New York, NY Pearl Street Explosion and Fire, Nov 1882



An explosion of varnish, which ignited from some cause that may never be ascertained, in the cellar of No. 243 Pearl-street, at 10 o'clock yesterday morning, caused a fire that did about $70,000 damage and led to the death by suffocation of Frederick B. Doubleday. Two employes[sic] of a firm in the building were slightly burned. The building, with No. 245, runs back to Nos. 18 and 20 Cliff-street, and the property belongs to the Cary estate. Cliff-street is so much higher than Pearl-street that the ground floors in Pearl-street are cellars in Cliff-street. Ilsley & Doubleday, dealers in paints, varnishes, oils, brushes, and grease, occupied the ground floor and cellar of No. 243 Pearl-street, which were the cellar and sub-cellar of No. 18 Cliff-street, and W. Eggert & Co., dealers in Havana tobacco, of No. 245 Pearl-street, did business in quarters precisely similar. Ilsley & Doubleday had a large stock of goods in their place, and most of the articles were inflammable. The other floors of the building were fully occupied.

Just before the fire started two men were in the cellar of No. 243 Pearl-street arranging an Edison light wire, and John Brown, of No. 18 Cherry-street, and Albert Conrad, employed by Ilsley & Doubleday, were near them. The explosion was not loud, but it was violent enough to throw some boxed and rubbish up the cellar stairs to the street, and flames appeared so quickly that Brown's clothes caught fire, and when he reached the street and was rolled in a horse-blanket it was discovered that his legs were burned, and he was sent to the Chambers-Street Hospital. Conrad's face was slightly burned. In Ilsley & Doubleday's office were Chester P. Doubleday, a member of the firm, his nephew, Frederick B. Doubleday, employed by them as book-keeper, William C. Ilsley, and John Ruddiman, a clerk. The elder Mr. Doubleday threw a coat over his head and reached the street. He expected that his nephew, Ilsley and Ruddiman would follow him, but Ruddiman and Ilsley say that young Doubleday remained to close the safe and save some books. Ruddiman last saw Frederick and Mr. Ilsley going toward the Cliff-street end of the store. He then believed that they had an opportunity to escape by Cliff-street, and when he reached the street did look for him until it was remarked that Frederick had not left the building. Mr. Ilsley said, after the fire, that Doubleday helped him to put the books into the safe and close it, and they then, went toward the Cliff-street staircase. The smoke was dense and Mr. Ilsley caught hold of him and tried to lead him to the staircase, but his own strength failed him in the heated smoke and he ran to the street and gave an alarm. It was then too late to save Doubleday, as no human being could live in the place where he was last seen. Meanwhile, the other occupants had escaped and a third alarm of fire was sent out. It was believed that the flames could not be confined to the cellar and store of Ilsley & Doubleday and that they would reach the upper floors. The water tower was rigged in Cliff-street, ready for emergencies, but the fire did not extend above Ilsley & Doubleday's store, except in the centre of the building, where it reached the second floor of No. 243 Pearl-street, occupied by the New-York Elbow Company and Holbrook Brothers, glass dealers. It was soon checked here, and was under control at 10:45 o'clock.

The firemen worked under great disadvantages, as the combustion of the grease, oils, and materials for paints produced and acrid, dense black smoke. The disappearance of Mr. Doubleday was reported to the firemen, and Private James Meehan, of Engine Company No. 32, made three attempts to reach the Cliff-street end of the store, where the missing man was suppose to be, and only desisted when completely exhausted by the smoke he had inhaled. Mr. Doubleday's body was found in about a foot of water near the west end of the store at 11 o'clock. The young man was a native of Vermont and unmarried. George Wright, a member of the Lower Insurance Patrol, was nearly suffocated in the store of W. Eggert & Co., and he was taken to a neighboring store until he revived and was able to go home. The fire gutted Ilsley & Doubleday's store, and their cellar and the store and cellar of W. Eggert & Co. were flooded.

On July 14 the same buildings were on fire at the time when large fires raged in the Kemble warehouses, in Whitehall-street, and in a soap factory at Vestry and Washington streets, and taxed the resources of the Fire Department to the utmost. As to the origin of the fire, the men who were putting in the electric wire declare that no act of theirs could have caused the outbreak, and their statement cannot be disproved. They were excavating under the sidewalk when the explosion occurred, and the fire came from the building to them.

The New York Times, New York, NY 9 Nov 1882