Fire at the Atlantic Docks, 1881

In 1881, the Excelsior Stores grain warehouse and grain elevator in Atlantic Basin burned in a massive fire.

Here is an article from The New York Herald, Monday, June 13, 1881, describing the conflagration:




 About the time yesterday morning that the church bells in Brooklyn were summoning people to early services the City Hall and other watch towers sounded repeated fire alarms. The residents of this city who were on their way across the Brooklyn ferries to Coney Island, Fort Hamilton or neighboring pleasure resorts, could see dense clouds of black smoke filling the air in the direction of the Atlantic Docks. The Excelsior store on Atlantic Basin were on fire, and throngs of people had congregated on the adjacent wharves to witness the conflagration. The Excelsior stores consist of some ten or twelve buildings on the south pier, Atlantic basin, one of which is five stories high and the others four. They are each 50 feet by 100, are owned by the Atlantic Dock Company and occupied by the Grain Warehousing Company, whose New York office is at No. 6 Moore street. The president is Mr. Leander B. Shaw, formerly of Brooklyn, but now residing in Fifty-eighth street, this city, and the treasurer, Mr. Richard H. Laimbeer, of No. 9 First place, Brooklyn.


At seventeen minutes past eight o'clock Samuel L. Swartwout, the private watchman for the Excelsior stores, noticed a thick volume of smoke coming from the building No. 80.  He was joined by George Williams, of the Laimbeer stores, which adjoin the Excelsior stores. The two men seem to have been greatly confused at the discovery, but gave an alarm, which boon afterward brought to the scene eleven engines and three trucks of the Brooklyn Fire Department, under the charge of Chief Nevins. When the firemen arrived the smoke was pouring from four or five of the buildings. It appears that a conveyor which ran along the roof of the buildings carried the smoke from the burning building into the others. Swartwout was unable to furnish any definitive information to the firemen, and it was impossible for the time being to discover where the fire was. Under these circumstances Chief Nevins ordered his men to cover buildings Nos. 82, 80, 78, 70 and 74, from each of which the smoke issued. The buildings were all locked and the keys to them could not be found. At last the fire was traced to the front part of the building No. 80, close to which was the elevator, which was some seven or eight stories high and extended from thirty-five to forty feet above the Excelsior stores. Chief Nevins determined to save the elevator if possible. By his order every effort was made to keep the flames away from it. To this end the shutters fading on the basin wore kept closed to prevent a draught. There was sufficient draught, however, in spite of these precautions, to drive the fire toward the elevator, and soon it was wrapped in flames. The machinery in No. 80, with the exception of the boiler, was destroyed, the building itself considerably damaged by the flames, and the large quantity of grain stored in it spoiled. The machinery in the elevator was a complete wreck, and the building so badly injured by fire and water that it will have to be entirely rebuilt. Alter three hours' hard work the fireman had the fire under control. It had not extended beyond the elevator and building No. 80. At four o'clock in the afternoon the ruins were still smouldering and firemen were playing water upon them.



About an hour after the fire was discovered a telegram was sent to Mr. Shaw apprising him of the fact. Word was also sent to Mr. Laimbeer. Both gentlemen drove to the scene in their carriages. Mr. Shaw after he had spent some little time in inspecting the buildings, said that the company's loss would amount to between $75,000 and $80,000. This loss was confined to the building No. 80 and the elevator. Water and fire might have so damaged the grain stored in the other buildings as to make the loss considerably more. No. 80 contained about twenty thousand bushels of corn, rye, wheat and other grain. In the adjoining buildings wore stored damaged corn, wheat and various kinds of grain, each building having from fifteen thousand to twenty thousand bushels. The machinery in the building No. 80, with the exception of the boiler, was all destroyed. The machinery in the elevator was all in the upper part, and including screens, conveyors, blowers and shafting is a total wreck. The original cost of the machinery was $40,000.  Mr. Shaw said he had been unable to discover to what the origin of the fire was due. The watchman first became aware of it by seeing smoke pouring from the building. The fire appeared to have broken out on the second floor of No. 80 in or very near the wall separating it from No. 82. The wall might have been overheated, but the fire might have originated in other ways. He said the buildings were erected in 1859 and this was the first fire that had taken place in them, it was said the loss was covered by insurance.  Another theory as to the origin of the fire was that it started in one of the chute bins. It was stated that in No. 80 were a number of bins for drying corn. These it appears were back of the boiler room, above which was kept a lot of waste material. It is supposed that the walls became heated and in that way set fire to the dry material. When the fire first broke out a number of sailing vessels and canal boats were attached to the wharf of the Excelsior stores. The people aboard of them lost no time in getting the vessels and boats over to the far side of the basin.

The last fire in the Atlantic basin took place about eighteen mouths since and occurred on a Sunday also, when a cereal company's buildings were injured, but not to any great extent. The fire of yesterday was the most disastrous one since the time Pluto's warehouses were burned.




    JUNE 13. 1881.

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