New York, NY Edison light plant fire, Jan 1890




The oldest electric light station of the Edison Company, at 255 and 257 Pearl-street, was completely gutted by fire early yesterday morning. It contained eight dynamos of 200 horse power each, and supplied some six hundred customers in the section bounded by Broadway, the East River, Spruce, and Wall streets. The plant was put in in 1882, and had never been idle night or day from the time it was opened until yesterday. This was the first plant in the world to demonstrate practically the feasibility of electric lighting from a central station.

The building was an old one, of brick, with wood floors, and four stories high, exclusive of the cellar, occupied by engine boilers. It was very nearly 6 o'clock yesterday morning when an unknown man ran into the engine house of No. 32, on John-street, and told Capt. Frazer that the Edison plant was burning. The Captain ordered his men out and started before them to look at the fire. He got there bgefore any other official of the department and saw that the upper part of the building was already in flames. The company came up with its engine, and the Captain entered the office door, which was unlocked, and passed up stairs. He began work on the third floor, where it seemed that the fire had first started. The floor above was already pretty well burned. Both were occupied by the wiring department. A few minutes later half a dozen of the firemen found themselves cut off by the flames, which had consumed the stairway. They all got out safely by ladders. Later on James Mulvaney of Company No. 12 was overcome by smoke while passing into the burning building, but he recomvered soon after being brought into the open air. It was over an hour before the fire was gotten under complete control, and by that time the greater part of the wooden floors and timbers were a charred mass and all the valuable machinery had been destroyed.

The loft of William Schwarzwaelder & Co's. desk manufactory, at 259, had been burned off and a great deal of water damage done on all the floors below. The lamp manufactory of G. M. Aikman & Co., at 261, was also damaged by water. So was the basement of the same building, occupied by Doelger & Eckerts, dealers in oil cloths. The building on the other side of the Edison plant, 253, was uninjured, but some damage had been done to the leaf tobacco stock of Isaac Mayer & Co., who occupied the basement, by smoke and water.

General Manager John L. Boggs of the EdisonCompany said the insurance on building and plant was $100,000, which would just about cover the loss. The company has an annex station in this district at 60 Liberty-street. The efforts of the management were first directed to making this station do the work of both plants for a night or two so far as possible. Messengers were sent around to customers who were known to have gas in their buildings asking them to use it for a short time, and the work of connecting "feeders," or street mains, with the Liberty-street plant instead of the one which had been burned out was prosecuted as rapidly as practicable. It was stated that lights could be furnished right off to the whole of the district between Maiden-lane and Wall-street, which portion the Liberty-street annex had been intended to accommodate, although it had not yet been perfectly equipped. Customers betweeen Maiden-lane and Spruce-street were not so well off. And yet even there the company promised that the delay should not be a long one.

"We have two new dynamos on the way to New-York already," said Mr. Boggs, "and in three days we shall be in shape to do all our work again. We intend to rebuild temporarily and send out currents from this point. But the company had already determined to substitute a new and fire-proof building for this Pearl-street station next Spring, and will probably do so now. This was the only station in the whole county used by the Edison Company which was not fire-proof in construction, like our two other stations here, on Thirty-ninth-street, opposite the Casino, and on Twenty-sixth-street, near Sixth-avenue."

As to the origin of the fire the General Manager would not venture an opinion, and employes of the company were very reticent. Firemen say that it was caused in some way from the electric currents. The high-tension opponents of Edison's system have always insisted that as a cause of the fire his continuous currents were far more dangerous than alternating currents of five times their voltage. There is also little doubt that an effort was made by the night gang of twelve men to put out the fire with their own apparatus before an alarm was given. Chief Cashman of the Fire Department says he found on the stairs two lengths of Croton hose which had evidently been used for this purpose. All the firemen say that the fire must have been burning for some time before the alarm was given.

The Edison Company has no overhead wires. Its connections between the street and the wiring department on the upper floors of the burned building ran through a chute of wood, the lower part of which was not much burned. This would indicate that the fire did not start in that chute, but perhaps from some imperfectly insulated wire between the dynamos and the beginning of the street connection.

The office of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company is with Spencer Trask & Co., at 16 Broad-street. Mr. Trask, President of the company, is in Europe. Mr. Boggs is Vice President. The Secretary, James B. Skehan, when seen by a TIMES reporter late yesterday afternoon, daid it was too early as yet to form any definite idea as to how the fire had started. "I am satisfied," he continued, "that our currents had nothing to do with it. The fire began on the third floor, in the rear, near a boiler flue. There was not an electric connection within twenty feet of that point. I have no doubt that the boiler flue set fire to some oily waste in the room. Meanwhile the men were in the front part of the building, where the engines and dynamos were situated. That accounts for the headway which the flames had attained before an alarm was given."

Mr. Skehan said the insurance of $100,000 was divided up among forty companies. He thought it would cover the loss, three-fourths of which was on machinery. He corroborated Mr. Boggs as to the intensions of the company and its methods of meeting the present crisis.

Some new connections," said he, "were completed with the Liberty-street plant as early as 11 A. M. By 4 o'clock our Nassau-street 'feeder' was connected with the same plant and Newspaper-row was supplied with lights. Everything possible will be done for our customers."

Isaac Meyer & Co. estimate their loss on stock of leaf tobacco at $5,000. Schwartzwaelder & Co. lose $5,000, and G. M. Aikman & Co. and Doelger & Eckerts sustain heavy losses. All are fully covered by insurance.

The fire caused a good deal of inconvenience in the Wall-street district. In the vicinity of the Stock Exchange, where rents are so high that little dark rooms are fashionable, brokers and their clerks even at midday are obliged to rely for light upon gas and electric lighting. There was yesterday a good chance to see that the Edison Company's was a long one. In many back offices work was brought to a complete standstill, except in so far as the candle or oil lamp could be temporarily be put to use. About noon, however, the electric light company was able to supply customers from another station, but this card was sent out by the Wall-street news agencies:

"We are asked to request that users of the Edison incandescent light to use the light to smallest extent possible at present, as the light is supplied to-day from the lower station, whose capacity is limited."

The New York Times, New York, NY 3 Jan 1890