Published on July 1, 2020.

On the Waterfront

The 1921 Hoboken Pier fire


On the evening of August 24, 1921, several vessels were docked at the Hoboken Pier in Hoboken, New Jersey. Some of the vessels had recently transported the remains of thousands of US soldiers back from France, where they had died fighting in World War I. Some of the bodies remained on the docked ships, while others were being held in warehouses on the piers, according to the Courier News.

Piers 4, 5, and 6 were controlled by the United States Army Transport Service, and at around 6:30 p.m. a watchman spotted a fire in the pier shed near the waterfront of Pier 5 and sounded the alarm. By the time the Hoboken Fire Department arrived at the scene, Pier 5 was engulfed in flames, and the intense heat and smoke made accessing the pier impossible. Chief John Gilday immediately called for additional help. According to a Fire and Water Engineering article, the Jersey City Fire Department sent additional land apparatus, and the New York Fire Department sent several fireboats, including the New Yorker, the Duane, and the Strong.

A New York Times article indicated that, shortly after reinforcements arrived, the fire had spread to Pier 6 and was threatening the Leviathan, a large vessel that was docked at Pier 4. While the Strong and the New Yorker attacked the burning piers, the Duane placed itself between the Leviathan and the burning pier, spraying the ship to protect it from the fire. The efforts of the fireboats and a shift in the wind are thought to have prevented the fire from destroying the ship and spreading to Pier 4, where the remains of 1,500 US soldiers were being stored.

Meanwhile, on land, the remains of 400 US soldiers were endangered when the fire began spreading to a warehouse between Piers 4 and 5. Army officers from the 13th Infantry removed the 650-pound caskets from the heat- and smoke-filled rooms of the warehouse. The officers, along with 100 recruited civilians, carried the bodies to safety, according to a New York Times article.

Thanks to the combined efforts of attacking by both land and sea, the fire was brought under control around 10 pm. The fire destroyed Pier 5, including the Army headquarters and barracks, and about 100 feet of Pier 6. It also damaged some of the vessels docked at the piers. The cause of the fire is unknown, but according to an NFPA Quarterly article, it was thought that the fire may have started from faulty electric wiring or from a discarded cigarette.

CAITLIN WALKER is a digital asset librarian at NFPA. Top photograph: NFPA