Ellis Island Fire - Brooklyn Eagle - June 15, 1897



Heroic Rescues and Lucky Escapes From the Burning Buildings




A Round-up of the Foreigners and the Attaches of the Station This morning Finds All Safe – Rescue of the Hospital Inmates – Dr. Senner’s Dog Saves an Attendant – Several Attempts at Suicide In the Flames by Immigrants Frenzied With Fear – A Mother Casts Her Baby Into the Burning Grass and Rushes Aboard the Boat. The Child Rescued – Provision for The Shelterless Occupants of Ellis Island – The Place a Waste of Smoking Ashes – Loss Estimated at $1,000,00 – The Big Building In Which the Fire Started Was a Tinder Box of Pine – Origin of the Flames an Electric Light Wire.


Ellis Island is a waste of smoking ashes today, with here and there over its area of eleven acres a heap of timbers not yet fully conquered by the flames. There is little left in the way of walls or any sort of erect structure to break the desolate expanse of what was formerly a very busy immigrant Reservation.


Viewed from the barge office at the Battery the only indication of the existence of the island is the smoke arising from the ruins. This is suggestive enough to those who witnessed last night’s conflagration. The immigrants who were rescued from the fire last night and who are detained now on the upper floor of the barge office do not linger at the windows which look out upon the ruins. Theirs was a lucky escape from death, by all the stories of the fire that have been obtained, and they are thankful enough to be alive, even though deprived of a good part of their belongings.


Dr. Senner, immigration commissioner, is one of the busiest men in New York to-day. He was first concerned with the necessity of providing for the inmates of the buildings. The sick are being attended to at the Bellevue Hospital and the others are sheltered pending an examination of their records in the barge office itself, where they used to be examined years ago before Ellis Island Was converted into an immigrant station. A board of special inquiry, made up of inspectors, was constituted to determine, in the absence of the records, which were destroyed in the fire, just what disposition shall be made of the foreigners who are under detention. Meanwhile, until temporary provision of a better sort can be made, immigrants arriving in port will be examined on board their ships. Just what will be done about securing buildings for their reception later has not been decided.


To an Eagle reporter this morning Dr. Senner said: “I have officially reported at Washington that no lives were lost and that so far as I know no person was seriously injured. I believe that the fire originated from an electric light wire in the statistician’s office in a corner of the main building. There is no reason for believing that it was caused by an incendiary or an anarchist, as has been suggested. Some time ago I tried unsuccessfully to get additional help, which would be required with the influx of more immigrants. It was fortunate that there were not more persons on the island as it was. I do not believe that any fire apparatus there could have been effective in saving the buildings after the flames got good headway. The fault was not with the apparatus, but with the construction of the buildings. I have always been anxious about them on that account. They should have been fireproof.”


Ellis Island a Mass of Cinders and Blackened Ruins.


A number of reporters, officials and a few outside visitors were taken to the island on the ferryboat John G. Carlisle. All that was standing was the great engine house and electric light and steam plant, and Dr. White’s house, which is the old Mason mansion. The lower portion of the hospital still remains standing as the walls were three and a half feet thick; the upper structure of woodwork was entirely destroyed.


The buildings entirely consumed were the main building, which was 750 by 250 feet and three stories high; the detention penm which was recently reconstructed; the restaurant, the laundry building, the record building and storage house. A conservative estimate of the loss. including buildings, supplies, railroad tickets and cash, is $1,000,000.


The disinfecting plant, which was not yet complete, and upon which $25,000 has been expended since Dr. Senner’s return from Europe, and which contained machinery recently brought from Camp Low, at Fire Island, was entirely destroyed. The southwest landing pier, which had been recently been reconstructed and covered at great expense, was demolished. Only the lower old stone portion of the hospital and the lower portion of the detention pen remain. Two months ago the government built a crib which was filled in at an expense of $25,000, and which added nine acres to the original two acres of the island; it is more or less damaged.


Felix Livingstone and Amelia Schwab, the concessionaires, place their loss of supplies and equipment in the restaurant and culinary department at $2,000.


F.J. Scully, who has the privilege of the money exchange on the island, places his loss at $10,000 in paper and gold, although it may be less when the safe, which has been discovered, is recovered and opened.


Thomas S. Faulkner, agent of the Immigrant Clearing House, of the Trunk Line Association, had two safes, one of which was recovered this morning. It has been burst open and about $300 was missing. The other safe, which is buried under the ruins, contains several thousand dollars worth of tickets.


Surgeon White’s Story of the Fire.


Past Assistant Surgeon of the Marine Hospital Service Joseph H. White, who has charge of the medical department at Ellis Island, made the following statement this forenoon:


“I, my wife, Miss Humber, my wife’s sister, my boy, aged 4, and my three girls, aged 7, 9, and 11 respectively, were asleep in the old Mason mansion at the time of the fire. Frank Gibson, the apothecary of the medical department, ran into my house, hammered at my door, and said: ‘Doctor, for God’s sake, get up! The main building is on fire!’ I ran to my office in the main building in order to secure my official and private papers, but found it impossible to enter on account of the flames. I then ran back to my house, and got my family out. Five minutes later I got my family out. Five minutes later I directed the rescue of the women and children who occupied dormitories in the hospital. This took about 15 minutes. After depositing my baby on the ferryboat, I ran back to the main buildings and saw the tower near my house and near the laundry and the morgue was in flames and about to fall. By this time there was hardly anything left of the main building and the firemen had their choice of endeavoring to save either my house or the engine hose. They played or a few minutes on my house and succeeded in saving it, although it is pretty badly injured. In the hospital last night were 57 persons; 20 men, 20 women and 17 children. The most severe case was that of a handsome young woman named Hielson, who arrived on the Norge and then had been in the hospital four days. She had typhoid fever. Another sad case was that of a boy who is dying from an incurable disease at the age of 19. Most of the patients were carried out on the shoulders of the attendants.”


United States Commissioner John J. Quinlan, who is the supervising inspector, stated that 100 passengers were landed yesterday from the Furnassia, Alsatia and Spaarndam.


“Many of these were cleared,” said the commissioner, “by 5 o’clock last evening. All told there were on the island last night 250 persons, which includes 35 employes. Of the immigrants, two-thirds were male, and one-third women and children. Some of these were awaiting deportation, and some were merely detained for twenty-four hours until the Board of Special Inquiry had an opportunity to investigate their qualification for admission to the United States.


From my investigation this morning I have reason to believe that the fire originated in the statistician’s department, from an electric light wire. Statistician George Eichler informs me that he has reason to believe that all the records and statistics were burned up, as he can find no trace of the safe or the vault in which they were contained.


“Treasurer Lee’s safe has been recovered and is sound. The safe of John E. Moore of the railroad-steamboat service was found, almost uninjured, although some of the papers were scorched. It contained but 26 cents.


“There are 185 officers and employes in the department of immigration.


“Since the federal government left Castle Garden and established its station at Ellis Island $200,000 has been expended in improving the then existing buildings, building the main and several outbuildings and thr making of nine acres of new land.


“The average annual expenditures of running Ellis Island are $170,000 per year; the average receipts are $450,000, leaving an average profit of $270,000, which goes into the United States treasury. At the present moment we have on hand a balance of $400,000 with which to proceed at once to rebuilding.


“I am distinctly in favor of building fire proof structures so that there cannot be a repetition of the desolation upon which we are looking to-day.”


Assistant Commissioner McSweeney’s Graphic Narrative.


Edward F. McSweeney, assistant commissioner of immigration, said: “The detention pen, which was entirely reconstructred at great expense three months ago, was three stories high and L shaped. It ran 200 feet northerly with a 100 foot wing. The women slept on the upper third floor, the men on the lower floor and families in the L wing. There were sleeping accommodations for 400 people. Dr. Senner’s Newfoundland dog, Jack, ran upstairs through the flames and smoke to wake up a sleeping attendant, who is not on duty at night. The sleeping man was undoubtedly overcome by smoke, as the dog could not rouse him until it seized him by the arm and dragged him out of bed.


The night watch number fifteen people who were last night under the command of Captain William Burke and Matron Sophie Ruf. At night, in addition to the watchman, gateman, engineer and four firemen, there was the hospital force, which made an aggregation of thirty-five persons to rescue the 215 immigrants sleeping on the island. Every second day we had a fire drill in the department, which I organized two months ago, and from all I learn the brigade did excellent service.


“Among the immigrant’s held over yesterday were eight Hindoo’s, thirty young Mormon girls from the Furnassia and two Italian women, with babies two days old.


“One of these frantic women, in her hysterical excitement, threw away her baby into the tall grass and rushed on board the ferryboat. A deckhand, Joseph Kelly, who had witnessed the act, ran into the burning grass and rescued the child from its perilous position and carried it aboard the John C. Carlisle.”


Felix Livingston, the concessionaire, stated that the food for the immigrants will be cooked at the Eastern Hotel at the foot of Whitehall Street, and served to them in the barge office, as ws done years ago.


Loss Estimated at Nearly $1,000,000.


Supervising Inspector Quinlan and a number of government officials from the federal building, including two appraisers and insurance adjusters, went over on the John G. Carlisle early this morning and to the best of their ability, amid the smoke and confusion, made an approximate estimate of the loss. In rough numbers they place it at between $900,000 and $1,000,000.


Chief among the latest improvements was the disinfecting plant, the building of which cost $25,000 and the machinery, between $15,000 and $18,000. This plant was considered to be the best disinfecting plant in the world and was devised by Professor Roeser of the University of Maryland. The dock and slip for the Carlisle was an entirely new structure. The paint on the piles had not yet dried. The structure cost $20,000, including the new bridge and all the ferry appurtenances.


Among the patients who were taken to Bellevue Hospital on the convoys was a crazy Pole. After getting him out of the building, he evinced a desire to rush back again into the flames, and it required the concerted efforts of three deck hands and two officers on the island to get him on board the boat. ;;When he was brought aboard, it was found necessary to tie him to prevent him from jumping overboard.


The following boats went over to the island this morning to lend a hand to the wrecking tugs and the fireboats: The Carlisle, the John E. Moore, the Emmons, the Hazel Kirke, the George Starr and the Water Witch.


The main building, which was totally destroyed, was constructed of Southern white pine, of the most inflammable nature. Prognostications of its destruction have been frequently made and many criticisms have been made concerning its unsafe character. Just such a disaster as happened last noght has been predicted and when the fire once got headway it had plenty of material to work upon.


F.J. Scully, the money changer for the immigrants in the main building, had a safe in which he says was contained $10,000, mostly in foreign coins and drafts. Many streams were played upon this part of the building, and ot required six hours to get the safe in a cool enough condition to handle. An improvised derrick pulled the safe out of the embers and it was broken into by expert safeman. All the contents were found unimpaired and Mr. Scully stated that all the money was safe and that not one cent had been lost or destroyed.


How the Fire Was Discovered.


The fire was discovered by the night watchman in the northeast corner of the main buildings. He was making his rounds when he detected smoke. He carried a lantern with him and could not plainly discern the cause of the smoke, but the further he got into the building the thicker the smoke became, and soon he discerned flame. He immediately notified the other watchmen and they hastened to get the inmates out of the building. Joseph Kelly, Samuel Christensen and Edward Goetty were the first to apprise the inmates of their danger.


The immigrants were all asleep and when the men raised the cry of a fire a scene of indescribable confusion ensued. Most of the men had undressed and all the children were lightly clad. Most of the women had on all their clothing. So great was the confusion and excitement that the rescuers met with great difficulty in the getting he immigrants out; some of them had to be forcibly ejected. Kelly’s first load was five children, two of them clinging to his neck, one under each arm and one holding on to his coat. The women were most difficult to handle, some of them absolutely refusing to move and they had to be carried out bodily.


Several of the women became hysterical and tore the clothing from their persons in their paroxysms of fear. Owing to the difficulty of getting those on the island aboard the boat the special officers on the island and the deckhands lined up along the gangway to prevent any of the half crazed immigrants from jumping into the water. A pandemonium reigned on the Carlisle while she lay at the slip waiting for the last immigrant to be put on board.


On the trip over from the island a peculiar scene ensued. Finding himself free from any danger of fire the immigrants gave way to religious expressions of gratitude.


The new dock on the island is almost completely destroyed, so that in making landings long boards have to be laid in order to prevent accidents. The piles underneath the bridge and the wharf of the structure are burning yet and it is difficult for the fire boats to get at them, though they continually drench the entire structure with water.


Clothing Furnished by the Missionary Society.


Shortly after 10 o’clock this morning Agent McCool of the Missionary Society appeared with a large amount of clothing. Joseph Gidofsky, a Pole, was the first man to be dressed from the box. He had lost his trousers in the fire and all he had on wsa a coat, a pair of drawers and long stocking and he assumed the appearance of a bicycle sprinter. The only clothing that would fit him were ecclesiastical garments that had been discarded by one of the neophytes of the Catholic Church. Cidofsky, with a long flowing beard and a Hebraic cast of countenance, cut a peculiar figure in the official garb of the Catholic Church. The party of Hindoes, seven in number, three of the family of Sahib Ali, and four of the family of Osman Ali, presented a picturesque spectacle in the barge office. The leader was dressed in a highly colored robed, embossed with suns and moons, and his long patriarchial beard gave him the aspect of an ancient seer.


When the bread and coffee were passed around, these Hindoos refused to partake of it. Father Henry, pastor of the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary and several missionaries were present with a supply of clothing for those who had sustained any loss. Vincenzo Cannessa was given a red shirt, a pair of discarded knickerbockers and carpet slippers. Most of the Poles had lost their shoes and it was a long time before the inspectors understood what they wanted. They stood about and jabbered away, and the inspector thought they were going through some religious rite. He approached them differentially and ws set upon by a clamor which he finally distinguished to be a demand for shoes. They were all supplied with footgear which were not always mates.


The Hindoos referred to had been excluded by the commissioner of immigration on account of their being paupers and contract laborers. They were under contract to go to Long Branch this summer and dispose of Hindoo trinkets.


Early this morning Miss Irma Butler, the postmistress of Ellis Island, and her stenographer and typewriter, Miss Ella Hargrave, appeared at the dock and exhibited great consternation and sorrow over the loss they had suffered in the fire. They lost typewriters and dresses.


The physicians from Bellevue Hospital were at the Barge Office landing this morning and stated that the patients left in their care were doing well.


In addition to the six patients taken direct to the hospital, forty-seven persons were taken there this morning and left on the dock at the foot of Esat Twenty-sixth Street for transportation to Randall’s Island or the Municipal Lodging House, on First Avenue.


Measures at Washington for Rebuilding the Immigrant Station.


Washington, D. C., June 15 – The destruction of the immigration station on Ellis Island last night by fire was a serious loss to the service. Important and expensive improvements had just been finished and the officials regarded it as the finest plant used for a similar purpose in existence. Commissioner General Stump left for New York at noon today to direct the transfer of what is left of the station to the barge office, where temporary quarters will be secured. Assistant Secretary Howell will go to New York this evening to consult customs officials as to new quarters for the present occupants of the barge office, and it is expected that there will be no great difficulty in effecting a change that will be reasonably satisfactory to all until more permanent arrangements can be made.


Ellis Island is regarded by the officials as the best and most available site for an immigrant station in the vicinity of New York and Assistant Secretary Spaulding expressed the opinion to-day that Congress would be requested to make an appropriation of at least $500,000 to rebuild the plant. Several of the old buildings were wood and it is intended to replace them by practically fireproof structures of brick or stone. The immigration bureau now has to its credit about $250,000 which has accumulated from the head tax on immigrants, but it is doubtful whether the department would consent to this fund being used for the purpose of rebuilding. As soon as Assistant Secretary Howell and Commissioner Stump return to Washington, a scheme for rebuilding the station will be prepared and presented to Congress for its action.




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