The Center City Conflagration of 1897

Fire - 13th and Market Street, January 1897 (
Fire – 13th and Market Street, January 1897 (

Philadelphians couldn’t imagine their city in ruins. But the fire of January 26, 1897 provided a pretty good idea of how that looked and felt.

That Tuesday morning, a fire started in the basement bakery of Hanscom Brothers, 1309-1317 Market Street, at 6:45 am. A porter sweeping out an upper story room saw smoke and “dashed into the street, calling ‘Fire!’” and a watchman at the corner “rung in an alarm.”

In the panic, “someone bethought himself of the two bakers,” still inside and unconscious, and a pair of Hanscom employees “descended through the smoke and dragged the half-suffocated men out.”

What began as a “little tongue of flame” was soon “caught…by the winds that whirl about City Hall, and fanned…into a pillar of fire” destroying not only the 6-story building, the home of Hanscom, Dennett’s Café and Hirsh’s Umbrella Factory, but also 59 other buildings between 13th and Juniper Streets, Market and Filbert Streets.

“It was a fearful morning to fight a fire,” reported the Inquirer. “The thermometer was near zero, and the first line of hose, as it was unreeled, burst and covered everything surrounding with water that turned to ice the moment it struck. The flames gained on the firemen, and alarm after alarm was rung in, until every engine in the city was hurrying to the scene. Thousands of workers on their way to their places of business were attracted by the fire, and the streets in the vicinity speedily became impassable from the curious and surging throng.”

A conflagration of “spectacular grandeur” that “defied the resources of the city.”

“Firemen worked under the most discouraging conditions, the hosemen and laddermen taking their lives into their hands as they crawled cautiously up the ice coated rungs of their ladders, dragging after them their lines of hose, which were encased in a solid covering of ice. The streets around the fire were coated with ice… The fronts of the surrounding buildings upon which the water had been played presented a beautiful spectacle as they flashed back from their icy walls the rays of the morning sun.”

At time, the smoke “would descend to the street in almost [a] solid cloud, and the firemen were driven back, gasping for breath. … Building after building along Market Street crumbled beneath the touch of the fiery tongues of flame enwrapping them, and when the rear wall of the Hirsch Building fell into Silver Street, the fire leapt across and entered the seven-story double iron building fronting on Filbert Street.” Soon the entire block was “honeycombed by fire.”

Fire - 13th and Market Street, January 1897 (
Fire – 13th and Market Street, January 1897 (

“The firemen feared that the great Wanamaker establishment would go… Mr. Wanamaker himself had arrived early, and, dismissing the greater number of his 3,500 employees, marshaled under his own direction the fire force of the store.” At 8am, when “the Market Street front of the Hirsh building fell into the street…a torrent of fire rolled out and flowed across… and broke against Wanamaker’s. The building shriveled and blistered beneath the fierce deluge, and a tongue of flame shot up from the high clock tower at the corner of Thirteenth and Market Streets.

Much to the dismay of the firefighters—and Wanamaker himself—“the jets from the hose could not reach the flames in the tower and the entire building seemed threatened with destruction.” Just as the chimes in the burning clock were striking 8:15, the “entire tower toppled over and fell with the great crash.” This “proved the salvation of the building, for the firemen were then able to fight the heart of the fire, and soon had it under control…”

“By 5 o’clock the carpenters had completed the temporary repairs, and then they raised large American flag on ruins of the clock tower” which was quickly rebuilt.

To the west, City Hall survived, although the heat was so intense employees couldn’t “bear to stand within five feet of the windows, which, to a one, cracked or broke.

In the days to follow, the ruins were compelling to visit and dangerous to navigate. And with each “severe gust of wind” the “great bulging wall of the Hirsh building… was seen to be swaying dangerously. To all appearances it was on the point of crashing outward….  A shower of loose bricks was whirled off of the crumbling wall….”

The fire was the “worst in a generation.” But so long as there were no casualties due directly to the fire, the loss of buildings seemed welcomed by the Press. “Their destruction will probably be to the ultimate good, if newer and more modern buildings are erected on their sites.”

And, in a historical blink of an eye, new buildings that addressed the needs of the burgeoning city in the new century appeared in their places.

[Sources: “Big Philadelphia Fire,” The New York Times, January 27, 1897; and in The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Many Buildings A Prey to the Flames,” January 27, 1897; “Thousands at the Scene of the Fire,” January 28, 1897; “Tottering Walls Retard the Work,” January 29, 1897; and “New Buildings Soon To Be Erected,” March 12, 1897.]