The First Hour: A Brief Reflection on the Great Fire of 1902


It was nearing 8am. I had roughly twenty-five minutes before school started so I drove down Broadway to the NJ Transit Bus Terminal. Across the street there were taxis and busses parked in a large lot. I found it funny that this is where the trolley cars were housed in 1902. Some things don’t change. I started back towards the garage. With fifteen minutes to spare, I parked my car and hurried towards the stairs of the four-story parking garage, but headed up. I still had fifteen minutes. My face flushed red from rushing, but the cold morning air quickly cooled me. For a moment, I wondered how the heat from the flames would have felt against the freezing cold. I held my jacket closed and kept on.

Stepping out onto the roof, I walked to the ledge and looked out onto Paterson; down below to Van Houten, up Church to my left, right down Ellison and back down Washington, then over my shoulder back to Broadway. I wondered if the Town Clock had tolled one last time at midnight before the fire. As the wind swept my hair I spun my head back around and searched my far left for Saint Joseph’s Church on Market and Carroll, but couldn’t see it. The old Central Fire Headquarters was on my right, and First Baptist Church beside it on the corner. Some things do change, I thought, for how ironic that the firehouse should now stand where the school once fell in flames. Straight-ahead, City Hall’s Hotel de’ Ville clock tower faced me, and though it no longer works, the proverbial clock was ticking. I had about ten minutes. I can’t fit all of this into one picture. Feeling slightly defeated, I started back towards the stairs.

As I descended the stairway I looked out of its windows trying to imagine that night 111 years ago. I wondered how I could fit a detailed account into a mere blog post. The fire burned its way one mile across Downtown Paterson to Sandy Hill for thirteen hours, until ironically meeting its end at a cemetery near Saint Joseph’s Church. It claimed two lives and incinerated 459 buildings, 148 businesses and 250 homes.   Glenn P. Corbett, Associate Professor of Fire Science at John J College of Criminal Justice, wrote an entire book about the Great Fire. What insight could I offer? What is my view? I went back to my car for my things and exited the garage.

Old - First Baptist Church

Going on five minutes left to spare, I looked up at Central Fire Headquarters on my right. I pictured the 500-year old bell that hung at this site when Paterson High School stood here. During my research, I read that Napoleon’s army had plundered the bell from a church in the Swiss Alps. It eventually made its way to one of Paterson’s locomotive companies before finding what would be its final resting place at the city’s high school. The school, formerly known as School #1, was built in 1855. Its first graduating class was made up of only 13 students, one of which would later become the first President of the Paterson Board of Education, and was appointed President of Columbia University, just one year before the fire. Time is a funny thing. Time…five minutes to go.

central fire lycaum theater

This is an image of the Central Fire Headquarters on the site of the old Paterson High School, and the Lycaum Theater, where the parking garage is now located.

Passing the firehouse I reached First Baptist Church on the corner. Its gray stone façade and high bell tower evoke an old medieval castle charm, but this was not the original design. Instead, I pictured the skyward stretching steeple that once stood, and imagined it wrapped in a serpentine blaze, piercing into the darkened sky. My perspective began to change.  I looked towards the intersection, blinking back the sun now peaking through the clouds, and hues of red reflected in my eyes. With my imagination now afire, those hues resembled firebrands shooting into the sky like fireworks. For a moment, flames surrounded me, and the retreating clouds above were billows of smoke.  I let my eyes adjust and walked into my building. I noted the time on the clock when I punched in with a minute to spare, and my perspective began to clear. The twenty-six minutes I spent reflecting, traveling from Broadway to Washington to work, was the same amount of time it took for fire to spread the same distance. Moreover, by the time first period would have ended , all I passed would have been gone….in the first hour of the Great Fire. Here is how it started.

It was a frigid Saturday night, February 9, 1902. Temperatures dropped to 20 degrees and the 50mph winds whipped wildly, around new cold concrete construction, and through old wood framed buildings that still lined the city’s streets. It was just after midnight; the old Town Clock on Broadway must have tolled. It was Saturday, the Paterson Opera House on Main Street would have featured a show, and Paterson’s elite had probably just rushed home out of the cold. Others still may have braved into the night chill to enjoy the Downtown nightlife.  But it was turn of the century Paterson, and while some slumbered or celebrated, many labored late into the night, like those at the trolley sheds at Broadway and Mulberry. It was here that the small fire would soon grow to consume that brisk night air and light the dark sky.

The fire alarm box 451 at Broadway and Main Street was pulled at 12:09am and a third time at 12:13am.  Chief Stagg, the city’s first fire chief, was sick with pneumonia, and by the time his men arrived at the Jersey City Hoboken and Paterson Street Railway at 20-34 Broadway, they probably felt just as helpless as their chief.  The entire trolley complex was up in flames. Firebrands shot up into the air and the wind blew flames to the east and the south. The wood-framed tenements across the street caught fire, an elderly woman’s life was taken. The fire quickly spread, splitting into two paths of destruction, one across Van Houten to the wood framed tenements, paralleling Main towards Market, while the other tore east along Van Houten.

The fire had made its way towards First Baptist Church, next door to Paterson High School.  The steeple caught fire at around 12:35am. From there it spread to the roof and cornice. By the time the steeple collapsed into the church at 1:07am, the brick high school was enflamed. It burned from the inside out, as the fire ate through the wooden window frames and made its way to the furniture inside. Firebrands flew through the air as far as 111 Washington Street, onto the roof of Peter Colt’s old residence, the front of which housed the old City Hall until that very year, when the new one on Market was completed. Before the night was over, both would need to be rebuilt once more, along with 54 acres of the city.

In the end, however tragic, Patersonians would not be victimized, nor would they accept charity. Through the efforts of its citizens, industrialists and laborers alike, and under the direction of the Iron Mayor Hinchliffe, Paterson took care of her own and resurrected from the ashes.  Soon after the fire, the Paterson Press wrote:

“Though scourged by a most disastrous fire, Paterson stands today courageous, self-reliant and independent. Paterson gains by the fire a deserved reputation for civic pride, order and generosity. Though many larger cities would have staggered…Paterson has gone bravely to work to rebuild a greater Paterson, and her own citizens have given largely and generously for the relief of her homeless.”

Here is a link to a timeline/map I created based on Corbett’s book.

http://www.myhistro.com/story/the-great-fire-of-1902-paterson-nj/61975

Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved. For permission to reproduce contact MissOPaterson@aol.com

**The information pertaining to the Great Fire of 1902 and Napoleon’s Bell, in this blog and the imbedded timeline, were adapted from Glenn P. Corbett’s book The Great Paterson Fire of 1902: The Story of New Jersey’s Biggest Blaze, with permission from the author, to be used for educational purposes only.  The images were borrowed with permission from RU Core & The New Jersey Digital Highway. Do not reproduce.

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One Response to The First Hour: A Brief Reflection on the Great Fire of 1902

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