Fitchburg, MA Roebling Plant Fire, May 1908


Rope and Carpenter Shops Completely Destroyed With Other Smaller Buildings Burned Area Covers About Three Acres--750 Men Thrown Out of Employment. Shops Will Be Rebuilt at Once; Only $1000,000 Insurance On Property

Real and personal property of the John A. Roebling's Sons' Company plant here, valued at more than $300,000, was consumed by a fierce fire which broke out this morning shortly after 6 o'clock in the boiler room of the rope mill, along the Delaware and Raritan Canal, and in the rear of the Duncan MacKenzie Iron Foundry, on Hamilton Avenue. The rope shop and the main carpenter shop of the company were entirely gutted by the flames, which raged for more than three hours. Several small buildings in the block with the rope and carpenter shops were also destroyed. The estimated loss is at least $300,000, and on this property there is a little more than $100,000 of insurance, which is placed with every company which has an office in Trenton.

The burned area of the Roebling plant is about three acres, and is confined within the block bounded by Hamilton Avenue, Elmer Street, Clark Street and the Delaware and Raritan Canal. The destroyed rope mill was the least important of the rope shops of the company. The carpenter shop was the one in which all of the important carpenter work of the company was done. Interruption in business of the company will be slight by reason of the fire, and it is the intention of the Roeblings to rebuild at once. The work of rebuilding will be started as soon as the debris of the fire can be cleared away.

The fire started just after the night shift in the rope mill had gone home this morning. A slight flame was first discovered in the boiler room of the rope mill and in less than five minutes the whole building was enveloped in flames. From the rope shop the fire jumped to the carpenter shop and in half an hour that vast building was a sheet of flames. The oil soaked floors of the rope mill and the great quantities of wood in the carpenter shop furnished ready food for the fire and created flames upon which water had little or no effect. The firemen were compelled to use greatest precaution to avoid falling walls which tumbled about them at short intervals.

When it was found that it would be absolutely impossible to save the rope and carpenter shops, the efforts of the firemen were directed to nearby buildings and the oil tanks in the building block and in which there is stored close to 100,000 gallons of oil. These tanks were saved by the constant playing of water on them and the burning small buildings in close proximity.

This was by far the most spectacular fire Trenton has seen since the Roebling braiding shop was destroyed, about 17 years ago, entailing a loss of about $300,000. Thousands of men, women and boys braved the bitter weather this morning to watch the flames, and scores of frost bitten ears and fingers resulted. The firemen were aided in their work by a large squad of Trenton policemen who were stationed about the fire lines to keep back the surging masses of people. This protection was thoroughly efficient.

It was extremely fortunate that the fire broke out at a time when the wind was blowing away from the important rope shops which are located immediately to the south of the burned rope and carpenter shops. Had the flames gone to these, the probabilities are that the most valuable parts of the Roebling plant would have been destroyed and they would have taken with them scores of dwellings nearby.

Foremen and foreign employes(sic) of the Roebling Company battled with the flames without interruption from 6:30 until 9:30 o'clock, and in those three hours all of the fire-fighters who had anything to do with handling of hose were covered with a sheet of ice. Coat sleeves of many of the men were so solidly frozen that they were unable to bend their arms. In many instances ears and noses were covered with a thin coating of ice. These conditions made it extremely difficult for the firemen and those citizens who aided them.


Besides interfering with the firemen, the frigid weather retarded the department from getting early streams of water owing to frozen fire plugs. Two engines worked for half an hour on two plugs in Hamilton Avenue before the ice thawed away. The frozen condition of the fire plugs was general, although in other instances, the time required in thawing them out was less that that needed in the Hamilton Avenue instances.

While no blame is placed on the fire department for the headway gained by the flames, it is certain that if water had been at hand at once much of the property which has been destroyed would have been saved. There was no hope for the rope mill after the flames were underway for five minutes. The fate of this building was sounded by the great quantity of oil and tar stored in tanks through which wire is drawn in the process of manufacture. The floors were also soaked with oil. The carpenter shop, however, might have been partly or entirely saved if water had been available to play on it at once.

As conditions presented themselves, there was nothing for the firemen to do but save surrounding property and this they did without a single exception, for after water was had not a single structure in the same block with the fire was even singed. The wind was also in important factor as it blew the flames in an opposite direction.


With commendable activity, all employes(sic) of the rope and carpenter shop aided the firemen. Charles G. Roebling, Washington A. Roebling, Jr., Ferdinand W. Roebling, Jr., Karl G. Roebling, William T. White and even the Misses Emily and Helen Roebling played prominent parts. The Misses Roebling arrived at the fire shortly after nine o'clock, and in the bitter cold, for more than an hour, they assisted in the distribution of coffee and sandwiches, which were prepared for the fire by Mrs. D. H. Anderson. Mrs. Anderson used more than 150 and 200 loaves of bread.

About 750 men are thrown out of employment by reason of the destruction of the rope and carpenter shops. Of this total 150 men were employed [illegible lines missing]


The fire was first discovered in the southern end of the rope shop, just at the time the night shift was leaving and the day men starting to work. No one in the place at the time seems to be able to tell exactly just how it did start, but at a second glance the flames were leaping to the roof. Both the day and night men manned the company's extinguishers and the alarm was immediately sent to the city department.

Chief Charles S. Allen responded with several companies, but immediately upon his arrival at the scene he called all of the remaining companies. At first it was impossible to get the water plugs to respond to the engines, and it was fully half an hour before any water could be played upon the flames. In the opinion of many, if the water could have been secured immediately the damage could have been held to a nominal amount.

A line of hose was laid to the canal and for a time some water was secured in this way, but finally the plugs were made to work and this was abandoned. Then began the struggle against the spread of the flames which lasted for several hours in a most biting cold. The oil soaked floors and inflammable material made splendid food for the fire and the first efforts of the firemen were totally in vain. On and on the flames spread and it seemed that the entire vicinity was to be destroyed.


In the center of the burned district is an iron oil tank with a capacity of $5,000 gallons. This was nearly filled with crude oil, and the workmen of the plant with the knowledge that at any time this might explode worked like beavers to extinguish the flames in its immediate vicinity.

Chief Allen directed two streams of hose to be played on the tank continually, and for a time the entire efforts of the firemen were directed to prevent a catastrophe. After about an hour's work the department began to make headway against the flames. The fire apparatus of the Roebling Company manned by their employees, ably assisted the firemen, and the extinguishers from the office were also brought into play. The Trenton Iron Company assisted with its fire apparatus.

The intense cold caused the water to freeze almost as soon as it came from the hose, and it was but a few minutes before the firemen were living sheets of ice. It was no strange sight to see the men with their faces encased in ice. Many of the firemen and some of the employees had their ears and hands frozen and several were taken to St. Francis Hospital for treatment. Several physicians at the scene rendered valuable assistance, and the small yard offices were turned into temporary hospitals to treat the frozen fire fighters.

When the companies left the fire houses the men were but partly clad. Some only had boots and trousers on, counting on getting back to headquarters immediately. Captain Knoblaugh of the Truck Company, No.1, had only a shirt and trousers.

The thermometer at the time was hovering around zero, and the men were nearly helpless. When the officials of the Roebling Company saw their condition, big wool slickers and leather coats, woolen gloves and other articles of clothing were secured for the men from the Urken & Kohn department store.

When the flames were under control and the men came to take their clothing off, most of it had to be broken and chopped from their bodies.


Trains on the Amboy Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad which ran to the east of the plants, were blocked for a time. The accommodation which passes through at 7:40 was blocked until 9:40 and other passengers were delayed. No attempt was made to run freight trains through.

In parts of the yards where it was impossible to take the firemen from the spot for any length of time, wood was seized from the debris and bonfires built to keep the men from freezing. Italian laborers chopped the logs into small bits.

In an hour after the fire was first discovered, the roof of the rope shop fell, and it was not long before the walls began to tumble. Several Italians caught under the falling bricks were taken to St. Francis Hospital. It is not thought that anyone was fatally hurt, although it is not yet definitely known.

About 9 o'clock the office boys of the company began to serve hot coffee and sandwiches to the fatigued men, and many of the wives of the employes(sic) of the mills lined the banks of the canal and distributed warm food. Some of the women were elaborately dressed in fur coats.

The main rope shop was a building 600 by 75 feet, and was filled with expensive machinery, some of it hanging machinery. The carpenter shop was 50 by 175 feet. The new addition of the rope shop was 300 by 60 feet. [illegible] would probably have been [illegible] during the coming week. The buildings and everything they contained are totally destroyed.


About 300 men were employed on the night shift in the rope shop and 150 men working in the carpenter shop. All of these men will be thrown out of employment. The rope was the busiest section of the immense plant and was working to capacity. Among the big contracts on handling the supplying of cables for the [illegible] Blackwell Island bridge. The estimated damage does not include loss incurred by losing work [illegible] business.

The fact that an easterly wind was blowing probably saved thousands of dollars of loss. On the west side of the flames is a residential district, which narrowly escaped.

The families living in the houses on Clark Street had made all preparations to move, but this was not necessary.

During the fire two sections of city hose burst and caused some delay. No trouble was experienced with the apparatus of the Roebling Company.

Just 17 years ago this winter the braiding shop of the company was destroyed by fire, causing a loss of nearly $300,000.

Trenton Evening Times, Trenton, NJ 5 Feb 1908



The most serious accident at the fire was the injury to Joseph Shickery, twenty-five years old, and Italian, of 730 Roebling Avenue.

He was working about the flames when the falling wall of the rope mill caught him. He was rendered unconscious. An ambulance was summoned and the laborer was taken to St. Francis Hospital, where the doctors are still working over him. It is thought his most serious injury is a broken leg.

Trenton Evening Times, Trenton, NJ 5 Feb 1908



The fact that he was on the pension list did not deter Nathan Cowell who is more than 70 years old, from getting out his uniform and taking his old place with the boys of Engine Company No. 2 in fighting the flames.

Mr. Cowell lives on Bayard Street, and when he went to the fire and saw its magnitude he hustled back to the house and got out his blue uniform. In a few minutes he was manning a line of hose and was a living sheet of ice. He is still on duty at the scene.

For years Mr. Cowell has been a volunteer and paid fireman, and was pensioned off about a year ago.

Trenton Evening Times, Trenton, NJ 5 Feb 1908



It is understood that the insurance men of the city criticised the water supply of the city at the fire. A prominent agent said that there were six plugs in the block surrounding Clinton, Clark, Elmer Streets and Hamilton Avenue, and of these two were out of commission. It is said that they were useless.

The Roebling Company has three private mains running through Elmer Street. The canal, which is usually of great benefit in a situation of this kind was useless, because the water had been let out.

Trenton Evening Times, Trenton, NJ 5 Feb 1908