Philadelphia, PA Public Ledger Fire, Dec 1892

The “Ledger” Burned Out

Mr. Childs’s Newspaper Building Badly Damaged.

Fire Started In The Cellar And Mounted An Air Shaft To The Composing Room And City Department-Lower Floors Drenched-The Paper Out As Usual.

Philadelphia, Dec. 6.-The Public Ledger Building, at the southwest corner of Sixth and Chestnut Streets, was badly damaged this evening by fire and water. The fire was confined almost entirely to the composing room, situated on the top floor, but a torrent of water poured down through the building, flooding every floor in the structure.

The Ledger building is 58 feet front on Chestnut Street and 235 feet on Sixth Street, and is a five-story brownstone building with a mansard roof. The business office is at the corner.

At 5:45 o’clock this evening Miss Wise, one of the clerks, detected smoke in the room. A slight fire had just been extinguished in the prothonotary office on the opposite corner by the firemen, and a clerk stepped outside and told them he thought the Ledger building was on fire. The firemen found the cellar beneath the business office to be a mass of flames.

The part of the cellar in which the fire was burning had been used by workmen engaged in repairs on the building to store their tools in, and was filled with rubbish. The firemen soon saw that a conflagration was threatened, and they turned in another alarm and went to work to put out the flames.

The rubbish in the cellar fed the flames, and the fire swept through the back, and burst out into a light-well in the centre of the building. With a leap the flames sprang up this natural chimney and burst into the composing room on the fifth floor through the windows. The few compositors at work had already been warned, and they made their escape to the street with difficulty.

In the meantime two alarms had been turned in, and a dozen steamers and hose carts and trucks were arriving. On the floor beneath the composing room the rooms of the city department were situated. City Editor McWade was making out the evening assignments for his men when the shouts of the firemen reached him. Grasping the copy that had been turned in by reporters that day, he stuffed it into his pockets, and then, after depositing the obituaries of men of local prominence in another pocket, he took his assignment book under his arm and beat a retreat.

As the fire gained headway and promised to destroy the building, everyone around the establishment, volunteers from other newspapers, and the police, turned in and began to carry all perishable articles out of the burning structure. The files of the paper were all saved and many rare and costly articles in Mr. Childs’s private office were all carried out.

In the meantime a dozen streams of water had been turned on the fire in the cellar, and the flames were soon extinguished. The flame sin the composing room, however, had been creating great havoc and at 7 o’clock the flames burst through the mansard roof and shot up in a great column to the sky.

Mr. Childs and his inseparable companion and friend, Anthony J. Drexel, the banker, now arrived at the scene. Mr. Childs posted himself in the doorway of the courthouse, across the street from the burning building, and calmly resolved himself to watch his building go up in flames. When offered to enter a neighboring office he declined, and said he liked to watch the fire. He assumed charge of his employees, and directed them what to do in providing for the issuing of the paper to-morrow.

Engine after engine kept arriving and a deluge of water fell on the roof. Fortunately no wind of any account was blowing and the fire did not spread rapidly. A high cornice of the mansard roof on the Sixth street front acted as a wall to prevent the flames spreading along the roof to the south, and on the west the solid wall of the Land, Title and Trust Company’s building stayed the progress of the fire in that direction.

The firemen had gotten the flames under control by 7:30 o’clock, and all danger of the total destruction of the building had passed. Torrents of water had poured through the building, and the interior was flooded. The water ran down every floor into the press room, and ten inches of water rose around the presses, which had been thoroughly wetted by the dripping from above.

While the fire was still burning and the water pouring through the building Mr. Drexel entered it and made his way to the rear of the fifth floor. When he came out he announced in cheerful tones to Mr. Childs that little damage had been done in the rear of the building, and that the annex on Sansom Street had escaped entirely.

While the firemen were at work they were spurred to greater efforts still by the announcement that Mr. Childs intended to distribute $5,000 among them for their prevention of the total destruction of his building. Neither was Mr. Childs unmindful of the firemen’s bodily comfort, for he provided them all with a bountiful supper at a neighboring restaurant.

The greatest destruction by the fire was done to the composing room on the fifth floor. This was completely burned out, and the roof went with it. The local department beneath also suffered from the fire, but the greatest damage was by water. The third floor was taken up by the editorial rooms, and the second floor was occupied by Benjamin F. Teller & Brothers, real estate brokers. The ground floor front was occupied by the business office and by Mr. Childs’s private office.

The rear portion of the building on Sixth Street, occupied principally by lawyers, was only damaged by water. Next to the business office on Chestnut Street, one store is occupied by E.A. Hathaway as a typewriter exchange, and another one as a cigar store. Both were badly damaged, both by fire and water.

While the fire was still burning fiercely, the work of getting out to-morrow’s paper was going on. The City Department was moved to the Board of Trade room in the Drexel Building, and the reporters turned in their copy of the day’s doings of a great city as usual.

The mechanical department of the paper was provided for against such a calamity as occurred to-night. With the exception of presses, the Ledger has a complete newspaper plant at 415 Locust Street, and the compositors are there setting type for to-morrow’s paper. As the presses were rendered unfit for use to-night by water, Mr. Childs accepted the offer of William M. Singerly to print his paper from the Record’s presses. During the fire the use of presses by every daily and weekly newspaper publisher in the city was rendered to Mr. Childs.

The cause of the fire is unknown. The cellar in which it broke out is not used, and no theory as to how it broke out is advanced. Joel Cook, business manager of the paper, said late to-night that the Ledger’s total loss was estimated at $150,000, including $100,000 on the building and $50,000 on the contents. The loss of the tenants is estimated at $50,000. The perfecting presses, engines, and other machinery in the cellar are valued at $250,000, and their only damage is by water, $25,000 being an outside estimate of the loss.

The Ledger job-printing office, occupying a separate building, or annex, on Sansom Street, is uninjured. The business department of the paper continued operations to-night in the Drexel Building, but will open headquarters in the morning at the office of the United Security Life, Insurance, and Trust Company, at 605 Chestnut Street. The insurance on the building amounts to $160,000.

The present Ledger Building was erected in 1866. Repairs will begin at once, and it will be restored.

Recently Mr. Childs had made extensive alterations and repairs to the building. The business office was being enlarged to double its size by the taking in of the adjoining store.
The city room was remodeling and the composing room had only been occupied by the compositors for two weeks. The room was one of the most perfectly equipped and best adapted in the country. It was 80 feet square, with a ceiling nearly 30 feet in height, and had cases for 150 compositors.

The business office was a handsome room, paneled throughout with walnut, with a ceiling of the same wood. Mr. Childs’s private office was a small and unpretentious room and was chiefly notable for the many, rare, curious, and costly articles with which it was crowded.

A.J. Drexel and George W. Childs, who personally noted the efficiency of the Fire Department and the brave and intelligently-directed efforts of the firemen to save the property, gave expression to their appreciation of the work done by telling Director Beitler of the Department of Public Safety that to-morrow morning a check for $5,000 would be sent to him, to be used at his discretion for the benefit of the firemen.

George William Childs was born in Baltimore in 1829. When thirteen years old he entered the navy, where he served for fifteen months. In 1844 he settled down in Philadelphia to earn a living. He began as a “boy” in a book store kept by a Mr. Thompson at Sixth and Arch Streets.

Young Childs showed remarkable energy, and not only learned the business thoroughly in a short time, but carried on a good deal of hard study besides. Having saved a few hundred dollars he set up a business for himself when he was eighteen, and succeeded so well that at the end of two years he was taken into partnership for R.E. Peterson the firm name soon becoming Childs and Peterson.

In 1860 Mr. Childs formed a partnership with J.B. Lippincott, and their concern published some of the best-known books of the day. Three years later he bought the Publishers’ Circular, the name of which he changed to the American Literary Gazette and Publishers’ Circular. The American Almanac soon became his property also, and was known after that as the National Almanac.

It had always been Mr. Childs’ ambition to own the Philadelphia Public Ledger, and in 1864 his hopes were realized. He bough the paper and immediately took complete charge of it, which he has held ever since.

When Mr. Childs bought the Ledger it was a penny journal. The price of the paper had risen very much by reason of the war, and the Ledger was losing money. Contrary to the advice of his friends, Mr. Childs at once double the price of his publication and increased the advertising rates. Profits at once fell off, but by slight concessions Mr. Childs soon had his paper on a paying footing, and its prosperity became greater each year.

By 1866 the building on the corner of Third and Chestnut Streets had been outgrown, and the next year the Ledger moved into the building which it has occupied ever since. The history of the paper has been uneventful since it went into its new home. The Ledger has been successful beyond all expectations.

Mr. Childs’s generosity, which has been shown so many times to the outside world, was directed especially toward those in his employ. Socially Mr. Childs has always been prominent, and it was at his home that on May 9, 1876, when the Centennial Exposition was opened, there gathered some of the most distinguished guests this country has ever entertained.

The New York Times, New York, NY 7 Dec 1892