Capt. Joseph H. Ware and the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Fire February 8, 1865

“A Terrible Fire in Philadelphia.

On Wednesday morning last a fire broke out in an extensive depot for the storage of petroleum, in Washington Avenue above Ninth street, Philadelphia.  The buildings consisted of four large sheds and the lot extended back nearly to Ellsworth street.  The extensive lot was nearly all occupied by barrels of coal oil, piled tier upon tier.  The place was a sort of bonded warehouse fro this product, and was in charge of the firm of Blackburn & Co.  Three thousand barrels of coal oil were stored here.

Ninth street, below Washington, is built up principally with three-story brick dwellings, occupied mainly by respectable families of limited means – the houses renting, we should judge, from two hundred to two hundred and fifty dollars a year.  The first street below Washington street is Ellsworth.  The next is Federal, both of which streets had, in that vicinity, about the same class of dwellings upon them as those upon Ninth street.  Upon the south-west corner of Ninth and Washington streets there is a coal yard belonging to Messrs. DAILY & PORTER, and immediately west of this, upon Washington street, was the lot of BLACKBURN & Co.

Policeman ORR, who is a very intelligent and faithful man, says that about half past 2 o’clock, while walking his beat ancle [sic] deep in slush, he saw the fire flashing from one of the spacious sheds, among the barrels.  He gave the alarm upon the instant, and with direful forebodings, as he knew all the perils of the place, and also the feeling that existed in the vicinity concerning it.  His misgivings proved but too well founded.  Before the nearest engine could reach the spot, one shed filled with flame, while under the eaves of the shed ascended an ominous column of smoke blacker than the thunder clouds f the tropics.  The heat caused the upper tier of barrels to burst; the oil poured down over the rest, ran blazing over the ground, and by the time the firemen reached the spot all four of the sheds were sending up columns of dark red flame that imprinted its glare upon the entire southern sky.  Wild excitement and deadly fear seized upon all in the vicinity.  Everywhere there were commotion and alarm.  Let the reader light a single coal oil lamp with the wick at smoking height.  Let him multiply the volume of that light by the inflammable product of two thousand barrels filled with coal oil, and he will not refuse to credit our statement that small print could be read by light of that terrible blaze at the distance of nearly two squares.

People in the immediate neighborhood rushed from their houses as best they could.  Dozens of people ran in utter panic into the streets, just as they left their beds, all unmindful of the slush, six inches deep, that covered the sidewalks as well as the streets.  Those who were most prompt saved their lives, but terrible to relate, a number who were tardy in their movement, or over confident of safety, perished.  The streets after the snow storm of the day previous, and of the rain that followed the snow in four hours duration, were extremely bad condition.  The fireman saw that they could only control the spread of the flames, and that to extinguish the fire was impossible.

As molten lava would course down the side of Vesuvius, did the burning coal oil, floating upon the eater in the swollen gutters, course in it gradual descent until it found the level of the sewers.  This liquid fire thus found a channel into Ninth street, and won Ninth past Ellsworth, thence down to the sewer in Federal street, and along all that course it set fire to the houses on both sides of the street, spreading equal destruction in Washington, Ellsworth and Federal streets, both above Ninth and below it.  That area is now a mass of blackened ruins.

The space between the railroad tracks on Ninth street was literally a canal of Tartarean fire.  The intense heat of the current can be seen in the rails, warped and bent, and in the cobble-stones cracked and riven [sic] by the same agency.  The fronts of houses many yards distant from any fire are blistered beyond recognition by the heat.

So fast ran the blazing oil, that to save any property in the vicinity of the yards was impossible.  It is the property of coal oil, when burning, to evolve impenetrable smoke.  So dense it is that the fire beneath is at times obscured.  It was thus that in rushing from their houses into this smoke men, women and children stepped from their very doors into the fatal fire.  There stands now in Ninth street, between Washington and Federal street, scarce a house of which anything remains but tottering walls.  Furniture, clothing, everything in these houses was gone.  Even farther down the street, where families were taking out their household goods, the liquid fire came upon them, and the half-rescued property was lapped up by its thirsty tongue.  The coal yard adjoining the oil yard was filled with piles of coal, and among them ran the blazing oil.  At four o’clock the solid unbroken sheet pf flame covered this whole ground.  There was not in it one single break.  No such fire has ever before occurred in Philadelphia.  It was as the furnace of Nebuchadnezzar, into which the water thrown by the steamers did but sink, like the water of the snow that had previously covered the ground, to swell the remorseless current that bore upon its bosom the element of destruction.  There were  as many houses on fire at one moment as would have stretched a continuous length of five squares, and of these at least fifty are wrecks.  Six dwellings on the south side of Ninth street, next to the corner of Washington street, adjoining the coal-yard, were annihilated at the first start.

In front of the one nearest Washington street three person were burned to death, and more bodies are supposed to be buried in the ruins.  The next house, No. 1128, was occupied by CAPTAIN JOSEPH H. WARE.  The occupant of one of the other houses threw his wife from the window.  Her back was broken by the fall, and she is reported to have perished in the flames.  CAPTAIN WARE’S  family consisted of himself, wife, five daughters and two sons.  They all rushed into the street just as they left their beds.  MRS. WARE had her youngest child, a girl of about five years of age, in her arms.  She fell, and LEWIS C. WILLIAMS, a member of the Moyamensing Hose Company, made a desperate effort to save her.  He grasped her, but was compelled by the fierceness of the flames to abandon her to her fate.  MRS. WARE, her child and a daughter about fifteen or sixteen years of age, were burned to death in the street, and so horribly mutilated that their remains can only be identified by circumstances.  CAPTAIN WARE and his two sons escaped; but three of the daughters are missing.  Both himself and sons were badly burned.  Six bodies in all were recovered; they were taken to the Second district station house.  Three were of the WARE family.  One was a body supposed to be that of MRS. JAMES GIBBONS, proprietor of a dry goods store, 1133 south Ninth street.  There was also saved the body of a boy not yet recognized, and a man whose body was found in Ninth street, a short distance below Washington street.  A fragment of red cloth, resembling the lining of a fireman’s coat, leads to the belief that the victim was a fireman.  It was here that the flames  burned most fiercely and spread with such rapidity.  It seems a miracle that any one at all escaped.  One thing is certain, that had it not been for the extra exertions of the fireman, many more would have perished.

As an instance of the rapidity with which the flames spread, we might state that the whole square was enveloped before one-half of the people were aroused, and many of them were awakened from their slumbers by the firemen, who burst in doors, and rushed in to the rescue of the slumbering occupants.  An infant about two years old was found lying on the opposite side of the street, burned to a crisp.

The Franklin Repository, Chambersburg, PA 15 Feb 1865”


Capt. Joseph H. Ware and the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Fire February 8, 1865 — 1 Comment

  1. This fire had the makings to just about destroy the entire city. Such a human tragedy taking the lives of innocent people. It’s difficult to read, but we must be aware of this and take precautions as it can happen even today ever so rapidly.


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