Cavan's Point, NJ fire started by lightning, May 1883

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During the progress of the thunder-storm which pased over this City and its vicinity about 5:30 o'clock yesterday morning, lightning struck one of the oil tanks at Cavan's Point, just below Coromunipaw, belonging to the National Storage Company. The tank contained a great quantity of oil belonging to the Standard Oil Company. Immediately the combustible mass burst into flames, which rolled heavenward in a roaring volume. The fire began to spread at once. The seething, burning oil boiled over the sides of the tank, and the flames leaped across to the next gread resdervoir and ignited the oil in it at once. Not long afterward a third tank was ignited, and exploded with a terrible reverberation, which was heard for miles around. It was immediately seen that a great oil fire had begun, and though the employes of the establishment knew that every moment in the neighborhood was fraught with deadly peril, they at once set about doing what they could do to check the progress of the flames. In the very midst of their work they were appalled by the intelligence that six men had lost their lives in the conflagration. Still they worked on, and, assisted by several engines from Jersey City, prevented the flames from reaching more than 10 out of the 20 tanks. Nevertheless, two large warehouses, the office building, the machine shop, the pump-house, the boiler-house, carpenter's shop, and cooper's shop were destroyed, and before noon-time the place presented a broad scene of burning, smoking ruins.

Cavan's Point is situated three miles out from Jersey City, on the line of the Central Railroad of New-Jersey. It is reached by a short walk from the Claremont station, and was, until yesterday, covered wholly by the buildings and tanks of the National Storage Company and the Eagle Refinery of the Standard Oil Company. The refinery is west of the tanks and was consequently out of danger in yesterday's fire. The tanks begin at the southwesterly end of the point and run back about 150 yards. East of the tanks nearest to the water and running along the shore stood the two warehouses, each 200 by 310 feet in size. West of the tanks and running around behind them to the east are a number of tracks used for the unloading and loading of oil cars. On the west side of these tracks stood a number of small wooden buildings used for storage purposes. Along the entire water front extended a landing platform from which projected three short piers. A long trestle work carried cars but to Black Tom Island, a small piece of land in the bay on which stands a building used for storing barrels. The numbering of the tanks begins at the water's edge and runs in a general way north.

The tank which the lightning struck was No. 5, a large one standing in the middle of the point on the edge of the shore. The flames leaped across from this, and the next one seems to be burning was No. 1. The scene at thist time is described as appalling. Dense volumes of black smoke rolled upward, while though it flashed great sheets of blood-red flame. These shot up to a great height with a crackling that sounded like the discharge of a volley of pistols, and a deep, continuous roar which could be heard far out over the water. Men rushed from every direction, but could do little toward checking the progress of the flames. A fireman of Engine No. 10, in Halliday-street, Jersey City, about a mile away, saw the flames when they burst from the first tank, and at once gave the alarm. The engine was immediately started for the scene and was dragged with great difficulty acorss the marshy land intervening. The firemen began work by trying to quench the fire with water, but soon found that their efforts were useless. The water only carried the blazing oil to sputter and crackle more. They then confined their work to saturating with water those buildings which were still safe. Engines Nos. 8 and 9 and Truck No. 5 arrived soon after No. 10 and joined in the work. They were apparently successful in their efforts until nearly 8 o'clock, when tank No. 7, containing 20,000 barrels of oil, suddenly exploded with a terrific report and a concussion that was felt for many rods around. The heavy brick walls on which the tank rested, over a foot thick, were blown in every direction, and pieces of the heavy riveted iron were carried long distances. Chief Farrier, of the Jersey City Fire Department, and a number of men were at work only a short distance from this tank when it burst, and their escape was little short of miraculous. When they had recovered from the terrible shock it was discovered that eight persons were missing. They were John Herbert, the Superintendent of the Eagle Refinery; Joseph Jenkins, George Davis, Henry Keelver, Richard Conklin, William Curry, James Herbert, son of John Herbert, and Willie Breese, his adopted son.

When the fire broke out Mr. Herbert, who had a special wire running to his room from the works, at once hastened to the scene, and with the oters endeavored to give what aid he could. It is impossible to tell precisely how he and his companions lost their lives, because in the excitement of the moment no one was able to see exactly what happened. When the tank exploded, the burning oil rolled out in a fiery stream, and threatened to engulf every one near it. The probability is that the lost men were knocked down and covered by the flying bricks, and before they could ree themselves the flaming streams of oil overtook them and burned them to death. Two out of the eight missing men proved in the end to be safe. These were James Herbert and Willie Breese. Superintendent Herbert, when he boldly rushed in among the blazing tanks, ordered his child and his adopted son to keep back. They obeyed his order, and yet had hardly heard it when the fatal explosion came. They were between the water and the tanks. All escape in a landward direction was cut off by the streams of burning oil. They turned and ran for their lives over the trestle-work to Black Tom Island. About one-third of the inner end of the trestle was soon afterward burned away, and the two lads found themselves imprisoned alone on the little island, almost certain that their father had perished, and unable to ascertain his fate or to let their friends know they were safe. Two hours they remained on the island. Then an employe of the refinery, rowing by in his boat, passed within hailing distance of the island and they shouted to him. He heard them and took them off to the mainland, where they were received with joy by their friends, but were sad by the confirmation of their fears in regard to their father. From the account of the explosion given by Willie Breese it appears that Davis was tapping the tank to see how much oil was in it when the explosion occurred. There could be no doubt as to the fate of the six men, as it was utterly impossible for them to escape.

In the mean time the flames had gone on spreading until ten tanks, running from No. 1 to No. 11, inclusive, were on fire. No. 9, a small tank, was recently taken away. The mass of flame rolled upon the warehouses, which contained 55,000 empty barrels in readiness for filling. These formed magnificent fuel for the fire, and it burned with redoubled energy. Soon the engine-room, boiler-room, and other buildings before mentioned, situated immediately behind the warehouses and tanks, took fire, and were reduced to a heap of smoking ruins. The blazing oil ran in rivulets over the point and down into the water. It spread over the surface of the water and, still burning and presenting a scene of terror, set fire to the landing platform, three piers, and half a dozen oil barges. The inner ends of the piers were destroyed, but the outer ends remained standing. This was due to the fact that the wind was from the south by east, and prevented the flames from spreading over the water. The blazing oil was driven back toward the land, and lay burning upon the surface of the water with a peculiar hissing sound, as if it were fairly boiling the water underneath it. The railroad tracks running beside the tanks were twisted into a hundred fantastic shapes and three oil cars were destroyed. Several others were saved by throwing earth upon them. The cars and barges destroyed belonged to contractor John H. Fesner, who was building a track across the meadows. A residence not far from the scene of the conflagration took fire, but was quickly extinguished. Yesterday afternoon the scene on Cavan's Point was one of utter destruction. One oil tank was blazing furiously, while from under another, which had fallen in, rolled sheets of bright red flame. From both great inky masses of oily looking smoke soared to a great height and swept away to the northward. A choking odor of burned oil permeated the atmosphere and made it difficult to breathe, while the smoke from the woodwork rendered breathing almost impossible. About 3 o'clock the firemen got their apparatus together and wearily started homeward. Long afterward, however, employes of the place continued to pour streams of water into the hot and smoking ruins. A gang of men, under the charge of William Curry's father, were busily engaged in a search for some traces of the lost men. About 3:30 o'clock a number of charred bones were found in the place where the missing men were known to have been at the time of the explosion. Most of these were crushed and charred, but some of them retained their shape sufficiently to be identified as human bones. Nothing could be found to show that they were the remains of the missing men, but the workmen engaged in the search were positive that there had been no bones in that place before the fire. The ground was a stretch of bare clay, and any bones lying there would certainly have been seen. Piles of scattered bricks lay in every direction, and as these were picked up one by one pieces of charred bones were found among them. It was generally conceded that these were the bones of some of the burned men, and that no other traces of them would ever be found. Nevertheless, a number of boiler-makers were sent for by Charles A. Sterling, the General Manager of the National Storage Company, who was on the ground all day, to cut up and take away the crushed tank No. 7 in order that a search might be made under it. Nothing had been found up to a late hour. The scene at George Leslie's boarding house, a short distance west of the works, where some of the men and their wives lived, is described as heartrending when the news of the fatal explosion was heard. The women, so suddenly and terribly deprived of their husbands, were almost crazed with grief, and their shrieks of agony were blood curdling. Mr. Herbert, the Assistant Superintendant of the refinery, was a very popular man among the workmen, to whom he is said to have been very kind, and they were fervent in their expressions of sorrow. This is the third fire which has occurred at this place. The amount of oil contained in the burned tanks was 110,000 barrels.

JOHN HERBERT, Assistant Superintendent of the Eagle works, was 41 years of age, and had been employed at the company since the Standard Oil Company purchased the property, about a year ago. He leaves a wife and two children - a son, James, nearly 21 years of age, and a daughter 4 years of age. Mr. Herbert for 10 years previous to his coming to New-Jersey was employed as Superintendent of E. E. Hendrick's refinery at Carbondale, Penn. When Mr. Hedricks came to New-Jersey, as Superintendent of the Eagle Refinery, Mr. Herbert accompanied him as Assistant Superintendent. He lived at No. 311 Communipaw-avenue, Jersey City.

JOSEPH JENKINS, boss cooper, 25 years of age, was unmarried. He also lived at No. 311 Communipaw-avenue.

GEORGE DAVIS, engineer in charge of the Ammonia-works, was 30 years of age. He lived at George Leslie's boarding-house only a short distance from the scene of the fire. He leaves a widow but no children. She was at Mr. Leslie's yesterday, and was completely prostrated by the death of her husband.

HENRY KAGLER, a workman employed about the yards of the Eagle Refinery, was about 30 years of age. He boarded at Leslie's. He leaves a widow and two young children, all of whom were visiting Mrs. Kagler's parents in Carbondale, Penn. The news of Mr. Kagler's death was telegraphed to the wife this morning, and she at once started for Claremont, in company with her father, to take charge of her husband's remains in case they are found.

RICHARD CONKLIN, a yard workman, about 28 years of age, was unmarried and lived at Bergen Hill.

WILLIAM CURRY, 17 years of age, was emplyed as a blacksmith's helper. He resided with his parents at Bergen Hill. His father, with a number of volunteers, was engaged until a late hour in the eveneing in what proved to be a fruitless search for his son's remains.

Mr. Freeman, Treasurer of the Standard Oil Company, said that the company practically insured itself. A certain amount of the value of their stock was set aside as a reserve fund to cover the losses which might occur by fire or otherwise. Nevertheless it had insured part of the oil it had at Communipaw in several insurance companies, but he could not yet tell to what amount or in what companies. Mr. Charles A. Sterling, manager of the National Storage Company, said last evening that the loss to that company would amount in round figures to about $300,000, most of which had been caused by the destruction of the docks and piers. As far as the iron tanks were concerned, they could be easily replaced, and that in a short time. He believed that the property of the company that was burned was for the greater part covered by insurance in a large number of companies, but he had not been able to get at the books to furnish their names and the amounts of insurance. Mr. Sterling could only make a rough estimate of the value of the oil belonging to the Standard Oil Company that had been destroyed by fire, and that was $200,000. he entire loss to the Standard Oil Company, the National Storage Company, and the other companies and persons who had oil stored in Communipaw would be very little over $500,000. Lombard, Ayres & Co. had a quantity of oil stored here. One of the members of the firm said the value of their oil that was burned did not exceed $4. 00 [sic], fully covered by insurance in the following fire insurance companies: The German-American, the New-Orleans, the Phoenix, and La Confinnre. A meber of the Central Refining Company, which also had oil stored in the destroyed tanks, said that their loss amounted to between $3,000 and $4,000, which was fully covered by insurance. The Pennsylvania Oil Company had a small quantity of oil destroyed; it was injured to the amount of $2,000 in the Hamburg-Bremen Fire Insurance Company. Messrs. Howell & Co. were also said to have had $2,000 worth of oil burned. It was fully insured in the Standard Fire Insurance Company.

The news of the great oil fire in New-Jersey caused an unusual degree of excitement on the two Oil Exchanges in this City yesterday. There was a wide-spread eagerness among oil-dealers in the early part of the day to find out whether or not the oil destroyed was property for which Standard certificates had been issued. It was stated about noon that the burned oil was not what is known as certificate oil. The market was held up pretty stiffly during the forenoon, mainly, it is said, through the manipulations of the Standard Oil Company's agents. The opening price was 93 cents per barrel, and it dropped gradually to 94 6/8, and closed at 93 1/8. The sales for the day on the National Petroleum Exchange was $2,500,000, and on the New-York Exchange $1,230,000.

The New York Times, New York, NY 11 May 1883