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Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

100 Years Later, the Binghamton Clothing Company Factory Fire

Group burial at Spring Forest Cemetery, 1913.
In 1913, the Binghamton Clothing Company manufactured men’s work overalls in a large four-story building which stood downtown, in the main part of the city. The building had previously been occupied by a cigar factory, where it sat at 17 Wall Street. The back of the factory adjoined with the McKallor Drug Company. The north side of the building looked out over Henry Street, near the new Post Office. The Chenango River ran nearby on the far end of Wall Street.
It was July 22, a hot Tuesday at the factory, where all the windows and doors hung open, hoping to catch a breeze. The women were used to working in their underslips and stays when the summer sweltered, 150 women crammed into four floors of machines. On that particular day, there were only 111 women working. The Binghamton Clothing Company had been running frequent fire drills since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911, where 146 workers were killed.
The Binghamton girls could clear the building in 20 seconds, with Nellie Connor clapping a loud and steady walking rhythm upstairs, and foreman Sidney Dimmock doing the same downstairs. When the fire drill gong sounded that afternoon, most of the girls didn’t hurry to leave. Some, because they were paid per piece and it was time taken from their work, and others because they were not dressed fit enough to present themselves upon the street.
The girls upstairs didn’t know that an employee, Mrs. William Whitney, stated that she felt an unusual heat in the building at 1 o’clock. They also didn’t know that she alerted the girls downstairs to the smell of smoke at 2 o’clock, when an investigation ensued. At 2:30, flames were discovered. Reed Freemen, president and owner of the factory, tried to douse the fire with buckets of water, along with one of the cutters, Amber Fuller. When they couldn’t put the fire out, Reed pulled the alarm. Unlike their drills, this time, the alarm gong repeated continuously.
The fire started in the basement, building up and feeding on scraps. The open windows and doorways created a chimney of oxygen. The fire shot upward, venting through every opening it could find, including the elevator shaft. Those working on the first and second floors were alerted by the screams of Mrs. Reed B. Freeman, the wife of the President of the company, and could smell fire themselves.
By the time the smoke was thick enough to be a warning that the fire was serious, the wooden stairwell was in flames. On the fourth floor, fifty women had been working knee to knee on the machines that cut and sewed the patterns for the overalls. One woman who survived admitted that a girl had been reluctant to leave because of her state of dress and they had all settled back to their machines after her comment. The third floor did not fare better. Women leapt out of windows to escape the blaze. Half a dozen women, on fire, ran in their shirt dresses from the burning building straight into the Chenango River.
Thick smoke obscuring the building.
The only means of exit were a single stairwell and two small fire ladders. The fire alarm rang just before 3 o’clock and within eighteen minutes, the factory was a pile of ash and ember. At the time of the alarm, the fire company was already at work halfway across the city. In the twenty-four hours previous to the factory blaze, they had been out on five other calls due to drought. They only lost five minutes in responding but when they arrived, the heat was so intense it singed their wooden ladders and the water pressure was low in their hoses. The heat was so great they couldn’t enter; every window was full of fire.
Men digging in the rubble for bodies.
The whole of the building was charred and collapsed by 4 o’clock in the afternoon and it was all they could do to try to save the buildings around the factory. The walls and roof were caved in. Thirty-one people lost their lives in the fire. Only ten of those bodies were identifiable; the other victims’ names were taken from the employee registry. The firemen, police, and other volunteers digging through the debris were pulling out pieces, not whole bodies. 
The newspaper the next day reported: “Of the 125 girls on payroll, only seventeen have been accounted for as uninjured. Twenty-two are in the hospitals. Eight are being cared for in private homes.” They allowed for a number of them to have made it free of the building and sought swift safety at home. Several of the girls that lived were near insanity from their experience and pain.
The funeral procession of caskets headed for the cemetery.
A public funeral was held at the Stone Opera House on Chenango Street on July 28, for the unidentified women. There were 20,000 people in attendance. Eighteen of the workers were burned beyond recognition and buried in a large circle on a knoll in the center of the Spring Forest Cemetery.
The morning after the fire.
The true cause of the blaze was never discovered. The Binghamton Clothing Company fire was a loss of $100,000, beyond the lives gone, and it never resumed business. The owner of the company, Reed Freeman, heartbroken, spent the rest of his life caring for the families of the deceased.
In 2009, Binghamton dedicated a plaque along the Riverwalk downtown, near where the factory stood, to those who lost their lives in the fire. It holds the names of the 31 people killed in the blaze. On that day, two people, specifically, were honored for their actions and their sacrifice.
The memorial across from where the original factory stood.
Nellie Connor had been employed by the Binghamton Clothing Company for 31 years, and was looked up to by many of the workers. She hurried the other girls out as best she could, clapping a steady rhythm. Her body was identified by her gold pocket watch, fused together from the heat, at the third floor landing, surrounded by the remains of five other women, huddled against her.
Sidney Dimmock, the company foreman who had been with them for 16 years, was in charge of the fire drills. According to survivor reports, he was clapping his hands at a quick pace also, to hurry the girls along as they exited the building. He ran into the fire twice, and carried two women to safety. He ran back in for more. He never returned.
Following the deadly blaze in 1913, George F. Johnson, a local shoe factory owner, fitted his factories with sprinkler systems and other safety precautions. He was also one of the first businessmen in the country to cut his worker’s hours from 9.5 to 8 hours without cutting their pay. Thanks to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the Binghamton Clothing Company fire, worker conditions in the country began to shift.
The victims of the Binghamton Clothing Company Factory Fire
Mary Bianca
Martha D. Burdick
Ruth A. Button
Edith M. Chernoff
Stella M. Clark
Nellie Theresa Connor
Mary Josephine Creegan
Catherine Crowe
Sidney Dimmock
Margaret Dimon
Sarah Doran
Hattie Freeman
Mrs. John (Cassie) Fulmer
Nellie F. Gleason
Ida G. Golden
Louise Hartman
Emma D. Houghtaling
Lena Marie Kennedy
Nellie Kison
Mary Pryor
Bessie Ray
Emma G. Reid
Lizzie Risley
John Schermerhorn
Lou G. Shove
Mary T. Smith
Mary E. Sullivan
Ella M. White

3 unidentified died

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