Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Two Tragic Fires: March 25 and 29, 1911

This week marks the Centennial of two tragic fires in New York State  --  one which resulted in great loss of life, and one which destroyed or damaged irreplaceable documents about New York State's history.

March 25, 1911: You may have heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which broke out suddenly just before quitting time in a factory on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building at Washington Square Place in Manhattan. The factory employed nearly six hundred workers, mostly young women, who cut and sewed tailored blouses or "shirtwaists" so popular in the Edwardian era.

A commemorative exhibit in the Concourse of the Empire State Plaza in downtown Albany, New York, displays photographs and newspaper stories from that day, citing the following details: The fire broke out at the end of the work day; ten minutes more and all the workers would have been out. But emergency doors were kept bolted, "to safeguard employers from the loss of goods by the departure of workers through fire exits instead of elevators." The flimsy fire escapes collapsed under the weight of so many people trying to escape, plunging many to their deaths.

Firefighters' ladders only reached as far as the sixth floor. The workers had little choice: jump or be burned. It was all over in less than 30 minutes. When firefighters arrived, the street was already littered with bodies. In all, 146 workers, mostly young Italian and Jewish immigrant women, died.

The factory owners were not held accountable even to the standards of the day: fire hoses in the building were not connected, equipment blocked access to ladders and other precautions were ignored.

The public outrage at this avoidable tragedy led to many measures that we take for granted today. Labor unions and other civic groups demanded steps that could protect against such tragedies, and thus the New York State legislature took immediate action and passed extensive safety laws.

A centennial commemoration at the New York State Museum on Friday, March 25, 2011 included remarks by several local dignitaries; a reading of the words of Frances Perkins, the first female U.S. Secretary of Labor, who witnessed the tragedy and made it her life's work to defend the rights of workers; and a reading of the names of the 146 victims of the fire.

As a witness to the tragedy, Perkins wrote, "People who had their clothes afire would jump. It was a most horrid spectacle. Even when they got the nets up, the nets didn't hold in a jump from that height. There was no place to go. The fire was between them and any means of exit." Later, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor, Perkins became a dynamic defender of workers' rights, human rights, and humane health and safety standards.

Additional documents and photographs pertaining to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire can be found on the Web site of the New York State Archives.


March 29, 1911:  Less than a week after the tragedy in New York City, while making his rounds shortly after midnight, the night watchman at the Capitol building in Albany discovered a small fire in the Assembly library on the third floor of the building. At this time, the Capitol was also home to the State Library, the Museum, and the State Library School. Due to the profusion of papers and books in the overcrowded library, the fire spread quickly, gutting the three floors occupied by the State Library with unprecedented speed.

A recent book by librarians Paul Mercer and Vicki Weiss recounts the story of the fire and its aftermath, drawing upon documents in the New York State Archives. Picture if you can, Albany's ten horse-drawn steamers and three horse-drawn ladder trucks racing to the flaming building in the dead of night, aiming their puny hoses on the raging flames. The pine bookshelves collapsed, floors and even part of the roof collapsed, and the heat of the fire even twisted iron girders and ate away at granite columns. When it was over, in some parts of the building that survived, the rubble of collapsed floors and walls was 40 feet deep.

Librarians risked their lives to salvage what precious documents and artifacts they could, most notably Joseph Gavit, who had begun his library career at age 19 upon graduation from high school in 1896 and worked as a librarian at the State Library for 50 years, retiring in 1946.  Although over a half million books and manuscripts were lost, under Gavit's direction, workers were able to save many precious records dating back to the founding of Rensselaerswijk in the 17th century, as well as the original manuscript of President George Washington's farewell address, President Abraham Lincoln's original Emancipation Proclamation and the original copies of the New York State Constitution. Other documents were only sodden masses of parchment. But luckily, contrary to the loss of life earlier that week in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, there was only one death at the Capitol that night  --  Samuel J. Abbott, the elderly watchman who discovered the fire.


In evoking the world in which our grandparents came of age, it is useful to ponder how events in that era at the beginning of the 20th century shaped our own. We have already noted above how following the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, legislation was enacted to try to prevent such a tragedy and to protect the rights of workers. It is likely that New York's legislators acted with haste after the fire that ravaged their own quarters; while restoration of the Capitol was undertaken, they had to take up temporary residence in Albany's City Hall across the street.

The Great Capitol Fire also resonates with our time. Eventually work began to restore damaged documents and rebuild the State Library collections, as well as to restore the building itself. Although at first, remnants of the library and archive documents were housed in a number of locations around Albany, in 1912 the Library moved into new quarters at the State Education Building across from the Capitol, which was still under construction at the time of the fire.

Although it would take a decade before the state archivist A.J.F. van Laer would resume his work of translating Albany's Dutch colonial records, the restoration and translation work goes on to this day. The New Netherland Institute, led by Dr. Charles Gehring, is now housed in the current New York State Library on the seventh floor of the Cultural Education Center. And thus you can view 21st century digital images of the 17th century Dutch documents scorched by the 20th century fire.

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