Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The 100th Anniversary of the Binghamton Clothing Company Fire -When History Comes Alive

All of us are scared of fire. It is an instinctive fear, I believe.  Fire has the power to heat our houses, to cook our food - and to destroy our lives in a matter of minutes. Or, to scar us terribly, physically or emotionally.  For many of us, fire is part of our deepest nightmares.

Sometimes, those nightmares come true.

Many Americans have heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25, 2011, that took the lives of 146 workers in New York City as thousands of onlookers watched, helpless, in horror.  Many of the dead were Jewish and Italian immigrant women trying to make a living for their families.

Not as many people have heard of the Binghamton Clothing Company Fire of July 22, 1913, one hundred years ago yesterday, and over two years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. This fire took the lives of 31 more workers, again, mostly women, working in a four story building that was destroyed in less than 20 minutes. The fire escape was inadequate and there was no continuous staircase for the workers to escape from.  At least two of the dead, a man, and a woman, died heroically trying to save their co-workers.

Many of the dead were buried in a mass grave in Binghamton.

These two fires, combined, led to badly needed fire safety reform.

It is amazing, in a way, to read the account published in the New York Times on July 23, 1913, and the early, damning results of the investigation into the fire. (note, these two links lead to PDF's which will need Adobe Acrobat reader or similar to read.)

Descendents of  the dead still live in this area and they, the former historian of our county, and firemen, gathered yesterday to commemorate the anniversary.  To quote from our local paper (I am doing this, in addition to providing a link, because our paper charges for online subscriptions and I feel this information needs to be shared in honor of the affected families ):
The Rev. Charles Connor — whose great-great-aunt Nellie Theresa Connor died in the blaze after saving many of her co-workers — read the names of each victim.
As the crowd bowed their heads, the whine of a lone bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace” broke the silence .. A wreath of white flowers with gold writing that read “100th Anniversary” sat beside a table with black-and-white pictures of the fire’s aftermath.


Gerald Smith, former Broome County historian, retold the horrific story from a century ago, when more than 100 workers frantically tried to escape the burning four-story brick building.

If you read comments on this blog post, you will see comments from descendents of the victims - a link to history that is thrilling.

Never forget that history is the story of You and Me - and we forget history at our peril.  Indeed, quoting again from the local coverage:

Ricky O’Connor, 16, traveled from Atlanta, Ga., with his father, Kevin, to attend the anniversary. He recalled growing up with stories about his ancestor, Nellie Connor. “I think it’s good that I have a hero in the family I can relate to,” O’ Connor said, standing beside his father and other relatives, including Rev. Charles Connor, who attended from Maryland.“She is the cornerstone of our family,” he added.

Do you have a family link to the history of your local area?

4 comments:

  1. I had no idea about the specifics, but I know of some of the history of fires that raged through various clothing factories in the early 1900's. Devastating to say the least.

    Thanks for keeping history alive!

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  2. I am glad we have learned some lessons from history, specifically fire safety reform, and as technology improves, fire safety has also improved. Smoke detectors are now mandatory in every building, at least in Australia where I live.

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  3. Hi. I saw your post in Blogger's Corner on Facebook in the thread above my post, so I stopped by. I had heard about those fires you mentioned, and I am a survivor myself of a fire in 1985 that destroyed our home and very nearly took my life (I have blogged about it recently and plan to write a book about the experience).

    I'm not sure about the specific details, but I recall hearing about some changes that were made (or at least discussed) after that fire we had. Apparently, if the nearest fire station had been manned at the time, it's more than likely that I wouldn't have had to drop 3 small children (including my infant daughter) out a second story window to the police officers who arrived ahead of the next nearest firemen crew--and I wouldn't have fallen out the window and sustained life-threatening injuries!

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  4. There's nothing like the bagpipes to leand meaning to a sorrowful event. In my mind, I can hear them piping the tune now. How sad for the workers. Terrible to think that similar conditions are still evident in other third-world countries.

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