Disasters on Fifth Avenue


Fifth Avenue has had its share of disasters, riots, and fires. Even a wind-storm came in for some attention when it destroyed the half completed residence of William R. Martin, located then in what was comparatively a rural section of the Avenue. The event is recalled by Mr. John D. Crimmins: "The first building for a residence on Fifth Avenue north of 57th Street was started by William R. Martin between 626. and 63d Streets. The building had reached about four stories and it was exposed in every direction. A violent wind storm blew the walls completely off the foundation. Mr. Martin was a Park Commissioner and a man of taste and education. He started the house as an illustration of the value of a Park front for residential purposes."

For four days and four nights in August, 1834, peaceful Washington Square—then called Washington Parade Ground—presented a warlike appearance. The Twenty-seventh Regiment, New York National Guard, commanded by Colonel Stevens, lay encamped on the Square with loaded rifles, ready for instant action.

Convict labor had been introduced in the state prison at Sing Sing, and for some time great discontent had prevailed among the mechanics and artisans of New York, because the State sold its convict labor cheaper than the prices demanded by free labor. The buildings of New York University were under construction on the east side of Washington Square. Westchester marble was being used, and the contractors, to save money, hired Sing Sing labor to dress the stone.

At once the resentment of the stonecutters and masons burst into action. Excited meetings were held and addressed by leaders who in impassioned speeches denounced the employment of cheap convict labor as "taking the bread out of our mouths," and crowds of workmen paraded the streets carrying placards and banners bearing inscriptions assailing prison labor and the contractors and demanding the rights of the workingmen. Feeling rose so high that the houses of several persons were mobbed and citizens assaulted. Mayor Cornelius W. Lawrence, fearing that the workmen at the University buildings would suffer violence and the civil authorities would be unable to control the rioters, called out the Twenty-seventh Militia Regiment to disperse the tumultuous crowds marching about the city.

The sight of the troops acted like a balm upon the parading stonecutters, and the rioters broke their ranks and went home. No more trouble ensued, but the city was so wrought up by the turbulent scenes that the soldiers were kept under arms near the University buildings for the four days, to guard against further outbreaks.

The building of the University and of the houses on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 18th Street, which were built by Robert C. Townsend and Henry H. Elliott, of marble cut at Sing Sing, was delayed by the disturbance, and no more buildings were constructed of convict-dressed stone.

The Burning of the House of Refuge

The House of Refuge fire, June 20, 1839, was a spectacular episode. The Building stood at Madison Square near where the Farragut statue now stands, then the junction of the Eastern Post Road and the Bloomingdale Road. The neighborhood was quite rural, and adjoining the House of Refuge was a cherry orchard. The House of Refuge was opened in 1824 by the Society for the Reformation of Youthful Delinquents, the first American society whose object was the care and reformation of juvenile offenders. The fire broke out late in the afternoon in the workshop of Stephen C. Demarest & Co., who carried on a brass nail, mat, and whip factory, and over whose shop was a chair-seat factory run by one Captain Seaman. Bursting out in the centre of the brass nail factory, the flames quickly ignited the upper story of the House of Refuge.

Fighting the Fire

An alarm was promptly given, and the inmates were safely led out and secured so that none could escape. No hose was, however, at hand. The flames were rapidly spreading amid a wild scene of helpless confusion, when up to the blazing building dashed spectacularly Ex-Alderman Bunting of the Fourth Ward, who had built the structure. He had driven his galloping horse up the main road that Fighting led to Madison Square, and, jumping from the gig, took command the Fire of the situation. Calling upon a dozen men to follow him with water buckets, he rushed to the wing of the building, on which flames were rapidly licking up the shingles, and, stripping to his shirt-sleeves, began to throw water on the roof as fast as the buckets could be handed to him. He soon had the fire on the roof under control.

Meanwhile the fire engines, with a crowd of citizens, had arrived upon the scene, and began playing streams of water upon the conflagration. The whole of the House of Refuge, except the women's wing, which had been saved by Mr. Bunting's efforts, was by this time a roaring furnace.

A turbulent gang of roughs from all over the city overflowed into the orchard by the blazing building and began destroying the trees and stripping them of fruit, threatening violence to those opposing them. A riot had begun when the Mayor with a posse of police arrived and rushed the mob. Blows were struck, and there was a general melee. Justice Taylor of the upper Police Court had a set-to with a rough bent on having his fill of cherries, and the Justice lost his coat-sleeve in mastering his opponent. But the police shortly got the upper hand of the gangsters, and order was restored.

The entire building excepting the women's wing was soon a heap of ruins, but no one was hurt. After the fire the institution was transferred to the foot of East 23d Street, where it remained until about 1854, when it was moved to Randall's Island.

Crystal Palace Fire

One of the show places off Fifth Avenue from 1853 to 1858 was Crystal the Crystal Palace, which stood west of the old reservoir, in what is Palace Fire now known as Bryant Park. This building, which was designed somewhat after the model of the famous Crystal Palace in London, in the shape of a Greek cross, was built of glass and iron, with broad aisles, arched naves, and a graceful dome. It cost about $650,000, and was opened by President Franklin Pierce on July 14, 1853, as an exhibition hall for a display of the world's industries and arts. Financially it was not a success. It was the scene of a great reception in 1858 to Cyrus W. Field when the Atlantic cable was laid.

About five o'clock in the afternoon of October 5, 1858, when the annual fair of the American Institute was being held in the building and it was filled with a valuable collection of costly goods, many the property of prominent merchants of the city, fire broke out.

Some two thousand visitors were in the building at the time. The entrance on 40th Street was closed and the panic-stricken crowd rushed madly for the Sixth Avenue entrance. Ex-Captain Maynard of the Municipal Police and several Directors of the Institute threw themselves into the midst of the terror-stricken mob and by heroic efforts succeeded in guiding every one safely to the street. The whole northern part of the building was soon ablaze, and the flames leaped up and swept along the galleries, which by this time were fortunately deserted. Some one foolishly or with deliberate intent opened the doors at the 40th Street entrance, and with a strong draught circulating through the building its whole interior was a roaring furnace in less than three minutes.

The Building Consumed

The fire department was shortly on the scene, and twenty or thirty Building streams of water were thrown into the building, but it was seen that consumed [1 was doomed. Several pieces of fire apparatus were on exhibition, and the firemen made desperate attempts to rescue them, finally succeeding in saving two hose wagons. Some of the exhibitors bravely rushed into the burning building to save their property, but the terrible heat and strangling smoke drove them out, and hardly anything was saved. The loss was estimated at about $2,000,000.

The rumor was widely circulated—and generally believed—that the Crystal Palace had been purposely set on fire. The theory that the conflagration was due to leaking gas which was accidentally ignited was not believed by most people.

Colored Orphan Asylum Fire and Draft Riot

On Fifth Avenue between 43d and 44th Streets was staged July 13, Colored 1863, a terrible scene of rioting and fire. Measures had been taken Orphan several days previously to draft men from New York City into the Asylum Fire Union Army, and on Monday, July 13, a mob, goaded to wild passion and Draft by hatred of the draft and by the harangues of demagogues, started Riot to riot and destroy anything and every one that stood in its path.

Some twenty names had been called in the drafting office at Third Avenue and 46th Street, when a crowd of five hundred men and boys hurled a shower of stones and brickbats through the windows and rushing in drove the draft officers out the back entrance, destroyed all the books and papers, and set the building on fire. The flames caught the adjoining buildings, and the whole block was burned to the ground. Police Superintendent Kennedy was seized by the mob and nearly killed before he could be rescued. The armory at Second Avenue and 21st Street was attacked by three or four thousand men and boys, the doors were broken in, and the mob was rushing in when a volley from the body of police garrisoning the building dropped a half-dozen of the leaders upon the threshold. For a few moments the mob drew off, but then, doubly furious at the killing and wounding of their comrades, the rioters charged the building madly, hurling paving stones and firing pistols as they came. The police fought desperately to keep them out, but orders came to evacuate the armory and they abandoned it to the mob, which set it on fire.

A detachment of fifty men of the invalid corps under Lieutenant Ried hurried from the Park Barracks to disperse the rioters. They fired a volley, but the mob, seeing that they used only blank cartridges, rushed them furiously, broke their ranks, disarmed them, and chased the soldiers through the streets. Many were caught and beaten and kicked nearly to death. Bodies of police were routed and the officers horribly mauled by ruffians. The office of the New York Tribune was gutted and set on fire, but the police drove off the rioters and put out the flames. Soldiers of the Eleventh New York Regiment commanded by Colonel O'Brien broke up a mob in Second Avenue, but the Colonel, getting separated from his men, was seized by the mob and beaten to death. Several ruffians used his head as a target for pistol practice as he lay dead on the sidewalk, and then hung the corpse from a lamp-post.

Violence of The rioters singled out negroes as especial objects of their hatred, the Mob  all over the city black men, women, and children were hunted, beaten, and murdered. A negro teamster was brutally pounded with clubs and paving stones until he died, and then the bloodthirsty mob strung his bleeding body from a tree, set fire to it, and danced howling, singing, and cursing about the blazing corpse. A reign of terror held possession of the city, and fire, murder, pillage, and violence stalked abroad almost unchecked. After wrecking property elsewhere and overpowering the police and soldiers  who tried to disperse them, the rioters, several thousand strong, started up Fifth Avenue to plunder and destroy the Colored Orphan Asylum.

The Colored Orphan Asylum was a large brick building with four stories and two wings occupying the block on Fifth Avenue between 43d and 44th Streets. Built in 1842 by the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans, it contained at this time two hundred and thirty three negro children who were being cared for and taught useful trades.

Nearly all the occupants had been taken to a place of safety— the police station of the Twentieth Precinct—before the howling mob arrived, about four o'clock in the afternoon. Swarming over the grounds and up the stairs they rushed through rooms and corridors, smashing and pillaging. In a short time the building was stripped clean from basement to attic, even the clothing of the children being stolen by the pillagers. Having wrecked the interior of the building and taken everything of value, the mob, many of whom were women and children, prepared to complete their evil work by burning it.

Waving a white flag of truce from the sidewalk opposite the building, those in charge of the institution pleaded with the rioters not to burn it, but only jeers and threats answered them. Fires were started in several places on the first floor, when a party of firemen led by Chief Gallantry John Decker rushed into the building and put them out. Infuriated of Fire by his brave action, the rioters threatened Decker with death, but he continued extinguishing the fires as fast as they were started. Standing Decker on the front steps he called in the name of humanity upon the mob, drunk with passion and whiskey, that raged and howled and cursed about him, not to disgrace their city by burning a charitable institution. They answered by making a rush up the steps to kill him, and only the gallantry of some firemen, who threw themselves in front of the charging rabble shouting that their chief could be injured only over their dead bodies, saved his life. Another story goes that Decker was seized by the mob and was about to be hanged upon a near-by tree when his ready wit saved his life. Making an expressive gesture toward his throat, he said coolly to a ringleader of the mob who was tying a noose in the rope:—

"What good will it do you to hang me? You will only stop my draft, not the Government's!"

The jest and the nerve shown by the gallant fireman took the fancy of the rioters, and Decker was not injured.

After trying for an hour and a half to set fire to the asylum, the mob finally succeeded, and soon the whole building was ablaze. About a score of the negro children who had not escaped with the rest were seized by the drunken rioters, who had already captured several colored men and hanged them to lamp-posts. Some of the ruffians were inciting the mob to do the children violence, and the terrified little orphans were being roughly handled, when through the clamoring throng that surrounded them burst the crew of Engine Company No. 18 with four stage-drivers of the 42d Street line and a young Irishman named Paddy M'Caffrey.

The resolute bearing of the fearless little band cowed the mob, and the children were conducted in safety to the police station of the Thirty-fifth Precinct. Thus all the inmates of the asylum received shelter for the night at either the Twentieth or Thirty-fifth Precinct police stations. Many of them were not two years old, and none over twelve. The asylum was totally destroyed, and several persons were injured by falling walls. The fire loss was estimated at $35,000. The Windsor As the St. Patrick's day parade swept up Fifth Avenue, on the Hotel Fire afternoon of March 17, 1899, a bareheaded man, his clothing, face, and hands blackened with smoke, ploughed wildly through the throng in front of the Windsor Hotel in his effort to reach the other side of the Avenue. An alert policeman grabbed him and hauled him back to the sidewalk, gesticulating and stammering incoherently. The noise of a passing band drowned his words, and the policeman, bewildered, was holding him tightly, when he stabbed the air with his hand in the direction of the Windsor Hotel right behind. Looking around, the officer saw great clouds of smoke and flame belching from the windows on the second floor. The hotel was on fire!

The alarm then given was the prelude to the most terrible fire which has occurred on Fifth Avenue. Fourteen persons were killed and fifty injured.

The Windsor Hotel, a dignified building of seven stories, occupied the whole block on the east side of Fifth Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets. About 3 P.m. many of the hotel's windows were filled with interested spectators of the parade. It was said that one of the front parlors on the second floor was occupied by a man who was alone and who lit a cigar and carelessly tossed the match out the open window. It hit the window curtains while still burning, and instantly they were ablaze. The man lost his head completely and bolted from the room without trying to put out the fire or give the alarm. When the head waiter happened to go by the door a few minutes later, the smell of smoke attracted his attention, and, looking into the parlor, he saw the curtains and window casing a mass of flame, while the tongues were rapidly licking up the side of the room. Rushing in, he strove to put out the blaze, but it had too much headway. After severely burning his hands, he jumped into the corridor and leaped down the stairs yelling "Fire!" Reaching the crowded sidewalk, he started across the Avenue for the nearest fire alarm box, only to be seized by the policeman, as told above.

By the time an alarm was rung the whole street and interior of the hotel was in an uproar. Four alarms were sent in, and brought a big force of fire apparatus. Crowds of paraders and spectators impeded the work of the firemen, and an inadequate supply of water hampered them still more. The peculiar construction of the hotel made it a veritable fire trap. The fire mounted by the wide halls and in and out of the windows until the whole interior of the building was a seething mass of writhing, crackling flame. The hoarse shouts of the firemen, the clanging of gongs, the rumble of the engines, and the frantic screams of those caught within the burning building made a horrid medley of sound, while the tragic scenes enacted in the windows of the hotel were never forgotten by those who witnessed them.

Many of the windows of the hotel were jammed with screaming Incidents guests. Now and then a yellow sheet of flame would shoot up like a °f the lire devouring monster over a window filled with blanched faces, and they would disappear into the furnace. Many tried to slide down fire escape ropes, which were in every bedroom, but the friction burned the skin from their hands, and they fell into the street. Others lost their heads and in wild panic jumped from the windows. Some were caught in nets, others were fatally crushed or maimed for life on the flagging.

A woman with a baby in her arms stood at one window imploring help, while the flames were leaping up to the sill from the lower floor. Finally she lost her reason and, hurling the infant into the street, jumped after it. Another richly dressed woman lifted her arms helplessly heavenward from a window on the fourth floor and then leaped, turning several times in the air before she struck the iron railing below. A trained nurse stopped two men frantically hunting for a fire escape, telling them there was one in her room. They rushed after her, but when they were inside they saw no fire escape but a crippled old woman in a wheel-chair, and the brave nurse, backing against the closed door, demanded that they help her rescue her patient. Roused by her spirit, the men took hold, and the quartet reached the open air safely.

Worked to a frenzy by such scenes, the firemen labored like heroes, and many gallant rescues were made. The loss of life would have been much smaller had those at the windows kept their heads and refrained from jumping. Before dark the hotel was a blackened heap of smoking ruins, with but one wall standing, which soon "slid down to its base like a closing fan." And not until seven in the evening was the fire fully under control and near-by property out of danger. Palatial business structures, among which is that of W. & J. Sloane, now occupy the site.

Fifth Avenue Hotel Fire

Though much less spectacular than the Windsor Hotel fire, that which occurred at the Fifth Avenue Hotel on December 10, 1872, was even more fatal, for twenty-two people were suffocated before the fire was extinguished. It started about 11.15 p-M- December 9, 1872, in the upper story on the 23d Street side, and by midnight the entire 23d Street side was ablaze.

The cause was unknown, but it originated in the elevator or stairs leading to the laundry on the top floor. Many of the guests were in bed when the fire broke out, and the appearance of firemen dragging hose up the stairs and through corridors was the first inkling many had of the danger. A panic ensued. The guests, throwing on their clothes, hastily gathered their belongings and rushed downstairs. Only by great efforts did the firemen save the hotel.

Having the fire nearly all out, they made a room-to-room inspection of the building. Entering a room known as "the cock-loft, high up under the roof, where slept the maids and laundry women, one of the firemen tripped over something on the floor and fell. Throwing the dim rays of their lantern about the room, the firemen saw that the floor nearest the only window was piled with charred and blackened bodies. With the stairs leading to the twelve-by-twelve sleeping room on fire, the only way of escape had been the window which opened on the hotel roof, and this window was barred. Evidences were everywhere of the frightful struggle the women had made in their frantic endeavors to escape. They had fought and screamed to force the bars on the window, but one by one they had dropped, overcome by the deadly smoke and heat, and were slowly strangled and burned • to death. At half-past two in the morning, twenty-two corpses had been removed by the firemen and police. The bodies were taken out the 23d Street door to the morgue. And yet not two years before, the attic room had been inspected by the New York Superintendent of Buildings and pronounced safe! The loss was estimated at from $75,000 to $100,000, mostly caused by water.

St. Thomas's Church Fire

St. Thomas's Episcopal Church at the northwest corner of Fifth Church Fire Avenue and 53d Street—the predecessor of the church now standing— was destroyed by fire on August 8, 1905. Poor insulation of the electric wiring which supplied power to the great organ was supposed to have caused the fire. Fifty fire companies labored to save the church, but despite their efforts it was practically ruined, while the residences of Dr. Seward Webb and H. K. Twombly, which adjoined it to the north, suffered much damage from water. Both of these, as well as John D. Rockefeller's house at 4 West 54th Street, were in danger of catching before the lire in the church was under control.

Four alarms were sent in, bringing a lot of apparatus to the scene; but the firemen were handicapped by scarcity of water and hydrants, and Chief Croker stated that delay in sending in the alarm by the police made it impossible for the church to be saved.

A weird incident of the fire occurred when the big tenor bell of the Dirges peal chimes given the church by Thomas W. Walter suddenly began to above the toll a mournful dirge high above the raging flames, as if bewailing the J1 lames destruction of its home. The cause was a powerful stream of water thrown from the top of a ladder upon the bell. The distress of the pigeons which for years had nested in the spire was plainly evident, as they circled and wheeled distractedly, crying around the blazing tower.

The fire loss was about $300,000, two-thirds covered by insurance; but the world of art suffered an irreparable loss in the destruction of John LaFarge's two masterpieces of painting, "Christ Healing the Sick" and "The Resurrection," and Augustus Saint-Gaudens's famous bronze bas-relief, "The Adoration of the Cross."

The church was built in 1870 and was one of the most imposing buildings in the city. The famous architect, Upjohn, was the designer, and he considered it his masterpiece. It was of Gothic architecture, built of brownstone, and cost almost a million dollars. Its congregation was one of the wealthiest in New York and numbered over three thousand persons. In this church Miss Consuelo Vanderbilt wedded the Duke of Marlborough, and Miss May Goelet the Duke of Roxburghe, while among other noted marriages held within its walls were those of Senator Clarke's daughter Catherine and Lewis R. Morris, and Miss Pauline Whitney and Almeric Paget. The rector at the time of the fire was the Rev. Dr. Ernest M. Stires.

Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Disasters on Fifth Avenue
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


Fifth Avenue Events Printed for The Fifth Avenue Bank of New York 1916 copyright The Fifth Avenue Bank of New York
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