Granite Mill Fire

 

The Osborne Library recently purchased a broadside of a poem describing the destruction of the Granite (Cotton) Mill in Fall River, Mass. on Sept. 19, 1874. Several poems about the fire exist, but we have reproduced three verses from the fourteen-verse poem we recently acquired.

Near seven o’clock in the morning,
In eighteen seventy-four
On the nineteenth of September,
From the Granite Mill did pour
The flames and smoke in torrents,
Suffocating old and young,–
Girls, women, men and children,
At Granite number one.

Mechanic, maid, and matron
From anvil, bench and loom,
Most wild with fright they hurried
Unto that living tomb.
A scene of death and suffering,
Heart rending to the eye,
To hear those helpless females
For help and mercy cry.

A word now to the Engineers:
See that everything is right,–
Look well at your fire department,
At morning, noon and night.
See that everything’s in order,
And keep in memory still,
The loss of life and suffering
By the burning Granite Mill.

The poem prompted me to check what material we had in the library relating to the mill and fire. I was pleasantly surprised to find that we had quite a bit from a variety of mediums. The fact is that the “worst” mill fire in Fall River’s history is often considered to be that of the Pocasset Mill and surrounding buildings in 1928, but the Granite Mill fire is the most celebrated. The library owns a small booklet, dated 1874, called A Complete History of the Great Fire at Granite Mill No. 1 (there were two mill buildings at that time) that contains a full list of the dead and wounded, the report of the coroner’s inquest, verdict of the jury, a description of the fire, incidents, etc. The fire originated on the fourth floor in the mule room (a spinning room), where the friction of one of the machines caused a small blaze which rapidly spread. Hoses were deployed but no water was available. Workers on the lower floors were able to escape, but no alarm was sent to the floors above. Many on the fifth floor were able to exit via the fire escapes which reached only to that floor. However, those on the sixth floor or attic were blocked by the smoke and flames and they retreated to the windows where many jumped to their death. Unfortunately, the fireman’s ladders only reached halfway up the building. Over twenty lost their lives and over thirty were injured.

Artists’ renderings of the fire were luridly and not always accurately depicted in the popular press of the day such as Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. We have reproduced two below from our collection of periodicals. We also own some stereocards of the mill in ruins—one an exterior and another showing men examining destroyed machinery.

 

The fire influenced some changes in mill architecture, but it took many more years to create safer conditions for workers. The owners were not held responsible for the fire and were not liable for workers’ injuries and deaths. The Granite Mill #1 was soon rebuilt, but was demolished in 1961. An 1876 insurance map in our collection shows drawings of Mill #1 and Mill #2, the latter said to be “of more recent construction.” Presumably this is the replacement for the one that burned. A later print in our collection, ca. 1900, shows the entire complex of three mills—another one having been built in 1893.

 

Clare Sheridan
Librarian

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