From the Pale to the Golden Land
Ellis Island: Port of Immigration

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The Ellis Island Fire of 1897
as reported by the New-York Daily Tribune

When the immigration facility at Ellis Island was first built, it was made of wood. It became the primary stop to process immigrants beginning on Jan. 2, 1892. However, there was a fire there in 1897, and it was forced to close for a period of time. All screening of new immigrants once again had to be done at the Old Barge Office until mid-December 1900. Ellis Island was rebuilt and ready to reopen, this time not made of wood but of a fireproof material, and once again began to perform its intended function.

Here is an article that appeared in the "New-York Tribune" on Jun 15, 1897, the day of the fire:





Every building on Ellis Island except the power-house was totally destroyed by fire early this morning, but all of the 270 immigrants the structures contained, so far as is known at present, were saved. The immigrants, most of whom had landed here yesterday, were almost all in the new wing of the main building, only a small number of persons being in the hospital.

In ten minutes after the alarm was given, they had all been quietly awakened and marched safely on board the John G. Carlisle, the newest Ellis Island boat. So far as known no one was seriously injured in fighting the fire or from any other cause.

Three men were hurled from the top of the cupola, where the flames were first seen, their heads turned by the draughts of smoke and heat. They landed on the ground floor and were badly cut about the head, but these were the most serious casualties reported.

The first intelligence of the fire was received in this city at 12:38 a. m. the harbor police from their station at Pier A, North River, saw a flame bursting from the windows of the main building on the island. Word was at once telephoned to Police Headquarters, and the fireboat New-Yorker was dispatched to the island.

At the same time the sergeant in command at Pier A called the reserves out of bed in the station, and with every other man he could spare, dispatched them in two of the police naphtha launches to the island. The police-boat Patrol is laid up for repairs, and the slower launches had therefore to be used. The men were under command of Roundsman McCormack. Captain Schultze, who was at his home, was also telegraphed for, and a call was sent out from Pier A for the reserves from the other precincts in the lower part of the city. Twenty-five men were obtained from the Old Slip and Church-st. stations and hurried to Pier A to be ready for any emergency.


When first seen by he lookout at the police station the fire was only a flame, about as large as a man's hand, coming out of a window on the second floor at the east end of the main building. The flames spread rapidly, however, and at 1:05 a. m.--that is, by the time the boats were fairly on their way to the island--the eaves of the roof began to fall, setting fire to the wooden piers and docks on either side.

At 1:12 a. m. the whole building was a mass of flame, illuminating the entire inner harbor. The tops of the skyscrapers in the city were outlined in bold relief by the red light, the gilt cornice of the Manhattan Life Building reflecting the light until that building itself seemed in flames, too.


The southern end of the city is extremely quiet at this hour of the morning, but within thirty minutes of the starting of the fire, several hundred spectators were hurrying toward the Battery. The owners of rowboats and other small craft were present in considerable numbers, and they endeavored to make money by letting their boats to anxious people.


The fire presented a magnificent spectacle from the Battery, and rumors of a terrible loss of life flew thick and fast. Although it was known that it had not been an unusually busy day at the island, and that the comparatively few immigrants landed were passed swiftly through the pens, even the police were certain that a serious loss of life must have resulted.

At first the flames could not be seen to diminish perceptibly before the tons of water thrown on the fire by the fireboats. At 2 a. m. the fire was plainly at its height, but after that gradually the red light over the Bay faded away.


At 2:10 all apprehension for the safety of the people on the island was allayed by the arrival at the Battery of the ferryboat John G. Carlisle, which plies between the Battery and the island, with all the immigrants and the sick from the hospital on board. One of the women was suffering from typhoid fever. She was said to be in a serious condition. With the party were the doctors and nurses.

Before the ferryboat arrived, ambulances had been summoned from Gouverneur and Hudson Street hospitals, so that the sick brought to the city could be cared for. The doctor in charge of the party said that, so far as he knew, no one had been burned or injured. All about there were ferryboats, tugs and small boats, willing to bring the people to the city, but some of the people, in their excitement, feared at first to venture on the water.

Just before the Carlisle arrived, a man who said he was D. K. Moscopaulas, an official interpreter on the island, rushed onto Pier A, greatly excited. He had come to report for duty, he said. The crowd cheered him.


Reporters who reached the island soon after the fire started learned that William Gaines, a night watchman, was the first to discover the fire. It is Gaines's duty to visit each part of the building every twenty minutes. He was making his rounds at 12:20 o'clock and had just reached the new wing of the building, where the immigrants sleep, when he was attracted to the northeast end by the reflection of a flame on the windows. Without raising an outcry, he ran quickly to the cupola, and was nearly knocked off his feet by big clouds of smoke coming from the office of Charles Ichlar, the chief clerk, which is on the second floor. The fire, he thought, was caused by a defective electric-light wire. Electricity was used in the entire building.

The office was lighted up by tongues of flame. A moment later, Silas Truman and George Hoolihan of the janitor's office, were by Gaines's side, fighting the fire.

While they were trying to get the flames under control, a draught of smoke and hot air lifted them off their feet and knocked them down the stairs to the ground floor.

All of them were badly shaken up and more or less cut about the head and face. In spite of the severe fall they had sustained, however, they quickly arose and quietly aroused everybody in the buildings, displaying unusual presence of mind.

Had they lost their heads and shouted, a panic would have followed and many lives would have been lost.

The men's coolness had a wonderful effect.

Everybody saw at once that the buildings were doomed to fall in a short while, but they marched in an orderly manner out of the place and onto the John G. Carlisle.

By the time the immigrants were boarding the boat, a score of streams from the island fire apparatus were playing on the burning buildings.

Dr. Senner said the loss on the buildings would be about $780,000. Valuable records were lost.

At 2:40 a. m. the only building on the whole island that would probably be saved was the engine-house to the extreme west, as the wind was blowing from that point, and the house in question is a fairly substantial building. It was impossible to save any of the other buildings, as the fire was entirely beyond control of the fireboats. Between three and four acres were covered with flames.

As the second of the two fireboats left New York, one of the watchmen of the island fell into the water. He was attempting to jump on board after the board had started, and just failed to clear the distance. Ropes were thrown into the water, and after an exciting five minutes the man was rescued. He was almost unconscious, and was immediately taken to the engine-room.

There was a great deal of crowding among the various craft inside the breakwater of the island, and much delay was caused thereby to the fireboats and tugs sent to assist.

Dr. Senner, Commissioner of Immigration, with Mrs. Senner, left his home at No. 248 West One-hundred-and-twenty-third-st., at 1:40 a.m. on his way to Ellis Island. He said he felt no anxiety, as he was positive that precautions for a fire were so perfect that there could not possibly be loss of life.

The new immigration depot at Ellis Island was opened on New Year's Day, 1891. The structure, like many other Government buildings, though of gigantic proportions, could not be termed an architectural masterpiece. It was built at a cost of about $500,000, the original estimate having been about one-half that sum.

An idea of the building's immense size may be gained from the fact that more than four million feet of lumber were used in its construction. The huge building covered the greater part of the island, the area of which was something less than five acres, but this was increased to about eight by driving spiles about the water-front and filling in the vacant spaces with earth.

The building was of no particular style of architecture. It was three stories in height, with a tower at each corner. The ground and upper floors measured each 404 by 154 feet. The first floor was devoted to railroad and baggage transfers and private offices. On the second floor the registrations and examinations were conducted.

Among the general features of the building was a gallery which extended completely around this floor. From this the immigrants could be inspected by the public or those interested in them, without coming into actual contact with them. Detention rooms were also provided on this floor in abundance. There were rooms for paupers, another for lunatics, another for those suspected of being contract laborers, another or women and children, and so on.

The telegraph and money exchange offices, postal stations, information bureau, railroad and steamship offices were all arranged so as to give the new-comers the least possible inconvenience. Sleeping-rooms were provided on the floor above. On the side facing the harbor were the offices of the immigration officials. The depot was built by Sheridan & Byrne. Roosevelt, Son & Miller did the pier work and spiling.

Now read the story about the fire, the day after.....

Here is an article that appeared in the "New-York Daily Tribune" on Jun 16, 1897, the day after the fire:




"Ever since I have been in office the fear of something like this fire has haunted me, and now that it has come and no lives were lost, I am glad of it. A row of unsightly, ramshackle tinderboxes has been removed, and when the Government rebuilds it will be forced to put up decent fireproof structures."

Thus did Dr. Joseph H. Senner, Commissioner of Immigration, in charge of Ellis Island, speak yesterday of the fire that devastated the island, leaving it a mass of smoking ruins inside of two hours and seriously imperiling the lives of the 222 persons sleeping in the flimsy wooden structures. That no lives were lost, that not even an injury was sustained by any one in the flames that spread with such frightful rapidity was the wonder of every one yesterday, and was the subject for congratulations on the part of Dr. Senner and his assistants. To these assistants--especially the women nurses in the hospital, the watchmen and Surgeon White--is entirely due the remarkable escape of every panic-stricken immigrant. Dr. Senner could not express too feelingly his appreciation of the cool-headed courage of his aids in the face of extreme danger.


Every person who was seen yesterday by The Tribune reporter in regard to the fire condemned in the severest terms the condition of the buildings which the United States Government had allowed to be used to house at times over night thousands of immigrants. The peril from fire to these helpless and generally ignorant people was fully appreciated by Dr. Senner, and he did all in his power to provide against the loss of life from the fire which he felt would one day occur. The value of his foresight and precautions as displayed in the efforts of his assistants was generally commented on yesterday, and offered a strong contrast to the peculiar inertness of he Government in providing fireproof structures for the island.

Ellis Island yesterday presented a sadly forlorn picture. Three stone buildings remain standing, the engine-house, the electric light and steam plant, and Dr. White's house--all else is in ruins. The buildings destroyed were the main one, which was 750 feet long and 250 feet wide, and three stories high; the detention pen, which was recently reconstructed; the restaurant, the laundry, the record building, the morgue, the storage-house, and the new disinfecting plant, which had not yet been completed, but upon which $25,000 had already been expended, and in which machinery costing $15,000 had been placed. The southwest landing pier, which had been recently reconstructed and covered at a large expense, was also entirely demolished. Estimates upon the total monetary loss sustained by the United States Government, the immigration officials and the immigrants could not yesterday be made with any degree of accuracy. Dr. Senner puts the rough estimate at somewhere between $500,000 and $1,000,000. It is said that the Government is not responsible for the loss of the personal effects of the immigrants. The poor creatures were in such a state of collapse yesterday at the Barge Office, where they were huddled together, that no definite idea of individual losses could be obtained. The losses were chiefly of clothing and personal trinkets, which probably had no great intrinsic value.


There were several safes containing in some cases large amounts of money in the burned buildings, but it is believed that their contents will be found intact when they are recovered from the ruins. F. J. Scully, the money-changer for the immigrants, had a safe in the main building in which he says was $10,000 in foreign coin and drafts. It required six hours' work yesterday morning to get this safe out of the ruins, and its contents were found to be unimpaired. Thomas S. Faulkner, agent of the immigration clearing house of the Trunk Line Association, had two safes, one of which was recovered yesterday. It had burst open and $300 was found to be missing. The other safe, which is still buried under the ruins, contains several thousands of dollars. Felix Livingstone and Emile Schwab, the concessionaires on the island, place their loss on supplies and equipment in the restaurant and culinary department at $2,000. The safes of Treasurer Lee and of John E. Moore, of the railroad-steamboat service, were recovered uninjured.

One of the serious losses to the Immigration Bureau was that of many of the records which contained the history of the immigrants who have landed here for several years back. The records of the immigrants who were detained on the island on Monday night can be obtained again by the Board of Inquiry before they are allowed to depart.

The story of the miraculous escape of all the immigrants, aroused at midnight on Monday to face rapidly spreading flames was only partially told in yesterday's papers. Many accounts of brave rescues were told yesterday which prevented the destruction of the Ellis Island plant going down in history as a second Paris Charity Bazaar horror. Dr. Senner said yesterday that on Monday night there were on the island 73 debarred immigrants, who were to be returned to their ports of departure; 60 women and children detained for examination, 547 patients in the hospital and 32 employees, making a total of 222 persons; 550 immigrants had landed on Monday from the steamers Furneszia, Alsatia and Spaarndam, but most of these had been cleared.


When William Gaines, one of the three night watchmen on duty, discovered the beginning of the fire in a small flame in the office of Charles Ichlar, the chief clerk, which was situated at the northeast end of the second floor of the main building, at 12:20 o'clock, he hurried after his companions, and, seeing that it was impossible to put the fire out, the three men hastened to the quarters of the sleeping immigrants, and by cool, quick work marched all of them out of the buildings to safety on the John G. Carlisle, which lay with steam up at her slip. Dr. White was aroused from sleep in the old mansion house by Frank Gibson, the apothecary, and he immediately hastened to the hospital to get the fifty-five patients out. The women nurses there did noble work, carrying out of the building, which had by that time caught fire, patient after patient, till they were all placed on the Carlisle. Some of the sick women became hysterical as they were carried past the raging furnaces of fire. One of them screamed frantically while she was being taken out, and when she was released rushed back into the burning building, crying, "My baby, my baby!" Mother and child were then rescued. A young girl, a paralytic, was not taken from her bed until the clothing was in flames.


Dr. Senner, in speaking yesterday of the rescue work of the nurses, Miss Holz and Miss Pfifer, said:
"I cannot find words of praise too strong for these young women. They worked as I never heard of women working before. They undoubtedly saved many lives. I am very proud of them."

All the immigrants except those who had been in the hospital were yesterday quartered in the Barge Office at the Battery. There they were fed and visited by representatives of various charitable societies, who brought clothing for the, in some cases, almost destitute creatures. Careful inquiries were made of each immigrant as to whether he missed any relative or friend, and in no case was an affirmative reply received. The immigration officials therefore do not hesitate to state unqualifiedly that no lives were lost. Still further proof of this [?] welcome statement will be obtained by comparing the lists of immigrants detained with the lists of the steamships on which they arrived.


The Barge Office presented the appearance of the old Castle Garden when it was used by the Immigration Bureau, and the Battery around it became once more populated with inhabitants of all the countries of Europe. The customs officials were ousted from their quarters on the ground floor of the building, and the women placed there. The men were placed on the upper floor of the long shed over the pier. The wants of all were carefully attended to.

Many strange scenes in connection with the distribution of clothing by the charity organizations were enacted when the men and women came forward to receive garments. Many of the unfortunate immigrants were only half clothed, and when they were provided for they looked like dummies in a misfit clothing store. One Italian who had escaped from the fire in his under clothing, was provided with the garb of a Catholic priest, loaned by Father Henry, pastor of the mission of Our Lady of The Rosary. Another man escaped with a coat and hat, but forgot his trousers. Every one was fully provided for before the day was over.

The patients from the hospital, with the exception of six who were so sick as to require constant medical attendance, and who were taken to Bellevue, were yesterday moved to the pier at East Twenty-sixth-st., where their condition was examined into by Commissioner Faure and Superintendent Murphy. Some were taken to Randall's Island, and some to the Municipal Lodging House, at First-ave. and Twenty-third-st. Three were given into the custody of Chief Samson, the deporting officer, to be returned to their port of departure.

Word was received yesterday at the Custom House, by Acting Collector J. J. Couch, from the Treasury Department at Washington, that the Barge Office should be given over to the use of the immigrants until other quarters are provided for them.


Dr. Senner said yesterday: "For the next few days and perhaps longer, it will be necessary to examine and discharge immigrants on board ship. I expect soon to have the annex to the Barge Office fitted up for temporary quarters."

Dr. Senner, when informed of the fire yesterday morning at 1:30 o'clock, immediately dressed and with his wife hastened down to the Battery from his home in Harlem. He went over to the Island and only returned at 6:30 o'clock. In regard to the origin of the fire he said:

"I believe the fire was due to electric light wires, and these were strung in the building where the fire started. Of course, there will be a board of inquiry instituted by the Government to investigate the cause of the fire and in losses sustained. I to-day placed Immigration Inspectors Willis and Cassin in charge of the island, and they have already begun an investigation for me. Time and time again I have appealed to the authorities in Washington to put up fireproof buildings on the island and to provide better facilities for fighting fire. The lesson that we needed has come."

Superintendent Stump of the National Immigration Bureau reached the city last night, and had a conference with Dr. Senner.   next ►►

--photos courtesy of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc.





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