Today everybody is talking about the huge fire on the southern edge of Greenpoint. However, large and dangerous fires are nothing new to the area. About a hundred and thirty years ago at almost the exact same spot a huge fire threatened to spread and burn large swathes of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. This is the story of that harrowing fire a little more than a hundred and thirty years ago.
North Twelfth Street December 21, 1884
The Residents near the Astral Oil Works had always feared an explosion and now their worst nightmares were coming true. The cry of “fire at the works” awakened their deepest fears. The refinery, the largest in the world with two dozen huge storage tanks, was now in imminent danger. The tanks held tens of thousands of gallons of highly flammable oil and the residents well knew that if the mass of oil started flowing towards their houses there was not a fire department in the world that could save their homes. Everything depended on the wind. If the wind were strong all that they had in the world would be gone. There would be no hope of saving anything in the fire’s path.
James Moffat, the Superintendent of the Astral Works, jumped up from his sofa when he heard the terrific roar of the explosion. The blast violently shook all the houses and shattered windows all along North Twelfth Street, the street where the works were located. Moffat ran from his house and saw a line of people, frantically running towards the refinery. When he turned into North Twelfth he was horrified by what he saw. The huge tank of extremely flammable Naphtha at the Southeast corner of the refinery was about to explode. What made Moffat’s horror worse was the fact he knew. All the tanks were full to their maximum as this was high season for the oil business. The massive safety plates on the top of the tank were dancing about like toys and there was a din of rattling metal.
Suddenly a wall of flame shot up out of the tank and the Superintendent knew that the two thousand five hundred gallon tank would spurt out a huge volume of flame. Within seconds flames were shooting out of the tank and acrid black smoke was filling the clear blue sky.
Moffat was in a panic. He knew that there were a dozen tanks in close proximity to the burning one. Some of the tanks were as large as twenty-five thousand gallons. He was hopeful because the wind seemed light and he prayed they could contain the flames, however, the fire needed no help from the wind to spread. The sheer volume of flame shooting out of the tank doomed the tanks nearby.
Moffat knew what he had to do and he needed to do it quickly. Unfortunately, it was Sunday afternoon and there were few men on duty at the plant. Those who were he hastily assembled as they frantically tried to build a wall of coal dust that would keep the flames from reaching the Williamsburg Gas Works on the East side of twelfth street. Another group of workers was also building a wall of coal dust hoping to keep the streams of oil from reaching the tanks on the other side of the yard.
An alarm had already been sent out to the local fire company. Within five minutes a horse-drawn fire engine arrived and it boldly positioned itself within a hundred and fifty feet of the blazing tank. The firemen jumped out of the engine and began furiously pumping, while others also moved their hoses as close to the blaze as the intense heat would allow. There was acrid smoke that burned his eyes and the roar of the flames made it necessary to shout to the chief who was only a foot away. The chief was surprisingly calm and said that as long as the wind kept blowing west over the river there was no great fear of losing the neighborhoods.
More and more flames were shooting from the top of the tank and the firemen and workers could tell that the bolts, which held the tank together, were straining and would shortly burst. There was panic as it was clear that the tank could not hold together much longer and it would shoot forth a deadly stream of burning oil at them. The men ran pell-mell down North Twelfth in terror. A sheet of flame reached the next tank and quickly too enveloped it in flame. Instantly, the size and heat of the fire was doubled and for two hundred feet around the tanks the heat of the blaze was too intense for the fire fighters to withstand. The firemen had to drop their hoses and the men building the barrier had to drop their shovels.
Suddenly a collective gasp went up from all the souls in the yard. They realized that the wind was changing direction and it would blow the flames back to the yard and the houses. There was a brick-restraining wall three feet thick that protected the refinery’s packing sheds, but it proved useless against the wall of flame. A sheet of flames hit the wooden structures behind the wall and they went up in seconds. The fire fighters had lost all control of the fire after this moment and they could do little more than watch in fascination and abject horror.
Drizzle soon started to fall that merely seemed to mock their efforts to contain the flames. From dusk until midnight fire would methodically reach another one of the dozen tanks, which would explode thunderously, again shooting out a sheet of flame visible all over Williamsburg and Greenpoint. The fire reached its height at about ten o clock when flames reached the largest of the tanks, which contained twenty-five thousand gallons. The fire illuminated the river and all the houses of Greenpoint were made visible by the huge blaze. The helpless firemen could not get close to the fire due to its intense heat. A crowd of frightened onlookers had gathered and realized that the area and its houses were at the mercy of the wind. Should strong winds arise and start to blow east the whole district would soon also be alight.
Meanwhile A stream of burning liquid all the while was running into the creek where fireboats checked the fires advance because it was feared that burning oil would float down to the many other refineries along the creek and ignite other blazes. Suddenly, panic broke forth again when the blazing stream made a turn in direction and started for the dam of coal dust and the company offices behind it. The dam proved no match for the river of burning oil and the clerks in the office and Moffat himself all had to run for their lives. The offices were quickly consumed.
The firemen soon had resigned themselves to the fact that there was nothing that they could do to save the Pratt yard, but there was a fear that the blaze could jump the street and spread to the gas works that were across the street. If fire reached the gas works there would be a mighty blast that could level the houses for blocks around the works. Firemen doused the tanks of the gas works and joined the prayers of the area residents. There was a second of sheer panic when all were aware that there was the smell of gas from the works, but miraculously the gas did not ignite.
Kiely’s Liquor saloon was a beloved watering hole and the closest structure to the refinery. Located on North Twelfth, the saloon stood as an inviting target for the flames because it was only a few Dozen feet from the conflagration. At eleven o clock the firemen entered and told the bar tenders and the proprietor that there was nothing that they could do to save the building. It was too close to the tanks and would surely burn so that building had to be evacuated. The manager took the safe and there was an air of calm resignation when he informed the people there that the place was insured. They looked around their local bar, drank one more round and left. The bar was consumed in flames within an hour and a half.
The blaze burned all night. No one slept and all feared a change in the wind, but the winds they so feared never appeared. When the dawn arrived there were still pools of oil burning them out and the fires illuminated the twisted orange metal frames of what were once the oil tanks. The ground was still hot and there were the still smoldering ruins of what had been the packing houses, dock and administrative offices. Two million dollars of damage had been done, but Greenpoint and Williamsburg had been spared. It was not the last fire in Greenpoint. The largest oil-refining center in the country would see this scene repeated again and again.