New York, NY Western Union Telegraph Building Fire, Jul 1890



His Offices and Those of Other Railroad Kings Destroyed. Western Union Building in New York Gutted.

NEW YORK, July 18---This morning shortly before seven o'clock flames burst from the switch board of the Western Union Telegraph company's operating room on the seventh floor of their magnificent building on the corner of Broadway and Dry streets. So rapidly did they extend to the wood work that the escape of the employes[sic] by stairways was cut off and a number were lowered from windows by ropes to the tops of adjoining buildings. So far as known there was no loss of life. The fire extended from the fifth to the upper stories of the building, including the operating room, Associated Press offices, the executive offices of the Western Union and the upper floors, devoted to restaurant and living purposes. At 8:30 o'clock the fire department had the fire under control.

A few minutes before seven o'clock the operators began to arrive to to to work. About fifty men and young women had reached the operating room when a messenger boy saw a puff of smoke under the table in the distributing room, on the floor below the operating room. He scarcely had time to investigate the cause when the wooden table was in flames and the fire was spreading with lightning rapidity. He rushed up stairs to notify the new arrivals that the building was on fire. They were compelled to go through the distributing room to get down stairs. A panic was the result. The women screamed and the men rushed pell mell down stairs to escape the flames which in less than two minutes had spread almost over the entire distributing room, burning up wires, instruments and tables as if so much tinder. The entire room, when the panic stricken crowd passed through it, was filled with dense stifling smoke. They fell over each other in their wild efforts to reach a place of safety, and a messenger boy with an operator by the name of Skidmore were the only persons who retained presence of mind enough to act. The boy rushed down stairs and out of the building and sent out an alarm, while Skidmore got down a fire extinguisher and endeavored to quench the flames. He saw that it was impossible to be of and service, and to save himself rushed for the stairway before the fire should overtake him. By this time the flames had reached the ceiling of the distributing room, and were eating their way through to the operating room, where the instruments that connect with the wires that distribute the news throughout the country were located. In less time that it takes to tell this, the entire floor was ablaze, and the flames were extending to the floor above on which the Western Union company's restaurant was located. On the restaurant floor there were four men and three women who seeing escape cut off from every direction became panic stricken. The young women were waiters in the restaurant an the men were cooks and chore men. The women rushed around the restaurant screaming and swinging their hands. One of the men finding there was no possible means to escape downward rushed for a scuttle in the roof. A trap door was pushed off and the prisoner climbed to the roof. The flames were shooting out of the front windows and volumes of smoke puffed heavenward. From under the eaves of the great building flames were shooting up and the structure seemed crowned with fire. When the great crowds on the streets saw the men and women rush out upon the roof, a cry of horror went up, for it did not seem possible they could survive. In a few minutes after the fire started there were fourteen engines and hook and ladder companies and a water tower on the ground. The water poured in through the flaming windows and beat down upon the roof, falling to the ground in perfect cataract. All the houses surrounding the building were much lower than the roof of the Western Union, and for those on the top of it death seemed certain. A long ladder was raised upon the roof of the building adjoining and placed against the rear of the burning building. It did not reach within fifty feet of the Western Union roof. Two firemen, however, scaled the ladder and threw a rope to the roof which was caught and tied. The firemen then pulled themselves up hand over hand until they reached the roof, and amid the cheers of the thousands of people let the seven down to places of safety. It was accomplished just in time for the flames immediately burst up through and soon enveloped the roof.

The immense amount of water soon began to have a telling effect upon the fire and finally the flames died away altogether. The entire upper part of the building was gutted and every instrument and wire was rendered useless. How the fire originated no one seemed to know but it is surmised that two of the companies electric light wires became crossed and set the flooring on fire. Had the fire broken out and hour later the loss of life might have been enormous. Fully 700 girls and men are employed in the great building. The floors are flooded with water to the depth of a foot or more and the destruction which was started by the fire was absolutely completed by the water. When the day force arrived shortly after eight o'clock it was but too evident that the usefulness of the great building was at an end for the present. The ruin of the operating room rendered every Western Union wire on Manhattan Island useless so the Associated Press opened headquarters in Jersey City every faculty being afforded then by officials of the Pennsylvania Railroad company, and before the fire was under control, the various circuits of the Associated Press were in active operation. No exact figures can yet be given, as to the loss, but it will be heavy. The building is filled with offices on the five lower floors, which are occupied by some of the greatest railroad magnates in the world. The vast system of Pacific railroads is operated through the instructions given from the building, and there are the private offices of Jay Gould, Sydney Dillon, Dr. Norvin Green and others who are famous throughout the country.

The vice-president of the Western Union is of the opinion that the loss of that company will not much exceed $100,000. He also believes that they will be able to employ a considerable force in the main hallways in a day or two. Already new switch boards are on the way from Philadelphia, and all that money and energy can do to quickly restore the service for the public will be done. The Associated Press will use the executive room on the Fifth floor and such other rooms as can be had in the neighborhood.

The Daily Northwestern, Oshkosh, WI 18 Jul 1890