On this day in 1900, four German boats burn at the docks in Hoboken, New Jersey, killing more than 300 people. The fire was so large that it could be seen by nearly every person in the New York City area.
William Northmaid was working as the afternoon watchman on Pier 3 in Hoboken when he spotted a fire just before 4 p.m. The old wooden pier was at serious risk for fire and the combination of strong winds and the presence of wooden fuel-filled cargo sheds made it spread very rapidly. Before the Hoboken fire department could respond, the ship Saale, which had been docked at the pier, caught fire and drifted out into the Hudson River. Many of the ship’s workers did not know how to swim and drowned.
The ship Bremen was next to catch fire. Nettie Tice, one of the tugboats sent to take the big ships off the fiery dock, was able to pick up more than 100 survivors of the Bremen. Other tugs assisted the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, the flagship of the North German Lloyd shipping company. Although the big ship had weekend tourists aboard, its captain kept the crew from panicking, got everyone off safely and had tugboats take the ship to the Manhattan side of the Hudson, away from the danger.
Meanwhile, workers futilely attempted to release another ship, the Main, from the pier. Before they were able to, it too caught fire. Forty-four crew members perished. Many died because portholes were built so small that people could not escape through them. Would-be rescuers could only watch as victims perished in the smoke and flames. Eventually the Main broke loose from the pier and both the Bremen and Main drifted to the Weehawken flats, where they burned together in the river. Later, 15 crew members were rescued from the Main. They had managed to save themselves by staying in an empty coal bunker on the ship that protected them from the raging fire.
There was so much flaming debris in the Hudson that 27 boats in all caught fire during the evening. The pier fire also spread to the shore. The Hoboken Warehouse and Campbell’s Store burned to the ground. Three other piers also burned. By the time all the fires had been put out, somewhere between 325 and 400 people had died and property owners had suffered $4.5 million in insurable damages, which is equivalent to nearly $100 million in today’s money. Many people were missing, so crews set off dynamite in hopes that the explosions might help bodies stuck in the river floor to surface.
The piers were rebuilt using steel.