|Blog Home History Glossary Guides Publishers Artists Topicals Collecting Calendar Contact|
Articles, Comments, Stories,
This page will periodically reprint content made available to club members through our printed bimonthly bulletin, Metro News. In addition selected articles and original comments and stories will also find there way to these pages. The Metro News Bulletin is available free of charge to club members and only some of its content appears on this website.
ARCHIVESMain Blog Page
Jan 2014 - June 2014
July 2013 - Dec 2013
Jan 2013 - June 2013
July 2012 - Dec 2012
Jan 2012 - June 2012
July 2011 - Dec 2011
Jan 2011 - June 2011
July 2010 - Dec 2010
Jan 2010 - June 2010
July 2009 - Dec 2009
Jan 2009 - June 2009
July 2008 - Dec 2008
Jan 2008 - June 2008
July 2007 - Dec 2007
Aug 2006 - June 2007
To keep the blog page a reasonable length the articles found within will be archived approximately every six months. To access this content click the links on the left side of this page.
WARNING: Some of the content to be found in this section, including the archives deals with topics of a violent or sexual nature in both pictures and text, and is meant for a mature audience. If you feel you may be offended by such content you should leave this page now.
The Hoboken Fire of 1900
June 30, 1900, fell on a Saturday, which meant that it was only a half day of work for those laboring on the docks along New York’s West Street. Before heading home, many took advantage of the beautiful sunny afternoon and cooled off in the steady breeze coming off the Hudson. Hundreds of commercial ships plied these waters back then but the view must have been as serene as it is today. Suddenly their ranks began to swell into the thousands with everyoneÕs gaze acutely focused on a single point across the river. A great dark ashy plume of smoke was bellowing high from the New Jersey shoreline. As the plume drifted across Manhattan it blotted out the sun, arousing the curiosity of many more who rushed to the river. Those familiar with the waterfront quickly determined the source, the North German Lloyd piers in Hoboken were ablaze.
The Hoboken waterfront was dominated by seven large covered piers sitting just above the ferry terminal that carried passengers to Manhattan. The southern most three were owned by the Hamberg Amerika Line, and the northern most by the Scandinavian American Line. Sandwiched in between were the three piers of North German Lloyd (Norddeutscher Lloyd). This German steamship line had been running regular service between Bremen, Germany and Hoboken since 1869. Its business had steadily grown, and in 1897 they commissioned what would be their flagship, the SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, the largest and fastest ship in the world. This was only the first in a series of four funneled superliners, that would enhance their line To the public their size equaled safety, and they quickly became the most popular. By 1900 North German Lloyd had surpassed the British steamship lines and were dominating transatlantic travel.
Passenger liners of the day, even the most exclusive ones also transported cargo. Wooden barrels and crates, small enough for a few men to handle were the preferred packing method of the day and the North German Lloyd docks were crowded with them. They contained all sorts of goods and were placed wherever space for them could be found regardless of content. The wooden structure overhead was of light construction, open and airy, in other words the perfect tinderbox. No one can say how it started, only that a watchman first spotted the fire just before 4:00 p.m in a small mountain of cotton bales piled high on Pier #3. A fire here would be hard to contain under any circumstances, but when it reached the barrels of oil and turpentine piled next to it they began to explode spreading the fire at an alarming rate. The strong cool breeze off the water that was so refreshing just a moment ago now fanned the flames. Before anyone knew what to do it seemed that the fire had spread throughout the entire terminal at incredible speed.
The fire had become hot and intense so quickly that there was no time to get steam up in the cooled down boilers of the liners that were docked there. Unable to get underway and avoid the inferno, their crews gambled their salvation on the tide and nearby tugboats. Before the fire department could arrive, the SS Saale caught fire and she was set adrift into the river when flames cut through her moorings. While most of those on the docks had been able to run toward safety, those who were aboard the four liners soon found themselves trapped. Nearly all the passengers had already been offloaded, but Saturdays were a favorite time for visitors to come by and tour the ships. Now many of these visitors along with crew members were trapped below deck on the Saale as fire raged on above. The tugboats Grasselli, M. Moran, and DiWitt C. Ivins finally caught up to her as the tide pulled her dangerously close to the Manhattan docks. Her Captain, August Johann Mirow had burned alive, refusing to leave before all his crew was safe. Everyone who could had already jumped overboard, and there was little anyone could do for those below deck except pour water onto the ship. Witnesses recalled the horrific sight of faces framed in every porthole gasping for air. These small openings only provided momentary relief as they were too small for a person to fit through. Would-be rescuers could only watch as victims perished in the smoke and flames. She was then towed back to mid-channel, and then down to the Communipaw marshes behind Ellis Island. As the ship settled down into the mud those left alive below deck drowned.
Although the SS Bremen sat in the next slip, this distance proved to be of little protection against the huge flames that were being propelled by strong winds. Before the Saale drifted away, flames from her decks had jumped this great distance setting the Bremen ablaze. When the fire cut the Bremen’s moorings she too drifted away in flames. The steamships slips were also filled with barges, lighters, and canal boats carrying cargo or coal to fuel the larger ships. They too were now all on fire and drifting toward the Manhattan shore with bits and pieces of flaming debris expelled from the collapsing pier sheds added into the hellish mix. New York’s fire department was already deployed at critical points along the waterfront in anticipation of disaster. Before it could be secured, the Bremen, now a complete inferno slammed into Pier#32 (some say Pier#31) at the foot of Desbussies Street. The Fire Department was ready and put out the flames before they barely had time to spread. Many on board this ship were lucky as the tug Nettie Tice was able to safely remove more than a hundred occupants from her deck. The Bremen was then pulled away by tugs that towed her northwards to the Weehawken flats where she was beached.
The heat that fire transferred to these iron and steel ships made them intolerable to all on board. Decks were littered with bodies who had succumbed to the heat, but many who tried to jump overboard from the great height of the ships deck ended up drowning. Tugboats quickly filled the river doing whatever they could to stem the disaster. There were many people in the water who they needed to rescue, but there were also fires that needed to be extinguished, and boats that desperately needed towing. In all the chaos one flaming lighter headed to New York was missed by lookouts until it drifted into Baltimore & Ohio’s Pier#22 and set it afire. New York’s two fireboats, the New Yorker and the VanWyck, were then dispatched to help get this situation under control.
The SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was docked right next to the Bremen. Its crew was frantically trying to cast off as flames licked her side. Tugboats arrived just as the flames began to spread and devour her but these craft were not strong enough to move a ship that was over six hundred feet long. By the time the more powerful tug Admiral Dewey arrived, the docks on both sides of the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse were aflame. She managed to tow her out of the slip and into midstream where she anchored. The Liner was not out of danger yet for she was still burning and out of control flaming barges were floating her way. With the help of the Admiral Dewey these barges were kept at a safe distance and the flames extinguished. Amidst this chaos her captain kept the crew from panicking and got all the weekend tourists off safely. He then had tugboats tow the ship toward the Cunard docks on to the Manhattan side of the Hudson where she would be safe.
For a moment the SS Main, which was tied up in the last slip seemed to have been granted a reprieve. With one eye on the rapidly moving fire, the ship’s crew was frantically engaged in casting off its lines in the hope that the strong currents of the river would carry her away before the flames reached her. In the end these attempts proved futile. The fire caught up to her before she was fully released and forty-four crew members perished, many trapped below deck. Eventually the Main broke loose from the pier and the current took hold and dragged her out into the river. After being intercepted by tugboats she was also towed north to the Weehawken flats, where she was left to burn right next to the Bremen. Fifteen crew members miraculously survived and were later rescued from the smoldering hulk. They had managed to save themselves by taking refuge in one of the ship’s empty coal bunkers that protected them from the flames though they all suffered badly from the heat.
Back in Hoboken the fire department was still facing a situation that was nearly out of control. Part of the Hamberg Amerika Line terminal was demolished to prevent the fire from spreading there. The Scandanavian-American Line pier was not so lucky and burned. Store houses and railroad sheds also caught fire but all was contained before it spread into the town proper largely due to the quick response. All that was left of the North German Lloyd piers however were rows of blackened pilings stretching out into the Hudson. Ruins and hulks would smolder into the night, but for the most part this entire episode was over in only three quarters of an hour.
While it took awhile for the half submerged hulks of the three burnt out ships to be recovered from the flats, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was quickly cleaned and repainted to hide her ordeal. Only three days later she set sail for Germany as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. She seemed to be a ship of miraculous luck, but fate caught up to her during World War One. After being converted into an armed merchant cruiser she would be lost off the coast of Africa early in the Conflict at the Battle of Rio de Oro.
Though few of us today know anything of this disaster, it was widely publicized at the time in newspapers, magazines, and on postcards. With few public outlets for imagery, postcards played an important role in disseminating visual information. Postcard publishers however were not journalists, their purpose was to sell cards and if they documented an event then so much the better if it increased profit. The fire at Hoboken was witnessed by countless people on both shores of the Hudson who were all potential costumers for cards. For them postcards could function as a memento of this extraordinary experience, as well as provide proof of what they saw when they shared this story with friends.
Despite the incidentÕs brevity, the great number of photographers in the metropolitan area insured that it would be recorded. Most photographs however capture the scene after the fact and focus on the salvage efforts. While many photo based cards were produced they tend to suffer from the long distances between photographer and subject plus the wide scope that needed to be covered. Many illustrated cards were also made because they were better able to capture the unfolding drama. Unfortunately the American postcard industry was only in its infancy in 1900 and the private mailing cards that were produced were not all up to the higher standards usually found on later cards. Many of New York’s early publishers seized the moment and had printed cards of the Hoboken fire that were already up for sale that July all around the city. Sets were produced by Franz Huld, H.A. Rost, Arthur Livingston, and Arthur Strauss. There were also some oversized cards of this event published in Germany.
The disaster was commemorated in Hoboken on its first anniversary, which is also represented on cards. At the same time a granite monument was placed over the mass grave at Flower Hill Cemetery in North Bergen, New Jersey that holds the remains of all the unidentified that were recovered. Many victims were burnt beyond recognition so its bronze plaque lists the names of the missing. No one is sure how many died but it could be close to four hundred. There seems to have been a coverup at the time to minimize the reported loses to diminish the disaster, but this continues to be debated.
The burnt out piers at Hoboken were a tourist attraction for some time, but they were eventually replaced by new steel structures. The surrounding wooden piers that survived the blaze were never fireproofed despite the obvious danger to them and would also go up in flames in the years to come. The horror stories of those burnt alive below the deckÕs of these ships continued to fill the press until it had a positive effect. Despite complaints of an undue burden to ship owners, they were forced by law to enlarge porthole size on their ships in order to lessen any future tragedies.
Moltke’s New Patent
From what seemed just another ordinary French anti-German propaganda card from the First World War, I was able to discover several underlying new meanings. On the face of the card, mailed in 1914, a French colonial soldier is sticking his bayonet into the derrriere of a German soldier, who is throwing up his arms in pain. The translated French caption above the illustration reads “War 1914” and the one below reads “Sheaths for French bayonets patented by Moltke.”
The notion of a German soldier’s derriere being treated as a sheath for a bayonet implies an act of sodomy (penetration) on the part of the French soldier. Feminizing the enemy Other is rather standard in war propaganda, and illustrations of the enemy being sodomized are also not uncommon - a more recent example being cartoons and quips punning on the name Saddam (Sodom) Hussein. But first, letÕs discuss Moltke. Who is he and why is he designated the person who patented this new use of enemy derrieres for sheaths?
Lieutenant General Kuno Augustus Friedrich Karl Detlev Graf von Moltke (1847Š1923), was a military commander and adjutant to Kaiser Wilhelm II. In 1907, he became involved in a scandal in which close members of the Kaiser’s entourage were said to be engaging in homosexual acts and threatening the security of the State due to their vulnerability to blackmail. The affair which lasted through 1909 was heavily publicized and was the equivalent in Germany of the Oscar Wilde affair in England. Homosexuality was for the first time openly discussed as charges and counter-charges of libel, blackmail and depravity emerged. Reputations were ruined, high ranking officials forced to resign and prison sentences handed out, in the end chiefly to Maximilian Harden, a well-known journalist who had first brought forth the charges (Harden himself had earlier in 1902 threatened to blackmail Philipp, Prince of Eulenberg-Hertefeld, another of the accused homosexual players, if he did not give up his ambassadorship in Vienna). One lasting effect of this scandal was the association of homosexuality with Germans in the coming years, especially by the French and English. (Homosexuals seeking liaisons in public toilets in France, for example, would often ask as code, Parlez-vous allemand? (Do you speak German?) This connection then explains the reference to Moltke by the postcard’s illustrator, and is one of the earliest and relatively rare allusions to homosexuality in the early postcard era.
Another interesting aspect of the postcard relates to the use of a colonial soldier to evoke sodomy. Annabelle Melzer in her article Spectacles and Sexualities: The Mise-en-Scene of the “Tirailleur Senegalais” on the Western Front, 1914-1920, points out how images of the sodomization of German enemy soldiers is commonly found, be it by a bullet, a bottle cork or a trumpet, but it is never by a French white soldier. Here, the colonial soldier is used to substitute for the white man’s fantasy, reflecting fears not only of homosexuality, but of the dark-skinned Other as an undisciplined savage, ready to engage in abnormal forms of sex. Whereas I find Melzer’s arguments a bit forced, I do think the racial-sexual element found in the depiction needs to be acknowledged at some level.