Centenary events recall Newark fire
Blaze claimed 26 lives, months before tragedy at Triangle factory
After a long delay, firefighters arrive from across the street to battle the Newark sweatshop fire. Photos courtesy Guy Sterling
If you go
What: 100th anniversary commemoration of Newark’s worst fire
When: Friday, Nov. 26, 9-10 a.m.
Where: Corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Orange Street, Newark
Contact: Guy Sterling at 973-565-0131
November 24, 2010
Four months before 146 sweatshop workers perished in a gruesome fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in Manhattan, another devastating blaze occurred in another unsafe garment factory — this one in Newark.
It happened 100 years ago, on Nov. 26, 1910, in a building on the corner of Orange Street and High Street (now Martin Luther King Boulevard). It is still considered the worst fire in Newark history.
Like the tragedy at the Triangle plant, the factory happened to be run by Jews and a great many of the victims were Jewish women and girls.
While the Triangle Shirtwaist fire is embedded in the history books as an object lesson in unsafe working conditions and exploitation of working-class women, the blaze in Newark, which claimed 26 lives, has largely been overlooked — until now.
A retired Star-Ledger newspaper reporter who has been living in Newark for the past 25 years is determined to commemorate the event.
Guy Sterling served as a panelist at a Nov. 16 seminar on the tragedy at Drew University in Madison.
And he has helped organize an interfaith memorial service that will take place Friday, Nov. 26, at the corner where the factory stood.
“The fire happened right around the corner from where I live,” said Sterling in a phone interview. “People in this neighborhood have always talked about it, but no one knew much about it. So I decided on the 100th anniversary I would do whatever I could to make sure that it is not forgotten in Newark history, which it pretty much has been.”
For the past year, Sterling has been researching the fire and its victims, most of whom worked in the fourth-floor sweatshop of the Wolf Muslin Undergarment Company.
After an electrical fire broke out in a light bulb factory one floor below, the women were burned to death or died from leaping out of windows. Safety exits were inadequate, and workers were instructed not to summon firefighters stationed across the street, lest they alert their employer’s insurance company.
“I didn’t want these 26 women to be forgotten,” said Sterling. So he set about tracking down their relatives and their burial sites. “I would like to find every headstone and any relatives of any of the victims,” he said.
‘I’m not giving up’
Thus far, he has managed to find the graves of 22 of the 26 victims. He spent many weeks looking for the resting places of three sisters — Dora, Tillie, and Minnie Gottlieb.
With the aid of Linda Forgosh, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest, and Alice Gould, a West Caldwell resident with voluminous knowledge of Newark’s Jewish cemeteries, Sterling found the sisters buried in the Grove Street Cemetery beneath a single tombstone inscribed with the surname “Gotlieb.”
Once he had located the graves, Sterling returned on the Sunday between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, hoping to run into relatives of the three sisters. “I stood out there by the tombstones for four hours,” he said. “It was a rainy, nasty day, but I was hoping someone would come.” No one did.
He is also looking for the burial sites and possible relatives of two other victims who, he said, “I am pretty sure were Jewish.”
One was Bessie Rosen. “According to the newspaper, she was buried at the same cemetery as the Gottlieb sisters, but the cemetery has no record of her,” Sterling said.
The other was Gertrude Denton, who was supposedly buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Hillside. The cemetery doesn’t have a record of her either. “I am assuming she was Jewish, but I don’t know that for a fact. I’m not giving up,” he said.
Sterling did manage to find a granddaughter of one of the Wolf brothers, who ran the nightgown factory.
“We spoke on the phone,” he said. “She told me she had learned about it from someone who was doing some genealogical work for the family, but she didn’t know much about it. She said this was something her family never knew about and never spoke about. I filled in the story for her.”
It is a story that he wants many others to be aware of. He plans to read the names of the 26 victims during a one-hour ceremony that will include prayers by a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, and a rabbi, Shalom Lubin from the Chabad Jewish Center in Madison, as well as remarks by officials from the city and Essex County.
“I want Newark to remember,” said Sterling. “This was a major event in the city’s history. It was the worst fatal fire the city of Newark has ever had. It spurred major change in how buildings were put up and how buildings operated from then on. The city of Newark has never done anything to commemorate the event. I just felt that I’m one person, and whatever I could do I was going to do.”
‘No one paid attention’
Although the Newark sweatshop fire and its causes were widely reported in New York newspapers, historians tend to remember an even more devastating blaze that killed 146 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in Manhattan on March 27, 1911.
Most of the victims were women, and an estimated 50-75 percent of them were Jewish.
As in Newark, blocked exits and inadequate safety features prevented many of the victims from escaping.
“I don’t think the owners of Triangle were particularly concerned about these kinds of issues,” said historian Richard Greenwald, dean of the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies at Drew University in Madison.
Greenwald is author of the 2005 The Triangle Fire, the Protocols of Peace, and Industrial Democracy in Progressive Era New York.
“The owners could have taken some precautions,” Greenwald told NJJN in a phone interview. “They might not have locked the doors or stored combustible materials in the stairwell. Some of the conditions in the shop — locked doors, oil canisters, and drums in the stairwell — would have been in violation of building codes the union helped achieve in other factories. Could there have been a fire? Yes. Would it have been as large as the one in which 146 people died? Probably not.”
The Triangle fire became a watershed in the history of the labor movement. The New York governor appointed a committee on safety, and the state legislature would pass 36 new laws improving safety and working conditions.
That fire and the one that claimed 26 lives in Newark 100 years ago have much in common. “There were exploited workers, a lack of decent working conditions, and tragic similarities,” Arieh Lebowitz, associate director of the Jewish Labor Committee, told NJJN by phone.
“It is important for people to remember these fires,” said Greenwald. “In stories at the time about the Triangle fire, they mentioned the Newark fire and would say, ‘One could see this coming, and we did nothing to prevent it.’
“The Triangle fire was preventable, and the reason it wasn’t prevented was that no one paid attention. We could repeat that again. The weakest members of the society are vulnerable, even today.”
— ROBERT WIENER