Up in Flames: Turn of the Century Glass Factory Fires and Firefighting Reform

At 8 o’clock in the evening on Monday, December 30, 1907, the Uniontown Flint Glass Factory in Uniontown, Pennsylvania went up in flames. The Morning Herald, the city’s only daily paper, described throngs of people flocking to watch the glassworks burn to the ground as firefighters struggled to keep the fire contained to the confines of the factory. The factory was empty except for the night guard and a single worker who lost his life. However, the company sustained the total loss of its uninsured property.

People line up along the railroad tracks to watch the destruction of the Uniontown Flint Glass Factory on the evening of December 30, 1907. Image Credit: The Morning Herald, Tuesday, December 31, 1907.

Glass Factory Fires

Unfortunately, events like the Uniontown Factory fire were a common occurrence. Glass was a booming business in the late 1800s and early 1900s due in part because of increased demand for glass in both household and commercial settings and because of cheap and plentiful fuel. The cheap cost of natural gas and attractive subsidies from towns and cities encouraged entrepreneurs to establish new glass companies and expand their existing businesses.

Glass requires temperatures upwards of 1600 degrees Fahrenheit to melt. The furnaces that reached these extremely high temperatures seem like they would be an obvious fire hazard. However, the fires that destroyed these ventures were not always caused by the furnace or ovens. The fire in Uniontown was caused by a bursting pipe that carried natural gas to the factory. Many fires at this time had undetermined causes, but contemporary newspaper articles identified various causes of glass factory fires including tornados, accidentally dropped matches, an overflow of molten glass, bursting oil pipes, and a healthy suspicion of foul play and arson.

A packing room at a Belgian glass factory circa 1930-1950. Packing rooms like this one were often identified as the starting point of turn of the century fires due to the amount of hay and other packing materials, such as paper and twine, that were kept in these areas. Image credit: CMGL Chambon Collection 20th Century.

Early Firefighting Equipment

Uniontown’s total loss was not an uncommon occurrence. Early firefighting methods often could not extinguish glassworks’ fires quickly enough. During this time, fire brigades were beginning to transition from horse-pulled fire engines to motorized ones. The reliance on teams of horses increased firefighters’ preparation time and the likelihood of issues on the way to the fire. Often, there were not enough fire hydrants surrounding the factories or long enough hoses to reach the buildings. Because fires were not promptly extinguished, these fires burned so fiercely that sometimes the only option was to contain the fire and try to prevent damage to surrounding businesses and homes.

Firefighters rush to prepare the horse-drawn engine as they are called to the site of a fire in this 1877 illustration titled “An Alarm” from Harper’s magazine. Image Credit: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “An alarm” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1877-10.
Itinerate glassworkers, who traveled the country showing off their artistic and technical skills, captivated audiences by creating working steam engines and machines out of glass. One of these glassworkers even created a glass replica of early firefighting equipment. The Columbia was a hand fire engine that could shoot water up to 15 feet away. Learn more about itinerate glassworkers in Curiosity highly gratified by Rebecca Hopman. Image Credit: CMGL 112113.

Glass Company Safety Measures

To offset the risk of losses, many glass companies turned to insurance. Companies could fully or partially insure their properties to ensure that they would be able to rebuild after a fire. Without insurance and a plan to rebuild, in cases of large factory fires, as many as 500 men could be temporarily or permanently unemployed. For example, after an 1898 fire destroyed all but one of the Pennsylvania Plate Glass Company’s buildings, the partially insured company located in Irwin, Pennsylvania faced estimated losses of $700,000 with an insurance policy of only $400,000. The destruction and permanent closure of a glass factory could have had a far-reaching economic impact in small-town America.

Sanborn insurance maps like this 1908 map of Corning, NY, helped insurance companies assess fire risks. Individual buildings (including those owned by glass factories) were colored red – brick, blue – stone, green – other, or yellow – wood frame, to identify building materials. Information was also outlined concerning a town or city’s water system, firefighting equipment, and other factors that affect the likelihood and outcome of a fire. Image Credit: CMGL 706558.

Other companies took further precautions. Some companies started factory fire brigades staffed by workers and foremen. With factory employees trained as firefighters and equipment on hand, valuable time would not be lost waiting for the city firefighters to arrive on the scene. Factory workers also already knew the layout of the factory’s interior, preventing potential injuries to city firefighters.

Glass factories could be dangerous terrain for an outsider. For example, window glass factories featured deep channels in the factory floor where glass cylinders were produced. An unaware firefighter could easily fall into one of these gaps. Using factory workers as company firefighters decreased the likelihood of city firefighter injuries due to factory layout. This F. O. C. Darley print from 1845-1888 shows a typical cylinder glass factory setup. Image Credit: CMGL 145571.

In stark contrast to the loss of property and capital in both Uniontown and Irwin, on December 3, 1904, in Coffeyville, Kansas, a fire broke out in the blacksmith shop of the Coffeyville Window Glass company factory. Because the fire was noticed by a night guard and the company had its own firefighting equipment, the guard was able to begin containing the blaze before the city firefighters arrived. The joint efforts of factory and city firefighters saved the main factory buildings, cutting shop, and flattening room. The company only sustained $8,000 dollars’ worth of damage, and all 200 employees were able to return to work the next day.

The Corning Glass Works specification documents in 1884 included this short section on fire safety. The report lists firefighting equipment such as fire grenades, buckets, ladders, hydrants, and lists the Corning fire department as backup during a fire. The “character” section also notes that only five or six bales of hay are or should be used at a time and buckets should be present in every building for fire safety. Image Credit: CMGL Rights and Reproduction Collection.

Factory Fires and Reform

On July 12, 1916, the Fairmont Art Glass Factory burnt to the ground. The incident was fraught with so many issues that the mayor ordered the fire chief to compile a report on the conditions of the town’s firefighting equipment and potential improvement efforts. The initial findings of this review identified many of the same issues mentioned above. The chief found that the two horses pulling the engine were 19 and 22 years old and recommended the purchase of an automated truck. The fire hydrants in the area were impossible to reach, and the closest source of water was over 700 feet away from the factory. The fire company was forced to use 1600 feet of hose just to reach the fire. And finally, the only ladder owned by the company allowed the men to reach up to 50 feet, but it took 7 men to lift belying its usefulness. In Fairmont, the mayor and fire chief began discussing the need for new and better equipment as soon as two days after the fire.

In the United States, as safety regulations became standardized across the glass industry and equipment and firefighting methods improved, fires became less common and far less destructive. Human error, of course, still exists. Sometimes mistakes are made which could lead to fire, injury, or other disasters, but because of safety regulations and inspections, unsafe environments in modern facilities are quickly discovered and corrected. Although these turn-of-the-century fires were disastrous for businesses, small towns, and individuals, they drove needed reform and change in both the industrial and the public sectors.

Notes and Sources:

To learn more about the gas boom see:

  • Paquette, Jack K. Blowpipes: Northwest Ohio Glassmaking in the Gas Boom of the 1880s /. United States: Xlibris Corp., 2002.

Sanborn maps are a great resource for identifying how towns and cities have changed over time. The Library of Congress has an extensive collection of Sanborn maps that can be viewed online.

To write this blog post, I consulted newspaper articles about specific glass factory fires. Some of these fires are:

  • April 12, 1898 – Pennsylvania Plate Glass in Irwin, Pennsylvania
  • December 3, 1904 – Coffeyville Window Glass Company in Coffeyville, Kansas
  • July 21, 1907 – American Window Glass Company in Bellevernon, Pennsylvania
  • May 13, 1908 – Caney Glass Factory in Caney, Kansas
  • July 12, 1916 – Fairmont Art Glass Factory in Fairmont, West Virginia
  • January 11, 1917 – Anhauser-Busch Brewing Association in St. Louis, Missouri
  • May 25, 1920 – Illinois-Pacific Glass Company in San Fransisco, California
  • March 15, 1930 – Bartlett-Collins Glass Factory in Sapulpa, Oklahoma

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