Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Now That's A Fire!

“If you want to find a dried fruit packing house, just look for the fire.” I wrote that a few months back, and it becomes a more accurate statement each time I look. I just found another newspaper archive site, and as is usual, started off with a search on ‘“packing house” fire’, and immediately got another hundred articles to look at. Two of them were particularly cool and worth sharing; today's will be the famous Rosenberg Brothers November 1906 fire.

In 1906, Rosenberg Brothers had a dried fruit packing house on the north side of the San Jose yard along Ryland Street. Their packing house was closest to the river, with Inderridden and Warren Dried Fruit in warehouses further east along Ryland Street. That plant burned spectacularly in November 1906; I previously reported on the fire back in May, and while the San Jose Mercury's article lines up factually with the San Jose Evening News article I cited before, the Mercury's reporter did a much better job of setting the scene. Better yet, the Mercury was printing photos in their paper back in 1906.

And, oh, was it ever a fire, with the San Jose Mercury describing it as the most damaging fire in San Jose history. The fire not only destroyed Rosenberg Brothers, but threatened Inderridden’s packing house as well as all the freight cars in the yard.

Rosenberg Brothers was a block in length, three floors high, with a wooden frame and corrugated iron roof. It also had fifteen hundred tons of prunes, and two hundred fifty tons more in freight cars against the loading dock. Rosenberg didn’t own the building; it was instead owned by Mrs. J.C. Webber of Chicago, probably the heiress of the C. M. Webber and Company who formerly used the plant.

The Mercury did a great job of describing the scene:

“At 1:30 o’clock yesterday morning a switching crew on the night shift in the railroad yards saw flames in the boiler-room of the Rosenberg packing house. The engineer at once sent out the railroad fire call, four long drawn blasts, in succession. Another engine at work in the east end of the yards heard the warning whistle and repeated it. Then another took it up and further spread the alarm. Someone living across the street called the fire department by telephone…. but in the meantime the flames had spread in the long warehouse from end to end, roof to basement. It was aflame… the Rosenberg packing house was provided with an underground tank where a car load of crude oil used as fuel could be stored. There were probably 5000 gallons of oil in the tank last night.”

One of the first goals for the railroad crews was to try to rescue nearby freight cars:

"While the department was endeavoring to keep the fire from spreading to the packing house of the J. B. Inderrieden Company adjoining the Rosenberg property, a large force of railroad men were working to save the crowded yards from destruction.
Three or four switch engines and crews were called into service. The burning cars were coupled to locomotives and pulled to empty tracks where they could burn without causing further damage to neighboring cars. But in spite of all that, fourteen cars were destroyed, seven of them only until the trucks protruded from the ashes, and seven more damaged almost beyond repair..."
By six o'clock the Southern Pacific had about 100 Japanese laborers on the scene to clear away the wreckage of the cars. At that hour all that was left of the building owned and occupied by Rosenberg Brothers was a long heap of glowing prunes and ashes from the center of which, high on its brick foundation, the wreck of the boiler protruded.
I'm a bit surprised at the Japanese laborers, for I hadn't thought of Japanese immigrants as likely section hands. But the SP was hiring Japanese in those days.

The photo accompanying the article shows the skeletal boxcars clearly, along with the firewall and Inderridden warehouse visible through the smoke. The reporter was also kind enough to report on those freight cars for those of us interested in the freight cars that would make it to San Jose: one Armour refrigerator car, and thirteen boxcars, three from the Santa Fe, two from the Chicago North Western, one from the Rock Island, and the remaining eight from the “Harriman System” (aka Southern Pacific and Union Pacific). That's not too surprising a mix if the fruit was headed to Chicago, but perhaps a bit midwest-focused if the crop was going to New York.

One last discovery from this article was the dangers of prunes; I'd never thought of them as incendiary, but obviously I was just being naive:

"The fruit was processed and highly inflammable, radiant heat so intense that for hours streams of water were played constantly upon the twelve or fifteen houses on the opposite side of the street to prevent them taking fire.... Prunes burn much like soft coal full of gases, giving forth a blue blaze and holding fire for an incredibly long time. Chief Tonkin said it did practically no good to turn water on burning fruit. A cloud of steam arose, hung overhead for a time, and in a few minutes the prunes were burning as fiercely as ever."

It's a wonder we aren't heating our houses with prunes, but I'll bet the firewood lobby had something to do with it.

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