The ships, pier sheds, and warehouses of the 19th- and 20th-century Brooklyn shoreline posed a constant fire hazard. Buildings and vessels were crammed with tons of highly combustible goods—tobacco, cotton, coffee, sugar, wool, grain, and dried animal hides. At least 26 times between 1822 and 1952, fire swept across the waterfront that is present-day Brooklyn Bridge Park, claiming eight or more lives.
A Tinderbox on the Waterfront
Given the crowded condition of the waterfront, fires spread quickly, caused great destruction, and sometimes proved fatal. A discarded cigar, hot coals from a machine’s furnace, a forgotten kerosene lamp or gas outlet – any of these could spark enormous damage.
On August 21, 1822, flames jumped from building to building along Furman Street, destroying $85,000# in cotton, turpentine, and pitch and killing a firefighter. On July 19, 1883, as spectators looked on from the walkway of the recently-completed Brooklyn Bridge, a fire spread from a pier near the foot of Orange Street to three docked ships. The vessels had just arrived from Calcutta loaded with jute#. Eleven Brooklyn firefighters were injured, one of whom later died. A sailor and a longshoreman drowned during the fire.
On July 15, 1864, in a storage building near Joralemon Street, flames ignited a cargo of saltpeter, a fertilizer and gunpowder ingredient. The ensuing explosion# rose 300 feet. The blast shattered windows all over Brooklyn Heights. Remarkably, no one was killed and there were few reported injuries, largely because dock workers were taking their dinner hour away from the site.
Warehouse fires occurred well into the 20th century. A two-day blaze in a New York Dock Company warehouse at Furman and Clark Streets in 1935 destroyed $500,000 in rubber, paper, and coffee, and sent at least 33 firemen to local hospitals.
Fighting Fire Along the Waterfront
To prevent or contain waterfront fires, Brooklyn relied on land and sea forces. By 1888, Engine Company 24 on Furman Street operated Brooklyn’s largest fire engine to battle nearby dockside fires. The fireboat Seth Low was stationed at the foot of Main Street near the Empire Stores to safeguard the combustible shoreline. After 1898, when Brooklyn became a borough of the City of New York, the New York Fire Department took over. The Marine Fire Boat Station, opened in 1926, remains a landmark in Brooklyn Bridge Park; today it houses the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory.