The Hoboken Dock Fire Of 1900
By James Donahue
A fire that started in some bales of wool stacked on the pier of the North German Lloyd docks on June
30, 1900 quickly turned into a conflagration that gutted three fine liners, destroyed the docks and nearby warehouses and
killed nearly 400 workers, most of them crew members caught in the burning ships.
Fortunately, no passengers were aboard any of the liners.
Burned in the fire were the liners Bremen, Main and Saale. The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, the flagship
of the North German Lloyd fleet, sustained damage but was saved by a battery of tug boats that managed to pull her from its
moorings even as the flames were lapping at her sides.
Fourteen tugboats were involved in battling the fire, rescuing men who jumped into the waters of the
Hudson River, and pulling the burning vessels away from their moorings on the burning pier. Several tugboats, lighters and
barges that had been involved in loading and unloading cargo from the ships were also damaged.
Even though they were still manned by their crews, the four liners caught in the blaze did not have
their steam up so were unable to escape the flames under their own power. The fire, fanned by a stiff wind, spread so fast
that many crew members were caught to perish below decks and the working tugs were unable to get to them in time.
While most of the sailors aboard the Main died in the fire, sixteen miraculously escaped by climbing
down into a coal bunker deep in the bowels of the ship where they suffered from the heat, but managed to avoid the fire and
smoke until the fires were extinguished. One man was blinded by steam. All were hospitalized after they were pulled from the
A writer for one New York publication, the Graphic, described the disaster: "In nine minutes
the four piers, alongside which had been moored the pick of the North German liners, were aflame from end to end. Crowded
with merchandise of every description, the dock buildings, light wooden structures, burnt like tinder. Barrels of oil and
spirits exploded, and spread the fire to the shipping."
All four liners were repaired and rebuilt to sail again.
At 655 feet in length, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse in its day was the largest and fastest liner
operating in the Atlantic. The ship sported four funnels and offered luxurious interior designs that made it among the finest
liners operating between Europe and New York. As the fire burned through the Bremen, moored alongside the big liner, crew
members cut the moorings as several small tugs attempted to pull it out of harm’s way. It was not until the largest
tugboat in the harbor, the Admiral Dewey commanded by Captain George Belgarde arrived on the scene, that the Kaiser Wilhelm
der Grosse was pulled free. By then some of the wooden lifeboats were burning. The flames were quickly extinguished and the
ship was saved.
The Bremen, a three-year-old Barbarossa Class liner designed for both passengers and freight, was
256 feet long. It was set adrift in the Hudson and beached in Weehawken flats. The ship was rebuilt and ceded to Britain as
war reparation in 1919. It operated as the Constantinople by the Byron Line. It was scrapped in 1929.
The Main was a new Rhine Class liner measuring 520 feet. Although the vessel was extensively damaged
by the fire, it was rebuilt and returned to service making regular runs between Bremen and Baltimore. The ship was also ceded
to Britain as war reparation in 1919. It was scrapped in 1925.
The Saale was 439 feet long. Built in 1886, it was the oldest vessel to burn. The vessel was rebuilt
and sold to the Luckenbach Line and served as a cargo ship. It was given the name SS J. L. Luckenbach. The ship came under
attack during World War I but made it safely to port in France. It was scrapped in 1924.