January 9th marks the one hundred thirty-sixth anniversary of one of the most destructive fires in North Brooklyn. On a frigid January night, the Havemeyer and Elder Refinery, which would forty years later be renamed as Domino went up in one of the most spectacular fires the area had ever witnessed. The refinery was the largest building in Williamsburg at the time. Nine stories high, the refinery covered an entire block on Whythe Avenue between South Third and South Fourth streets and stretched some two hundred feet in from the street to the East river shore. The Havemeyer family had been in the sugar business for more than eighty years and knew the danger that fire presented working with sugar. Sugar clouds often ignited causing huge fires. The presence of steam, thousands of moving parts that could cause sparks in the refinery and the highly flammable sugar all made a fire a grave risk. For a quarter century they had refined huge amounts of sugar without a fire, but their luck would run out that January day. At about three O’ Clock in the afternoon that January day, Theodore Havemeyer made his customary inspection of the plant and noticed nothing suspicious. Three watchmen, two superintendents and two assistants remained in the refinery. The night shift was just appearing at four O’ Clock when watchman Edward Haman began to smell smoke and found the flames in a storeroom on the refinery’s first floor. Dense smoke quickly filled the room and flames soon leapt from storeroom. The watchman pulled an alarm that alerted the workers in the plant and sent a signal to the fire department. About fifty hands on duty at the plant rushed to refinery, grabbing hoses and attempting to put out the blaze. There were precious minutes of indecision, which wasted critical time in finding and turning on the water spigot for the hose. Four engines responded to the first alarm and four additional companies also answered the second alarm, but twelve minutes had elapsed since the fire was reported and this interval had given the fire time to spread. The fireboat Havemeyer from Manhattan even appeared on the scene, trying to douse the flames, but all the firefighters efforts were in vain. The fire moved both upwards and downwards at an alarming speed. Dense masses of potentially flammable vapor poured into the areas where the workers were now using the hose to douse the blaze. Other workers were removing stacks of records, while some others were trying to wheel out barrels of sugar, however soon choking fumes reached the area where they were unloading the barrels and they had no choice, but to abandon the plant. Outside the plant the first fire companies quickly deployed, frantically setting up ladders, while spreading out hoses. As the firemen and company employees looked up they realized that it was probably already too late. Fueled by tons of sugar the fire was racing upwards and flames could be seen in many of the windows. The heat from the fire was so intense that many of the fire fighters developed blisters on their faces. Firefighters had to move back from the building’s façade due to amazing heat of the fire. A number of vats of alcohol blew up, sounding like cannon fire. As the sugar burned it glowed in a rainbow of colors, the beauty of the flames masking their deadly effectiveness. Chief Smith, immediately realizing the scope of the blaze, called in a third and fourth alarm as other companies rushed to the scene. The flames had reached the pan filter rooms, adding coal to the already hot blaze. The flames raced upwards in the seven stories that faced Kent Avenue. As they went higher and higher they could be seen in other neighborhoods and soon the alarm bells and the shooting flames attracted crowds of fascinated onlookers. A brilliant glow of flame filled the foggy night sky, which could be clearly seen far away in Queens and even in northern Manhattan. The fire fighters were hampered by a lack of hydrants close to great refinery. They realized that wind had the potential to spread the conflagration to other sugarhouses and there was the real possibility that all Williamsburg could burn down. There was a covered second story bridge connecting the refinery to the boiler house on South Second Street that posed a huge danger of allowing the fire to spread. Chief Nevins, who had just arrived on the scene, ordered the bridge taken down and the firefighters had just commenced cutting the span from the burning building when the burning refinery walls began to sway, signaling the danger that they would collapse. A panic ensued and the firemen instantaneously abandoned their task, fleeing from the bucking walls. Only a few seconds later three stories of brick and mortar came crashing down the to street, severing the bridge and fortuitously achieving the aim of the firefighters in limiting the spread of the flames. Martin Short and the other officers from the precinct arrived to keep the large crowds who came to gawk at the blaze away from danger. A few minutes later the steam pipes burst and the hiss of their exploding was loud enough to be heard above the din of the flames. Realizing that the job at hand was to save the new refinery building on the other side of the street, Chiefs Smith and Nevins deployed their men inside and outside the structure across the street. He sent a team up the winding inner staircase with a long hose and another up the fire escape on the exterior of the building. Both crews did excellent work fighting the fires that threatened to jump the street. Suddenly, a massive section from the top of the old refinery came crashing to ground in the shape of a giant V. Much of the falling material hit the new refinery, engulfing it in flame and threatening to create a second inferno. Then, the roof of the old refinery collapsed and a gush of flame shot up like lava from a spewing volcano. The flames from the burning refinery soared over the top of the ruins, lighting up the river, and there was a lurid beauty to the ghastly spectacle that attracted huge crowds along the Manhattan shoreline who watched spellbound by the blaze. About six O’ Clock the remnants of the wall of the old refinery facing Kent Street, which had previously crumbled at the top, buckled and collapsed in a deafening roar as a great cloud of smoke rose from the street. When the cloud disappeared they could see the entire interior of the doomed refinery. The fire burned green, fueled by the chemicals that only a short while ago helped refine the sugar. The south wall finally gave way, crumbling to the ground and showering the street below with brick. It soon became apparent that the danger of the fire spreading had passed and that the fire would slowly burn itself out, consuming the remaining parts of the massive refinery in the process. Then just as it seemed that the fire was contained, flames broke out in the new refinery, fueled by the collapse of burning wooden tanks on the building’s roof, but the firemen stationed there fought heroically and contained the blaze. A half hour later they had doused most of the fires in the new refinery and now the danger had truly passed. Theodore Havemeyer, who had built the refinery twenty-five years earlier, helplessly witnessed the lurid scene in total horror. Interviewed by a throng of reporters, Havemeyer was asked to identify the cause and to estimate the extent of the damage. Havemeyer could put forward no theory explaining how the fire had started. He put the figure of the total loss at 1.5 million dollars. He also reckoned that the value of the plant was $ 250,000and the machinery inside was worth $750,000. He further estimated that the sugar stores inside the plant were worth a half million dollars. A thousand two hundred men who worked in the old refinery would be put out of work. The refinery had been insured with several policies, but its value was so great that its total value could never have been fully insured.
Geoff Cobb’s latest book, “The Rise and Fall of the Sugar Trade,” is a poignant account of one man’s successful monopoly on the sugar production and distribution of the day, more accurately, between the years 1844 and 1909. The events described in the book took place in Williamsburg, now a trendy section of Brooklyn, New York, where multi million dollar commercial and housing developments are slowly erasing the neighborhood’s industrial and grimy past.
Mr. Cobb’s latest book, tells the tale of one man, Henry Havemeyer, whose unmitigated greed and penchant for corruption created one of the largest sugar conglomerates in the United States. Mr. Havemeyer’s success, of course, rode on the backs of an untold number of grossly underpaid, blatantly exploited sugar workers, who toiled day in day out, under horrific working conditions in his sugar refineries. Let’s also take into account the sad fact that the prospects of a better job for these workers, many of them poorly educated immigrants, were nil.
Mr. Cobb’s narrative is written with eloquence, great historical insight, and a deep understanding of the socio-economic forces that shaped the political and social landscape of North Brooklyn, and beyond.
I greatly recommend “The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King.”
For years his wanted poster had hung in the Meserole Avenue Police station, but there was not a trace of Charles Bergstrom to be found. Bergstrom was wanted for being an accomplice in the worst prison break in Sing-Sing history. He had become a wanted man for helping three of his buddies to break out of the maximum-security prison, and four people had lost their lives as a result of the breakout.
Bergstrom who had been a longshoreman on the Greenpoint waterfront had also spent a lot of time in prison. He had been arrested eleven times and served five prison sentences. His crimes, stretching back twenty years, included rape, robbery and carrying concealed weapons. In 1930, he was sentenced to Sing Sing where he befriended Joseph Riordan, Charles McHale and John Walters. When he left prison, he stayed in contact with the escapees who had formulated a plan to bust out of prison. There were two other accomplices who had also participated in the nine-month plan. The prisoners had over months loosened gratings in tunnels, fabricated keys and assembled guns, thanks to Bergstrom and the other accomplices who had smuggled the necessary material in a milk truck that visited the prison.
On April 14th 1941 Bergstrom headed from Greenpoint to the prison in Ossining in a stolen car with a machine gun in the back seat. The prisoners had faked illness so that they could gain entrance to the prison hospital. Inside the hospital they shot and killed a prison guard and then escaped. The prison break was detected and the fugitives ended up in a gun battle with the Ossining Police that killed one of the police officers. The escapees were apprehended and two of them died in the electric chair. Bergstrom escaped, but his role in the escape was discovered
The police searched for years Bergstrom, but he eluded them by joining the air force and serving four years in Europe. He should have known better than return to Greenpoint, but he wanted to visit his ex-wife who lived in their apartment at 151 Green Street. She was clearly frightened by Bergstrom’s return on July 30, 1945. Patrolmen driving down Green Street heard her screams from the fire escape. She told them that Bergstrom had returned and had broken a window to gain entrance to the apartment.
The police arrested Bergstrom who denied his true identity, claiming that he was private James Ryan of the Air Force. Ryan had served heroically in the ninth air force, fighting in six major battles. After eight hours of interrogation, Bergstrom broke down and admitted his true identity. He pled guilty to aiding the escapees and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
In my book ” The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King” one of the characters is the great Irish church architect Patrick Keely whose first church was Sts. Peter and Paul on South Second Street in Williamsburg.
This is from Amazon by a reader: Well written and lively, Cobb has succeeded in bringing to life an underappreciated slice of New York history. Focused on the story of Henry Havemeyer, Cobb’s history weaves a tableau that includes the stories of the varied residents of the fast-evolving Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg at the height of its industrialization. A great read, and a great addition to Cobb’s other North Brooklyn histories. I highly recommend!
Come to Word Bookstore January 18th for an evening of local history.