Fire at Atlantic Basin, 1872

In November of 1872, a tall wooden grain elevator and several warehouse buildings of the Atlantic Docks burnt to the ground in a great fire which was seen for miles. Six hundred thousand bushels of wheat, oats and barley burned.

New York Herald, Tuesday November 19, 1872

Fragments of a Wooden Grain Elevator.
An Immense Warehouse
Wrapped in the Splendor
of Destruction
Six Hundred Thousand Bushels
of Wheat, Oats and Barley Destroyed.
The Bravery and Energy of the
Brooklyn Fire Department
A Roof Blown Up.
Salt Water from the Bay Poured
Into the Fiery Furnace by
Steamers and Tugboats.
A Hundred Men Saving the Sugar and Molasses
in One of the Adjoining Buildings.
Magnificence and Terror of
the Startling Scene.
The Fierce Glare Lighting the Bay
and Harbor for Miles.


At about two o'clock yesterday afternoon three successive alarms on the church bells were rang in the city of Brooklyn, and a few moments later several fire-steamers were dashing through the streets at the top of their speed towards the Atlantic docks, where the furies of flame were already at work and menacing fearful havoc with their fiery swords and withering breath. It seemed as if a spark or burning brand had been blown by the ‘salt sea breezes' from the desolated district of Boston, after which the dread spirits of destruction had leaped up from the blackened rains to follow them and had alighted upon the most combustible spot along the shores of the New York Bay, where


was immediately commenced. From some cause, which, as is usual in such cases, is just now unknown, something in the wooden elevator of the Stores of Messrs. Woodruff & Robinson, at the corner of Amity street and the water frontage, became ignited and within a quarter of an boar there was a furious crackling of dry timbers, and the lurid tongues of the delighted demons of the fire darted up to the sky and sent a thrill of wild excitement through the whole city and the downtown portion of New York. Going down Broadway In a stage, when Bowling Green was reached, the whole of the startling scene burst upon the vision. It was also plainly seen from the ferryboats that were crossing the water to or from Staten Island and Brooklyn. The sky was pleasant, and a stiff breeze was blowing from the southeast, which was keen and cold, and made one shiver spasmodically; but the sight of the red mountain of fire that stood out against the heights of Brooklyn, on which was fought Greene's stern struggle in the Revolution, warmed every one into a heat of excitement. Soon could be seen throngs of people gathering on the wharves, with white faces lighted and reddened by the lurid flames; then the engines rapidly arriving and taking their positions, the firemen busily running hither and thither and rearing ladders against the burning walls; the streams of water turned upon the fierce furnace, which was now raging; the shrill whistles for fuel from the engines and the bright sparks from their smokestacks that filled the air like tiny rockets with their sheeny brilliancy.


as it grew in danger, and the multitude of spectators that formed a dense mass around the immense building gradually fell back with involuntary terror as the heat became more and more intense, The lessons of Chicago and Boston are not calculated to cause disasters of this kind in their beginnings to be looked upon lightly, and bat for a determined and wise course in battling with the fire yesterday the whole of the district of warehouses near the Atlantic Basin might be in flames at this moment. The smoke rolled in black, heavy volumes upward toward the zenith, the blazing roar of the tremendous bins of grain could be heard across the waves, and the dull sounds of falling floors and timbers rose above all other noises and smote the ear with a melancholy significance.  At half-past four a great shower of burning cinders was hurled up from the middle of the building like a torrent of lava from the red-mouthed crater of a Vesuvius.

As the afternoon verged into the twilight and after the parting rays of the sun that were reflected in roseate tints in the west had faded, the glow of the fire colored the clouds that hung on the horizon with rich hoes that mounted upward redder and more intense, as if the whole of the occidental sky were bathed in a stream of Mood. The harbor was lighted by the unusual beacon, that seemed to bespeak some terrible and unusual danger to all mariners approaching the fiery spot that "burned a hole in the Night'' to warn them away. The jagged columns of smoke that seemed to support the dark sky were faintly colored with the red sheen of the flames, and long after sundown the scene was beautiful and fascinating, although so terribly suggestive.  As midnight approached the scene of the conflagration still presented a picture of red, leaping flames, dart, lowering clouds of smoke, and the firemen were still at work, although it was fully under their control.

Beginning and Progress of the Fire.

The fire, early in the afternoon, when it first burst out at the northern end of the immense block of store houses used by Messrs. Woodruff & Robinson, raged at a furious rate, the plies of grain that were lying in the elevator burning with fearful rapidity. Within a quarter of an hour it communicated to the interior of the store itself. The grain which was here stored amounted to about six hundred thousand bushels. It was oats, wheat and barley, and its value alone was probably more than half a million of dollars.


now seamed without bounds, and with furious hunger their hot tongues licked the iron shutters of the windows and they warped like rubber, broke from their hinges and fell, with a loud clang, to the pavement, within the fire ran from pile to pile of the grain until the whole of the vast floors of the main building were burning. The heat, which from this kind of fuel is always most intense, grew greater and greater, and about half-past lour the surrounding structures, even where a street intervened between them and the fire, became so hot that it was necessary to turn streams of water upon them to prevent their catching the flames. A low wooden shed extends along Amity street, opposite the burned building. On its roof and along its southern side were gathered groups of people, and between it and the storehouse persons were standing on the piles of lumber and brick which lay on the wharf, it soon became a torture to continue in these positions, and when the crowd retreated and two hose were turned upon the building the water, on coming in contact with the wood, speedily evaporated and rose up in white clouds of steam.


in front of the stores of Woodruff & Robinson three steamers were early stationed to pump water upon the fire from the bay, and four tugboats lying in the slips set their engines at work and threw powerful streams through the windows, which had been wrenched open by the firemen of the hook and ladder companies. Along Amity street two steamers were employed and hose were stretched across the roofs of the lower buildings to the rear or the burning storehouse. Steamer No. 5 stood at the foot of Pacific street and No. 12 at the corner of Columbia, and the hose of both extended a distance of nearly two blocks. They drew their water from the city faucets.


engines Nos. 1 and 2 were stationed, and from this point the labors of the firemen could be viewed with advantage as the wind blew the heated air toward the northwest. Ladders were planted on the low roofs of the warehouses in the rear of the largest one which was burning, and from these other ladders reached to the top of the buildings which face on the river and on Amity street, on Columbia street there is a pork-packing establishment, to keep the flames from which the utmost efforts were used. An iron window on the south side of the large storehouse was broken open, and through it a strong stream was poured. The roof upon which the firemen worked covered an immense store of sugar and molasses, which, from the commencement of the fire, were continually being removed by the labors of about one hundred men. On another roof near Amity street another detachment of firemen poured two streams into the flames. At about three o'clock


of the heated air and gases confined in the top floor of the blazing building occurred, and hurled the roof in a thousand fragments into the air, and some of latter struck and injured three of the firemen, who were trying with hooks and axes to out apertures in the metal, through which they might fight the fire with greater success. They were, however, able to leave the buildings without aid and the conflagration shortly afterward was apparently more fully under control, as five streams at once were poured from the top upon the furnace of fire, that was now bounded by


Still at every moment the danger of its spreading would seem imminent, and later an incident occurred which caused suddenly augmented alarm. The heavy brick wall against which the elevator had stood, on the north side, and where the flames were fiercest,


and after it slid several thousand bushels of grain, the greater part of which went into the water and sunk hissing and hot to the bottom. Some, however, was arrested by the string-piece of the wharf and remained piled up in a huge mass under the black and ruined debris of the fallen wall.  The steamtugs John Fuller and Seneca crawled up over the mud. In the slip on this side and hose were attached to their donkey pumps and used with great success.  Along the water front engines Nos. 8, 6, 3,11 and 9 played upon the hot walls and through the windows, and at Ave o'clock there were employed on this wide no less than nine streams pouring upon the flames, four or which were supplied by the steamboats at the docks.


The Conflagration at Its Height.

At this time the greatest volume of fire was in warehouse "P," where the flames were first discovered. This faces the river and extends along Amity street. The flames gradually extended to warehouse "J,'' adjoining, the interior of which was Boon a great burning mass. The iron shatters of both buildings were forced open sad the flames burst through the windows and shot upwards to the roof. Four steady streams were directed at the burning buildings from the wharf, where five engines were located. Dave McConnell had charge of No. 5's stream—the strongest—which shot up with powerful force over the edge of the roof and fell on the flames within. Both of the burning buildings were of brick, four stories in height, and covered an area of 130x200 feet. Adjoining warehouse "J" and on the Congress street corner is a three story brick warehouse, both owned and occupied by Messrs. Woodruff & Robinson. The building was


which the men began to remove to the street as soon as the fire began to spread. It was feared at one time that this structure would also be destroyed, but owing to the strenuous exertions of the firemen the flames were confined to warehouses "P" and "J."  Directly in the rear of this corner warehouse, which is known as warehouse “A," and on Congress street, Chief Engineer Nevins and Commissioner Brown were stationed For a while. A section of firemen were ordered to the place, and ascending to the roof of some low brick buildings connected with the warehouse they were enabled to pour several strong streams on the buildings just in the rear of the fire. These were Bates' pork packing establishment, which extends from Columbia street back towards the river to warehouse "P."' When the walls or warehouse "P"' on the Amity street side fell with


the wharf in the immediate vicinity was a scene of great excitement. Then it was reported among the immense crowds of people assembled on Columbia street that several firemen had been buried beneath the ruins. This proved to be false, but several firemen had a narrow escape from injury. They saw the walls beginning to topple, and hastily retreated towards the wharf, but before they reached there the thunder of the falling mass deafened them, and the flame that darted from the ruins increased the lurid glare that lit up the streets and harbor for a great distance around. The firemen bravely returned to their work, and an increased volume of water was poured on the burning mass. The steamtugs  E. Babcock, John Fuller, Ida L. Tebo and the police boat Seneca came alongside the wharf, and added to the streams now pouring into the burning buildings from the river side. By this time the interior of warehouse "P" was pretty well burned out, and the flames began to decrease there a little, but warehouse "J" was then completely enveloped. The firemen had long since seen that it would be


of either or the structures, and their great effort now was to prevent a further spreading of the fire.  This, it has been stated, they succeeded in doing. They had the wind against them in their work. A fresh breeze from the river fanned the flame and carried it over towards the buildings facing on Colombia street, but there a band of trusty men were working to repel its progress. Millions of sparks flew about in the air and settled in street and housetop in the vicinity. On Columbia street, opposite the fire, there were rows of rotten and rickety tenements, the occupants of which were terrified lest they should be burned out of house and home. The sparks that fell upon the roofs, however, were promptly extinguished by men who had


and the spread of the fire was thereby averted. The streets about the scene of the conflagration at this time were jammed by the motley crowds of people who inhabit that filthy locality and hundreds of others who had come from all parts of the city. There was a strong police force present, under the command of the veteran inspector, John S. Folk, and Captain Ferry, of the Butler street station house, who kept clear working room for the firemen. Mayor Powell and County Judge Moore lingered about the fire for a short time and then departed.  The horses were immediately detached from the fire apparatus upon their arrival, carefully blanketed, and then led up and down the street by their keepers. Mr. Arthur Quinn, who has charge of the horses or the department, was on the ground and directed his attention to the care of the animals. The most of the horses of the department were sufferers by the recent horse epidemic, and some of them have not yet recovered, and great care has to be exercised in their treatment.

The Losses.

The reporter met Mr. Franklin Woodruff, one of the proprietors of the stores, who was then witnessing the destruction of the property. He stated that all they owned in the burning buildings was the machinery, which he valued at about $50,000. It was insured for nearly its full value in New York and Brooklyn companies. No Boston companies are involved. The buildings "P" and "J" were owned by Mr. William Beard and were insured for about $80,000. They contained at the time the fire broke out several hundred thousand bushels of grain belonging to different parties, little or none of which was saved.


estimated the value of the grain at about forty thousand dollars. It was probably insured when it was put in bond. Mr. Woodruff said that the firm owned the three story warehouse C'A") on the corner of Congress street and the wharf, and valued at $40,000. Neither the building nor its contents were injured. Most of the contents were removed in anticipation that that building would also be burned. The Firm had in their employ l00 men. At the time the fire broke out the men were engaged in unloading the ship Artist.


Mr. William Beard, the owner of warehouse "P” and "J," which were completely destroyed, stated that his loss would be about $180,000. The property was insured as follows:—Fireman's Insurance Company, $12,500; Merchants', $12,500; Nassau, $10,000; Phoenix, $10,000; Aetna, of Hartford, $10,000; Sterling, $10,000 and another company, the name of which he did not then recollect. The total amount of insurance is about $80,000, leaving a clear loss of $100,000.

 The Origin of the Fire.

Fire Marshal Keady was present and proceeded to make an investigation as to the origin of the fire. He found Michael Early, an employee on the premises, who stated that about two o'clock he saw a fire on the third story or warehouse "P," at which time the oil which was used for the fly wheels was burning on the floor. The wood work was also burning. No fire was used on that floor. Early immediately ran and informed the foreman, Thomas Foley, of the fire. There was no one smoking in that part of the building, for there was no one there but himself, and he does not smoke at all. The machinery was running and he was oiling it at the time.


Thomas Foley, the foreman, made this statement:—"

The fire commenced on the third floor, under the main shafting. My attention being called to it by one of the workmen, I ran down and threw a pail of water on it, but it had got too much headway, and I could not put it out. The belting took fire, and I then gave a general alarm among the men. The flames spread very rapidly, there being a great draft in the stairway, where we oiled the machinery. I cannot tell what caused the fire. We had a gas light there, but it was protected by a piece of tin. That is all I know about it."

 Scenes and Incidents.

The Fire Department, under Chief Engineer Nevins, was managed admirably. There were eleven steamers at work, one or which—No. 12, Foreman John Kelly—was summoned from the Eastern district. The horses made the run from the engine house corner or North Ninth and Second streets to the lire, a distance of over four miles, in thirty minutes. The Chief's Assistant, John Smith, of the Eastern district, was also on hand.


A case of personal injury occurred early in the course of the excitement which is of a deplorable nature. Terence Corrigan, of 98 Amity street, an employee or Woodruff & Robinson, while endeavoring to escape from the burning building, fell from a third story window and received a fracture of a thigh. He was borne to the Long Island College Hospital by a police officer.


The flames were completely under control by nightfall and gradually began to decrease. By ten o'clock last night nothing remained of the two buildings but a portion of the walls and a smouldering, smoking mass within. Immense crowds or people lingered about the vicinity far into the night, commenting upon the great destruction or property. A portion or the firemen retired about eight o'clock, but several streams or water were kept playing on the rains all night A sufficient guard of police was also retained to protect the property which had been removed from warehouse "A" and other premises in the vicinity from the gangs of thieves who always prowl about the ruins of a great fire. The tugboats, which had rendered valuable assistance to the firemen, retired alter the labor of extinguishing the flames had been accomplished; the thunder and rattle of the steam engines, which almost deafened the bystanders during the progress of the conflagration, suddenly decreased into what was a murmur when compared with the crash or the previous six hours, and the wearied firemen departed from the place, leaving a faithful few of their number to guard against a renewal of the flames.



Mr. William E. Dodge, chairman of the meeting held in the rooms of the Chamber or Commerce on the nth instant, appointed the following named gentlemen yesterday as a committee authorized at that time to take measures tor the establishment or a Board or Engineers, with legal powers to take possession or and blow up buildings, during a general conflagration:—

George T. Hope, Continental Fire Insurance Company.
James M. Habited, American Fire Insurance Company.
James If. McLean, Citizens' Fire Insurance Company.
Francis s. Lathrop, Union Mutual Fire and Marine Insurance Company.
R. Garrtgue, Germanla Fire Insurance Company.
Alfred Pell, Jr., Liverpool, London and Globe Fire Insurance Company.
Henry A. Oakley, Howard Fire Insurance Company.
A. B. McDonald, Royal Fire Insurance Company.
Carlisle Norwood, Lorillard Fire Insurance Company.
Thomas F. Jeremiah, Pacific Insurance Company




    NOVEMBER 19, 1872.

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