New York, NY Greenfield Candy Factory Fire, Dec 1877 - Story of the Fire

Many Persons Seriously Injured

Explosion Of The Boiler Of A Barclay Street Confectionery Establishment-A Number Of People Supposed To Be Killed And Twenty-Five Injured-One Body Found In The Ruins-Six Buildings Burned-Loss Nearly $400,000-Searching The Ruins-Names Of The Wounded And Missing.

A boiler underneath the sidewalk of Greenfield & Sons’ wholesale confectionery manufactory and warerooms, No. 63 Barclay Street, exploded at 5:03 o’clock yesterday afternoon, wrecking the building and setting it on fire. Of the 100 or more persons in the place at the time, including several customers, 25 are in the hospitals, suffering from burns and bruises, some of them being fatally injured. A large number of others escaped with slight hurts. It is supposed that from five to thirty persons were burned to death, but up to 3 o’clock this morning, although an active search had been made during the night, only one body, that of a man, had been recovered from the ruins. Before the fire was under control, Nos. 61, 63, 65, 67 and 69 Barclay Street and No. 1 College Place were destroyed, and many of the adjoining buildings were more or less damaged, involving an aggregate estimated loss of about $400,000, nearly all covered by insurance. Particulars of the disaster will be found below.

Story Of The Fire.

At 5:03 o’clock yesterday afternoon a tremendous explosion occurred under the sidewalk in front of Greenfield & Sons’ whole sale confectionery, at No. 63 Barclay Street, and almost immediately the entire brown-stone front of the five-story building crumbled to pieces, letting down several floors so that the beams of each formed a V. An instant afterward a building sheet of flame flashed up through the entire edifice and across the street, and then gave way to a dense smoke quickly followed by another outburst of flame, which continued to burn with unremitting fury. The firm of Greenfield & Sons was the largest confectionery manufacturing concern in the United States, and had a capacity of turning out 25,000 pounds of candy per day. It occupied two buildings-No. 63 Barclay Street, where the explosion occurred, and No. 1 College Place-joined in the form of an L by a skylight supported by iron pillars extending up to the second story. Above the skylight there was a series of iron bridges or fire escapes between the two buildings, with iron doors at either end of each. There was one of them on each floor. In the basement were many furnaces for the manufacture of candy, all of which have been in full operation in preparation for the holidays during the past 14 days. There were three large boilers under the sidewalk in front of No. 63 Barclay Street. The upper floors were used for packing and storage purposes, and the first floor was used as a sales-room. Accounts differ as to the number of persons in the building at the time of the explosion. The firm usually employs about 150 hands, but it is claimed that on Saturday last about half that number were temporarily taken off, and only about 80 who were skilled in the manufacture of holiday specialties were retained. These were busily at work attending to their respective duties. Nearly all were in the building where the explosion occurred, the College-place building being comparatively deserted. The proprietor and his two sons were in the office on the ground floor, and a number of customers were in the show-room, making purchases. The disaster came upon these people without the slightest warning and they were suffocated with smoke, scalded wit huge volumes of escaping steam, and surrounded by fire before they could gather their wits about them sufficiently to appreciate their danger. The cashier of the concern had sufficient presence of mind to slam the door of the safe containing all the books, papers, and valuables of the firm, shut and lock it, so that these will probably be saved. Many persons rushed to the fire escapes in the rear of the building, and made their way out through No. 1 College-place. A few ran to the front and scrambled or were helped over the pile of rubbish remaining from the fallen walls. Others on the upper floors were cut off by the descending beams, and were compelled to crawl along as best as they might to either side. Some succeeded in making their way to where they could signalize their presence to the excited crowd that had gathered from every direction. Two or three on the lower floors jumped into the street. Others on the upper floors were rescued by means of ladders through the heroic exertions of brave men. All these latter were more or less burned or injured. They were taken to adjoining drug stores and subsequently removed in ambulances to New-York, Bellevue, or Chambers-Street Hospital. It is believed that a number were unable to get out, and perished in the flames, but while it is certain that this is true it was impossible up to the hour of going to press to ascertain how many the victims were. All sorts of exaggerated rumors were flying about last night, and the estimates varied from 5 to 30. Mr. Greenfield escaped with slight injuries. He was sent home in a carriage.

The fire quickly extended to the College-place building and also to No. 61, on the East, and Nos. 65, 67, and 69, on the West, and before it was under control these had been completely demolished. The Grocers’ Bank, on the corner of Barclay Street and College-place, withstood the flames until a late hour, and then only the two upper floors succumbed, although the remainder of the building was badly damaged by water. There is hardly an edifice on the entire block bounded by College-place, Barclay Street, Greenwich Street, and Park Place that s not more or less injured. At 5:45 o’clock the iron front of No. 61, fell with a loud crash. The firemen had just been ordered to enter the building, and were preparing to do so. A minute later a large number of them would have been killed. The debris went clean across the street and crashed against Liscomb’s coffee and spice mill, every pane of glass in which had had previously been broken by the explosion. At 8 o’clock the fire was well under control. At 8:20 the double building Nos. 65 and 67 Barclay Street fell in with a loud crash, filling the air with clouds of dust that darkened the sky for several minutes. The noise was so great as to be distinctly heard at Broadway, and hundreds near the scene rushed back in affright. It was believed for a few minutes that many firemen were buried in the ruins. Several of them were in and on the buildings only a few minutes before, directing streams of water on the fire, but they suspected the danger in time, and all escaped just before the buildings fell. The new main recently placed in Church Street proved a great blessing, there being an adequate pressure and abundant supply of water during the continuance of the fire. The firemen worked heroically. By almost superhuman exertions they prevented the flames from crossing College-place, which at one time seemed inevitable, to the immense lithographic printing establishment of Majors & Knapp. Had that happened, the consequent destruction of property can only be conjectured. The engineer of Greenfield Brothers’ factory, Phillip Hertzbach, was seriously injured. Various causes are assigned for the explosion. It is said that one of the boilers was an old one, and at least one person claims to have warned Mr. Greenfield against its continued use. It is also stated that the engineer has before this been found asleep alongside his engine. But non of these reports could be verified last night. Commissioner Brenham had a large number of ambulances on the spot within a very few minutes. He remained on the ground until a late hour, directing their movements as they dashed backward and forward from the various hospitals. After the last of the known wounded had been removed, Mr. Bronnan disposed the ambulances around the streets encircling the line of the fire in such a way that one of them would be at hand instantly in case of further accident anywhere. The ambulance physicians from the neighborhood, who turned out at the first alarm and gave their services gratuitously, worked like Trojans relieving the injured. Among these latter Drs. J.N. and F.G. Merrill, of No. 20 Greenwich-street, were conspicuous for their unselfish labors. Messrs. Hall and Rucker, No. 218 Greenwich street, and Day, Hoagland & Stiger, No. 58 Barclay Street, both wholesale druggists, threw open their stores to the wounded, and furnished all necessary medicaments free of charge from their stocks. The Lower Insurance patrol, Capt. Hall, were promptly on the ground, and rendered effective assistance in rescuing persons from the blazing building. Their quarters are in Murray Street, near Church, and the concussion of the explosion burst open their door, enabling them to rush out without the loss of a moment’s time. This will give an idea of the strength of the explosion, whose direction seemed to be upward, backward, and forward at the same time. Every pane of glass for blocks around was shattered. It is a miracle that a great many passersby were not killed. A large Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Express wagon was passing at the time laden with boxes of shoes and other articles on its way to the ferry. The driver was blown off the box, but escaped with a few slight bruises. One of the horses was hurled 25 feet and instantly killed. The wagon was completely smashed up and partly overturned. An Italian pea-nut vendor who stood on the corner of Barclay Street and College-place was flung across the street and his stock of goods scattered. Many other similar instances will be found detailed below.

All the downtown streets were crowded at the time of the explosion. At this season, when many of the shops and factories stop work at 5 o’clock, the operatives are starting for home before it is fairly dark, and last evening the great red blaze was bursting up just while the streets were almost impassable. Nearly everybody who saw the fire from the neighboring streets turned back and went toward it, and even before the Fire Department arrived all the neighboring streets were packed. The noise of the explosion brought everybody in the vicinity to the scene of the disaster, and the Police had hard work to clear a path for the engines. Officers who were early on duty at the fire say that never before have they seen such a crowd in the streets in any time of danger. Until the Police lines were formed Barclay Street, Greenwich Street, Park-place, and College-place were impassable. The clock in the Fulton-street engine-house indicates that the first alarm was given at 5:03, and the third was within seven minutes afterward.

Chief Rowe, of the First Battalion, was the first officer to arrive at the fire, and had charge of the department until the arrival of the Chief. He says that after the third alarm had been given, it was believed the more engines would be needed, and special calls were sent to a number of companies, until, at the height of the fire, 25 companies were at work. He afterward took charge of the ruins of the building that was shattered by the explosion, and says that he has no doubt there are bodies in the debris.

The New York Times, New York, NY 21 Dec 1877