Old New York In Photos #44 – Western Union Building & The Day It Caught Fire

Western Union Telegraph Building – 1880

Broadway looking south Western Union Building 1880This view looking south on Broadway was taken from the Old Post Office in 1880 and shows a deserted stretch of the usually traffic clogged thoroughfare.

On the left in the foreground is the New York Herald Building. The building partially seen on the right side is the Astor House Hotel. Adjacent to the Astor with the columns is St. Paul’s Chapel. The tall structure further down Broadway is Trinity Church with its spire rising 281 feet. This was the highest point in New York until the World Building was built in 1890.

The main building dominating the photo at the corner of Broadway and Dey Street is the Western Union Telegraph Building designed by architect George B. Post. At 230 feet, it was one of the tallest commercial buildings in the city when it was built from 1872-1875. To put this tremendous height in perspective, this was four times the height of the average New York building. On top of the building’s flagstaff a time ball was perched which would drop precisely at noon, so everyone in the surrounding financial area could set their watch to the correct time.

The telegraph was still the predominant way to get a message to someone quickly. To send a telegram with the body message being ten words or less from New York to Baltimore or Boston cost 25¢; to Chicago 40¢ and to San Francisco $1.00.

Western Union Building Fire - New York Evening World

Western Union Building Fire – New York Evening World

A Fire Destroys The Building

As the night shift of telegraph operators and workers was letting out at 6:55 a.m. on Friday, July 18, 1890 the Western Union Building caught fire.

The fire broke out on the 6th floor and quickly spread to the upper floors. Firefighters arrived within six minutes of the first alarm being turned in.

The fire was far above the roof lines of the adjacent buildings and the water pressure from street level could not possibly come close to the fire. The firemen strung several hoses together and carried them up  into nearby buildings on to the roofs to fight the flames.

20,000 people watched from the surrounding streets as the firemen placed ladders from the adjacent building at 8 Dey Street to rescue people trapped in the Western Union Building and pour water on to the upper floors.

In two hours the fire was under control, but the damage was severe.

The upper floors of the Western Union Building were completely destroyed by fire and the lower five floors were flooded by water. Every telegraph wire was burned out or melted. Among the people whose offices were ruined by water were financiers Jay Gould and Russell Sage. The Associated Press lost its irreplaceable contracts, letters and record books which held the complete history of the company.

There was no loss of life because the fire occurred during a shift change and only 75 people were in the building when the blaze broke out. Had the fire occurred an hour later, a thousand people would have been on the premises and the loss of life most likely would have been staggering.

It was determined the fire started from an old single wire not properly insulated having got crossed with a wire heavily charged.

Within a day telegraph lines were re-routed to other Western Union offices and workers came in to salvage and repair what they could on the lower five floors. The building’s damage was estimated at $100,000.

The top three floors of the building were taken down and reconstructed adding additional floors, while expanding the building on to a neighboring lot on Dey Street which the company owned.

Western Union was acquired by the American Telephone & Telegraph Company in 1909 and the Western Union Building was demolished between 1912-1914. The new Western Union Building, also known as the Telephone Building or 195 Broadway, was completed in 1916 and still stands on the site.

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