Ninety one years ago this month, Jersey City was struck by 2 large fires in the short span of just 3 days. One fire destroyed nearly 2 entire blocks and caused approximately $1 million in damage, the second fire burned 2 piers, 15 vessels and caused at least $300,000 of losses.
The first fire started the morning of Friday November 14, 1924 in the Battelle and Renwick saltpeter works. The actual cause of the fire is unknown, but it is known to have begun in the cellar of the plant. Workers did attempt to extinguish the flames but, hastily retreated. The building had been used as a saltpeter plant for more than 20 years. Saltpeter is a form of potassium nitrate which was commonly used in the manufacture of fireworks, gunpowder, or fertilizer. It is thought that the floors and timbers were dry and the residue of chemicals contained in the wood, coupled with a strong NW wind blowing in the direction of the basement opening, fanned the flames and allowed the fire to grow quickly.
The entire force of the Jersey City fire department was called out to fight the fire. The force included 350 men, 16 pumping engines, 2 steamers and 4 truck companies. Additionally 2 fire boats from New York, the John Purroy Mitchel and the New Yorker responded to the call and provided aid in fighting the fire from the waterfront. Tugs from Lehigh Valley and Central Railroad of New Jersey also aided. At the same time, the fire departments of Hoboken and Newark covered for the Jersey City fire stations left vacant.
Fanned by a strong wind, the fire spread quickly to other industrial properties in the area, as well as to several tenement buildings. By 3:00 pm, just 6 hours after the start, the fire was under control. Eight tenements were burned in entirety, with many others evacuated temporarily due to smoke and chemical fumes. Although many people lost their homes, there were no fatalities. At least 30 nurses were on hand to assist surgeons attending to injuries from burns, falling debris and chemical fumes. The Red Cross attended to residents displaced by the fires, and the Armory was used as a temporary refuge.
Early reports stated that dynamite was used to take down structures in advance of the flames however, these reports were erroneous. During the first hour of the fire, explosions occurred in the saltpeter factory, sending bricks and other debris in all directions, and these explosions, felt several blocks away, were mistaken for intentional demolition.
Three days later, and just 20 blocks away, a second fire began in the Erie cooperage pier (no. 5). It quickly leaped to pier no. 6 lighting several barges and tugs which were moored between the piers. Once again the entire Jersey City fire department turned out to fight the fire. Also like the earlier fire, the John Purroy Mitchel and the New Yorker and a third fire boat, the Thomas Willett, all from New York, rendered aid. The barges and tugs moored between the piers were towed to mid-river where the fires were extinguished. The Erie passenger station, the railroad post office, and several other buildings of economic importance to the city lay in the path of the fire. The Jersey City fire department focused efforts on saving these buildings with great success, only the roof of one of the buildings caught fire but was soon extinguished.
Although the dollar loss was high, fortunately there were no fatalities in either fire, however a total of fifteen firemen were injured. An article from Fire and Water Engineering compliments the efforts of the fire department: "Much favorable comment was made on the work of the Jersey City fire department in handling these two large fires and especially in the saving of the railroad and express company's properties in the second fire, considering the fact that the men were complexly worn out from their grueling experience in the first blaze and hardly had time to get their breath when the second alarm sounded."
The Charles S. Morgan Library supports the research activities and maintains the archive of NFPA. We have resources including "The Jersey City Conflagration", NFPA Quarterly, V. 18, No. 3, P. 269-275; the article "One Large Fire Follows Another in Jersey City", Fire and Water Engineering, November 26, 1924, p. 1167-1168 as well as photos by T.K. Flannagan (shown above). Learn more about the Library and Archives, our resources, and services.