Hoboken’s Holocaust: Hoboken, NJ Steamship Fire

One of those fabulous treats about reading a book is the knowledge you gain while reading it. Which is why I have enjoyed reading about the Tudors, the Plantagenets, and the medieval era: I am learning something. Every now and then, I want to take a ride on my wild side and read something different. So now I am reading Mothers and Daughters by Rae Meadows which is an interesting journey of three generations of women in the same family. As I was reading this, I was perturbed that I couldn’t get a sense of time in the story for the grandmother, Violet. I like to know what era we are dealing with so that I could imagine the surroundings of the character.

And, finally, a gem was delivered seventy pages in. Violet meets up with a newsboy who is yelling out the headlines of the day. Newsboy immediately gets beaten up by some thug. Back up folks! Guess what the headline was? “326 people dead from NJ steamship fire!”

So I go immediately to the computer, and kiss my google homepage, and found this “Hoboken, NJ Dock Fire, Jul 1900” which was posted by Stu Beitler in 2007. How interesting the images he posted there and my further googling to learn all about these magnificent piers that replaced those lost in the fire.
The fire on Saturday, June 30, 1900 most likely started with a cotton bale located under Pier 3 at the Hudson River, and in less than 15 minutes it was a quarter of a mile long which destroyed millions of dollars worth of property including four steamship liners, barges, warehouses, railroad cars and four piers. The dry and windy weather helped propel the fire from the docks to the buildings to the ships. Roughly one million people observed it from various viewpoints, especially from within the tall buildings of Manhattan. They witnessed those that drowned that tried to escape the blazing steamships, as many of them simply could not swim. And, horrifically, some of the potential rescue tugboats decided to profit from the tragedy. They were lured by the thoughts of rewards from the sale of whiskey or cotton and chose to steal items instead of saving the people jumping from piers. Among the losses was the Campbell’s Store building which was a $1.5 million dollar building.

Campbell’s Store ruins

The SS Saale owned by the North German Lloyd Steamship Company had just loaded its passengers heading to Southhampton. Sadly, the coalburners which fueled the steamship were still cold, so they could not swiftly get out of the fire’s path. Tugboats tried to pull each of the four ships away from the blazing docks. One ship escaped with minor damage. The Saale was not so lucky. Crew and passengers could not do anything but jump. Those below deck were trapped. In an attempt to put out the fire, the ship was soaked by the water hoses, so that those below deck could not get out. They were limited to tiny portholes. Later, regulations were finally made to make portholes large enough for escape.

According to one of the websites, there were 361 deaths (as opposed to the rumored 326) which included dock workers, crews, and these passengers. On the anniversary of the event, longshoremen are honored year after year, the crew being named in the papers at the time, and yet, the ninety passengers who died within the Saale have seemingly been eternally forgotten. There were about 250 total survivors of the four ships who were saved and taken to hospitals nearby. Captain C. August Johann Mirow remained with his ship, suffering the same fate as his passengers, and died a hero’s death.

Captain C. August Johann Mirow, the popular captain of S.Saale 

Docks at Hoboken

 Interestingly, while perusing images and postcards sent during the aftermath, the postcards were being sent to Germany. Roughly twenty percent of the Hoboken residents were German, as was the captain of the Saale. For more accounts, please visit Maggie Blanck’s site. There are some heart wrenching photos from the newspapers there as well. Maggie’s grandmother was a survivor. There is a list of casualties here, with many unknown mentioned.

A bit of history I otherwise would never have discovered, if not for one line in a novel.



Filed under Early America

3 responses to “Hoboken’s Holocaust: Hoboken, NJ Steamship Fire

  1. Wow, I never heard of that either until now! You'd think that would be a disaster like the Hindenburg that is well documented. I also feel lost if I can't place the era of a book… I think it should be represented in the synopsis at least…

  2. What a terrible tragedy. It's so amazing how much you can find out just from one line. All with the miracle of the internet! And anyone who says historical fiction isn't educational…well, they're just crazy. =O)Thanks for sharing!

  3. Thanks for sharing this interesting bit of history that was previously unknown to me. Puts me in mind of the 1920 Wall Street bombing that I had never heard about until I read The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld. (Except that the incident played a much larger part than an incidental headline.)Learning is one of the best things about reading!

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