dead when a boy questioned why they were even digging for “those that’s dead”.
His remark struck us all as being profoundly true, that without another word we all quit.
Almost instantly fires broke out and to make things worse so many of the water mains were broken. It would be next to impossible to put the quickly growing fires out, but still the firemen would persist. Soon the blaze was out of control. Brigadier General Frederick Fuston took command of the situation when he believed, and most likely rightly so, that the local law enforcement would not be able to control the situation. Chaos would break loose, it was just a matter of time. No matter how correct Fuston was in what he was doing, without orders from President Roosevelt it was still illegal.
Fuston ordered troops to the Hall of Justice, where they reported to Mayor Eugene Schmitz. Schmitz also had a hand in illegal doings. His term had so far been riddled with corruption. In fact in a year he would be sitting in jail, guilty of extortion. In the mean time he ordered troops to kill looters or those “in the commission of any other crime”.
Eugene Schmitz: The Federal Troops, the members of the Regular Police Force, and all Special Police Officers have been authorized by me to KILL any and all persons engaged in Looting or the commission of Any Other Crime. I have directed all the Gas and Electric Lighting Co.’s not to turn on Gas or Electricity until I order them to do so. You may therefore expect the city to remain in darkness for an indefinite time. I request all citizens to remain at home from darkness until daylight every night until order is restored. I WARN all Citizens of the danger of fire from Damaged or Destroyed Chimneys, Broken or Leaking Gas Pipes or Fixtures, or any like cause.
He also had them enforce a ban on the sale of alcohol.
Tragically, Schmitz’s orders resulted in the deaths of many innocent people. Soldiers, militia and other irregulars shot people, merely assuming those people were looters or some other type of criminal. It didn’t matter if a person was returning to his home to salvage a few things. Both men and women were killed, other times they were beaten unmercifully. In another incident, soldiers would not allow volunteers for the fire department to pass a fire line and aid the firemen on the other side. It wasn’t until a “prolonged argument” that the volunteers were able to pass. That is not to say all of the soldiers were like that. In fact there are accounts that applaud the help that the soldiers rendered in that horrible time. A flag collector, resigning his flags to their fate, raised the Star and Stripes outside of his home, as the uncontrollable blaze approached. A group of soldiers were apparently so overcome with patriotism that they helped to save the house.
Firefighters tried using firebreaks on the conflagration, since water was so scarce. Unfortunately they ended up spreading the fire, due to their lack of knowledge on the use of dynamite. Later those who were more experienced would do effective work with the explosives. By this time a water source had been discovered that helped put out the small fires that were started by the explosives. James Stetson reported on one way of creating firebreaks.
A soldier would, with a vessel…containing some flammable stuff, enter the house, climb to the second floor, go to the front window, open it, pull down the shade and curtains, and set fire to the contents of his dish. In a short time the shades and curtains would be in a blaze.
At last when firefighters were able to hold the monstrous fire at bay, it crossed a firebreak. In the bay US Navy tug boats struggled to save the South Pacific Railroad yard by pumping water from the bay. It was a success. Later they would, with the local fire department, bring the fire again under control. This time to save the waterfront.
Amidst the fire a few brave souls remained behind. Determined employees saved the Post Office. A mix of employees and soldiers were able to rescue the US Mint from destruction. Those who could do nothing further abandoned their homes, forcefully or voluntarily, and fled by train or ferry. Others headed for quickly forming refugee camps. William Keller was forced by soldiers to evacuate his mill, which may or may not have been saved with effort, incurring a loss of $20,000. More than once refugees would be forced to relocate as the fire ‘chased’ them. On the 20th the fire claimed another area that had been considered safe from the fire’s clutches. That same day Schmitz, not knowing the fire had spread, sent a telegram to the War Department telling them that the fire was under control. In the Dunkirk of San Francisco, the USS Chicago and a flotilla of other vessels evacuated about 20,000 people, as the fire spread to their homes. The South Pacific Railroad carried refugees out of harms way, free of charge.
A mixed force of the fire department and civilians, having located another water source and with the aid of firebreaks, were able to hold the fire back. Finally on the Saturday the ‘war’ had ended. In the end over 200,000 people were homeless. The Red Cross was given funds by the federal government to aid the stricken city. They provided food clothing and the like for the survivors. The amount of deaths ranged anywhere from 700 to 3000. They city was eventually rebuilt and became a thriving city of commerce once again. People built small ‘shacks’, to live in until they could get back on their feet. As time passed the shacks were replaced with real homes.
Source: Kurzman, Dan. Disaster!; Smith, Dennis. San Francisco is Burning.
They were called the ‘Shirtwaist Kings’. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and in-laws, ruled over the employees like absolutist kings. But for those working under the duo, the job would have to do. In an era where there was always another immigrant waiting to take the job, one couldn’t be too choosy over working conditions and wages. It was the same everywhere else. Most of the employees were Italian and Russian teenage girls. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was located in the Asch building that sat on Washington Place and Greene St. Said to be ahead of its time, the building was designed to be fireproof. Blanck and Harris had moved into the 9th floor in 1902. By 1908 they also occupied the 8th and 10th floor.
In 1909 a huge strike was launched, protesting the working conditions. This strike came to be known as the Uprising of 20,000. In this strike, mainly smaller shops, the management gave in to many of the strikers’ requests. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company wasn’t one of them. Blanck and Harris were not about to be ‘pushed around’ by a bunch of women and girls. Although it was against the law doors were kept locked to insure that shirtwaist workers didn’t make off with the company’s goods. Workers were even searched before leaving the workplace, to see if they were stealing from the company. While there is no doubt that theft did actually happen at times, Blanck and Harris were disregarding regulations. And it would prove fatal. Doors swung in, instead of out.
All doors leading in or to any such factory shall be constructed as to open outwardly, where practicable, and shall not be locked, bolted, or fastened during working hours -New York State Labor Laws Article VI, Sec. 80
Also the building lacked a 3rd staircase. The builder, Joseph J. Asch, rather installed an exterior fire escape in its place. The company never held fire drills. Before the 1911 fire, numerous others had started. Some say they were rather suspicious, with Blanck and Harris wishing to collect the insurance money.
And then it happened. On March 25, 1911, at 4:45 PM employees were picking up their pay and preparing to leave for an evening of relaxation or entertainment. On the 8th floor employees spotted the fire.
Joseph Granick, Cutter, 8th floor : Eva Harris said she smelled something burning. I looked to the cutting tables. At the second table, through the slot under the top, I saw the red flames.
The buckets of water that were kept on hand were not enough to quell it, though, as it rapidly spread. Highly flammable scraps laid around, feeding the fire. Hoses were also proving worthless, as water refused to come out. The fire department was alerted. Although smoking was not allowed, cutters usually disregarded this rule. It is highly probable that this was the cause of the fire, although it still remains to be seen. On the 8th floor, at the sight of the fire the 125 employees panicked. Women and girls pushed against the door struggling to open it. It was locked. Another employee by the name of Travis Brown was able to unlock the door, but only after battling the hysterical crowd. Because the doors swung instead, with people piling up against the door, opening was a challenge.
Abe Gordon, Machinist, 9th floor: I was working on the floor at the time of the fire. The first thing I knew about the fire was the heavy smoke coming up from the freight side. There was a table in front of the windows where the fire escape was and they were full of boxes and waists. I pushed the waists away and jumped up on the table and climbed on the fire escape. I and my friend went down the fire escape and I could hear all the screaming and hollering in back of us and I don’t know whether it was on the 6 or 7 floor where we opened the window and stepped back in the building. I still had one foot out on the fire escape when I heard noise and turned around and people were falling, screaming all around. The fire escape collapsed — no wonder, it was rusty on rust and no good.
With all forms of escape gone the girls took to the windows. Those that jumped from the height that they did, did not survive. Girls held hands and jumped together in little groups to the horror of bystanders. A woman named Celia ‘Sally’ Weintraub survived the jump only to die in a hospital. The impact of the falling bodies also caused a cellar skylight to fall through. Nets proved ineffective as the employees tore though them or bounced out of them. The two elevator operators were able to get many away on the 8th floor, as well as the 10th, but by the time they came to the 9th, the elevator tracks were either destroyed by the intense heat or falling bodies rendered them useless. When the elevators didn’t stop, some employees jumped down the shafts. Those who missed their grab for the elevator cable fell to their deaths. On the 10th floor, Max Blanck worried for the safety of his two daughters that had come to visit that day. Harris and Blanck along with others headed for the roof. From there students and professors from New York University next door, laid ladders across and helped the survivors across.
Approximately half and hour later the fire was extinguished. 146 lives had been taken, needlessly. Those who died in the tragedy had been a large source of financial aid to their poverty stricken families. Not to mention the grief the families experienced.
Charles Will Thompson, Journalist: The first impression when I got down there and looked at the building where the Triangle Waist Company had burned up 145 girls and men was that I would like to hold the rope if there was any general movement to hang Harris & Blanck. It conveys no picture to the imagination to say that the fire was 100 feet above the street: figures don’t make pictures. But when you stand on the street and almost topple over backward craning your neck to see a place away up in the sky, and realize the way those bodies came hurtling down over the inconceivable distance, it seems more as if it were 100 miles.
Bodies were taken to ‘Misery Lane’, 26th Street Pier, where they awaited identification by family or friends, Those beyond recognition were identified by personal effects. A number of families lost more than one family member. Only recently have 6 bodies been identified.
For awhile no one could place the blame. In a cartoon published in the New York Evening Journal paper it showed the gallows. Beside it read, “This ought to fit somebody; Who is he?” In April Blanck and Harris were indicted.The trial didn’t get underway until December. In the meantime New York City grieved the shameful loss. Many including former employees, were furious at the disaster. They had lost friends, family and coworkers. And as a slap in the face three days after the fire the factory had reopened in another part of the city. Blanck would go on to violate more regulations, disregarding them as usual. Apparently for Blanck and Harris ‘the show must go on’.The trial would span 18 days, with evidence given by 155 witnesses. However, Blanck and Harris were found not guilty. Furious a crowd, some no doubt just rabble-rousers itching for a fight, shouted to the Shirtwaist Kings that the two were murderers. Three years later 23 families sued the in-laws and received $75 recompense for each of their lost loved ones. There were laws, of course. Laws that maybe could have saved all of the those 146 lives. They just were not enforced. The who were to enforce them were understaffed and overworked if you consider the number of factories that were to be inspected. More laws would come. Thirty six, to be exact. They were better enforced and changes took the industries by storm. Nevertheless, it was at a high cost.