On the morning of Feb. 26, 1895, a great fire destroyed the cupola of Brooklyn’s City Hall – now Borough Hall. The Brooklyn Eagle of course had the story ready in time for their 4 o’clock edition and it dominated their front page.
The fire was believed to have broken out at 7:30 a.m. in the wash room located underneath the stairway to the top floor. Whether or not it had been caused by the work of “incendiaries” was yet to be determined.
Nobody was seriously injured in the blaze, though it was a very close call for the building’s “keepers” and their families, who lived on the top floor.
A man named James Dunne was keeper, assisted by Frank Weekes, who was living with his wife and a 3-year-old child (reportedly an orphan from New Jersey).
Mr. Dunne had four children, three of whom were home at the time, along with his wife. They were sitting down to breakfast when Mr. Weekes burst in to inform them that smoke and flames were issuing from the wash room beneath them. There was but one staircase to the top floor and it was made of wood. By the time the group tried to make their escape, the staircase was too overcome with fire to be passable.
Smoke was soon filling the rooms and the family was forced to gulp in fresh air from the open windows. “I was in a state of great excitement and every minute seemed an hour,” Dunne later said.
Finally, Hook and Ladder No. 10 of State Street arrived, but the firemen botched it. They underestimated the distance to the window and didn’t park the ladder beyond the curb, close enough to the building. When they lengthened the ladder it didn’t reach the window.
Just when all seemed hopeless, District Engineer Samuel Duff came to the rescue. He had been working on getting the flames under control from the lower floor and finally calmed the fire enough on the stairway so that the two families could pass.
The crowd that now gathered outside the burning building cheered as the families emerged unharmed. But it was clear the fire that had spread to the cupola and clock tower would be more difficult to tame.
Here is how the Eagle described the culmination of the fire:
“Shortly after 8 o’clock there was a loud explosion and spectators thought that something awful had happened. The noise was occasioned by the cracking of the big bell under the influence of the great heat. A piece of the metal weighing probably three quarters of a ton dropped down through the charred timbers clear to the floor outside of the Common Council chamber, thirty feet below. The faces of the clock were gone long [before] this, and the big cog wheels, which marked out in their gaps the hours and minutes of time’s lapse for more than a generation of Brooklynites were warping and melting under the tremendous heat. At 8:15 the tower began to reel like a man with vertigo. Then there was only a charred skeleton to fall but that was almost shrouded in smoke and fire. Suddenly the cupola lurched forward and fell with a frightful crash. The remainder of the two-ton bell dropped straight down like a plummet and wedged itself with the debris of the clock between two of the beams of the fourth story…With the fall of the cupola came a shower of sparks which menaced the surrounding property.”
The fire was fully extinguished by 9 a.m. Amazingly, aside from the cupola, bell and clock, the structure was not too badly hurt. Most of the damage at that point was from the gallons of water poured over the flames. “The place had been flooded,” the Eagle wrote.
Mayor Charles Schieren was away in Baltimore and so the President of the Board of Alderman, Jackson Wallace, was acting mayor. He was able to address the calamity with jocularity before the day was out, saying, “Well, I think the old building looks better without the tower.”
Despite Wallace’s opinion, the cupola was replaced three years later, in 1898 — the year the building became “Borough Hall” rather than City Hall.
Four days after the fire, the fire marshal's report was issued and explained the cause of the fire: "Matches, which had been carelessly dropped on the floor in the several offices, had been swept up with the accumulation of dust and waste papers, all of which had been taken up and been placed in baskets, which were carried up to a closet located under the stairway leading to the top floor. These matches could have become ignited either by the friction caused in emptying the baskets or in being stepped on by parties handling the baskets."
On This Day in History: Fire at Borough Hall [Brooklyn Daily Eagle]