ENGINE 245 AND CONEY ISLAND TOGETHER FOR 100 HUNDRED YEARS
Coney Island is known for more than
its' amusement parks, fine hotels, beaches, and hot dogs. During
the turn of the century over 250,000 postcards would be mailed to
every corner of the globe on any given weekend during the summer
season. Because of these postcards, the area became a magnet for
people. The area was densely packed with poorly built shanties,
with narrow walkways between them. With the high density, cramped
condition, Coney Island also attracted the seedier side of life
with gambling, saloons and the ladies of the night. This all lead
to what Coney Island is also famous for, conflagration on a grand
Coney Island was first settled in the
late 1600's by the Dutch. The name "Coney" comes from
the Dutch word "Konijn" meaning wild rabbits. As early
as 1824, Coney Island was a summer play area for the rich and
famous visiting from New York City and Brooklyn. The growth of
the area remained the same until the Civil War. After the War,
five railroads were built from different parts of Brooklyn and
Coney Island began to grow into a resort area and the most densely
populated area in Brooklyn. This tightly and poorly built up area
would contribute to some of the worst fires to visit New York
Coney Island was located in the town
of Gravesend, which was annexed, along with the towns of New Utrecht,
Flatbush, and Flatlands by the City of Brooklyn on May 3, 1894.
This new land more than doubled the size of Brooklyn. When annexed,
the fire protection would be provided by the volunteers in the
area until the City's paid force could be expanded into the newly
annexed area. All of the expenses to operate the volunteers would
be paid for by the City of Brooklyn.
Fire protection on Coney Island was
organized in late 1886 with two companies. Atlantic Hose 1, and
Hook & Ladder 1 which were placed in service in a two story
firehouse at 2919 W. 8th Street. Later in 1892, a second hose
company was placed in service at Sheepshead Bay Road and W. 1st
Street. In 1893, two different fires struck Coney Island with
each burning a large section of the island.
The first fire was fought on the evening
of January 6, 1893. The fire started in a drug store on the corner
of Surf Avenue and W. 8th Street on a snowy, wind swept night.
It burnt a bathing pavilion, the West End Hotel a well-known resort
hotel, six stores, a 300 foot observation tower and many smaller
building before it ran out of fuel. The fire was fought in a gale
wind that blew the fire towards the ocean. The lost was set at
$250,000.00. The West End Hotel was a two story wood frame building
that measured 200 feet by 200 feet. In it was a bowling alley
and billiard rooms in the basement, restaurants and saloons on
the first floor and forty sleeping rooms upstairs.
The second fire of 1893 was on June
17th and was smaller but, took out a business block and the life
of a fireman. The fire started in Frishman Bakery at 2:15 in the
morning. A large pot of fat was spilled, setting fire to the woodwork.
The fire spread along Surf Avenue between West 11th and 12th Street,
burning out eleven buildings. The loss was set at $43,300.00 with
very little of it being insured. Fireman John Madden, along with
several other firemen were on the roof of the bakery when an explosion
inside of the building, weakened the roof. Everybody ran to the
edge of the roof for safety. Fireman Madden tripped and fell to
the roof just has the roof collapsed. His body was recovered after
the fire was put out. By dawn, the burned out basements were being
filled in with sand and new construction began before the embers
were cool. Most of the buildings would be ready for business in
a weeks time.
After the second fire the political
leaders of Coney Island ordered a new steam power fire engine
that would replaced the hand power machines.The steam fire engine
was ordered and arrivied late in 1893, Atlantic Engine 1 was placed
in service and kept with the other machines on W. 8th Street.
On December 9, 1895, the Coney Island
fire companies along with Gravesend Neck and Sheepshead Bay departments
were replaced by paid companies. Engine 44 (244) & Ladder
16, Engine 45 (245), Engine 46 (246) & Ladder 17, and Engine
54 (254) of the Brooklyn Fire Department were placed in three
volunteer houses. Engine 44 and Ladder 16 were located in a new
house on W. 15th Street. All of these companies were under the
command of District Chief 13 (now Battalion 43), located with
The first fire fought by Brooklyn's
Engine 45 was on October 27, 1896. The Coney Island Elephant was
built in 1876 and was the first of the famous attractions to burn.
The elephant was seven stories high and over 100 feet long. Built
of yellow pine and tin, it burnt to the ground in thirty minutes.
The first floor had a restaurant and saloon, while the upper floors
were used as a hotel. On the top was a howdad (the seat to ride
the elephant), which was used as an observation deck, came crashing
down in flames soon after the fire started. Also destroyed was
Shaw's Toboggan Sled ride, which surrounded the elephant. The
total lost was placed at $26,000.00. The elephant was seen in
every photograph of Coney Island used in books during the "Gay
90's." It was never a moneymaker for the owners and it was
sold several time in its short history. The elephant was located
at Surf Avenue and about W. 5th Street. This location would have
a repeat performance several years later.
On January 1, 1898, the Cities of New York with the Bronx, Brookyln, Long Island, parts of Queens County and Staten Island merged into the Greater City of New York. The Brooklyn Fire Department became part of the FDNY on January 28, 1898 with the companies being renumber on October 1, 1899.
Not a busy fire area in the beginning,
Engine 145 responded to only thirty five runs in 1899 with only
eleven working fires. One of these fires that year was fought
on May 26th, the burning of nine blocks along the beach, from
Jones Walk to Steeplechase Walk up to Bowery Street. This fire
started around 2:40 in the morning after a watch man tried to
put out a small fire. The fire spread from the original building
before the first alarm was sent to the fire department. Engines
144, 145, Engine 144's ladder truck and Battalion 13 (now 43)
arrived to find the end of Henderson Walk a roaring inferno.
Because of the narrowness of Henderson Walk, the hoses had to
stretched from the closest hydrant at Surf Avenue down to the
fire, some 1500 feet away. Due to the poor construction and the
closeness of the buildings the fire spread quickly to adjoining
buildings. Once the fire was out a total of twenty six hotels
were destroyed, along with 165 bath houses and many smaller buildings
occupied by families. No insurance company would insure any of
the buildings south of Bowery Street and the loss was estimated
at $300,000.00. The four alarm fire was fought by ten engines,
five ladder trucks and a fireboat.
The next "Big One" was on
November 1, 1903. This fire was started over a woman and destroyed
fourteen blocks. Three men were fighting with the owner of the
Albatross Hotel over a woman, and they started a fire in the laundry
room of the hotel. The fire started at Steeplechase Walk and Bowery
Street, then extended to Surf Avenue over to Jones Walk down to
the beach, back to Steeplechase Walk. A total of 264 buildings
were destroyed for a lost of $1,200,000.00, and 500 were left
homeless. A nine year girl was killed by the fire and thirty persons
were injured. The three men were arrested for starting the fire.
The four alarm fire and four special calls brought a total of
sixteen engines and three ladder trucks to the location.
On July 29, 1907, fire visited Tilyou
Steeplechase Park without paying admission. Built in 1897, by
George C. Tilyou, Steeplechase Park was the first of the well
known amusement parks to open. The park was famous for the mechanical
horse ride known as the Steeplechase. Other rides were the rolling
drums that people tried to walk through, the Spinning Floor ride
and through out the park were grates with air jets that blew air
up as people walked over them. At the entrance was the wide smiling
face of a clown, now used by Engine 245, Ladder 161, and Battalion
43 for their patch.
This fire was started under the stairs
of the pavilion, probably by a discarded cigar. The night watch
man found the fire around 3:45 in the morning and turned in the
alarm. He pulled the master box for the Park but, did not turn
the handle inside. The fire burned for twenty seven minutes before
the alarm was finally turned in. The fire spread quickly to adjoining
buildings. By Coney Island standards this fire was small, only
seventy four building were burnt in a four block area, along with
Steeplechase Park. Fireman Gottfried Messerli, of Engine 245 was
hit in the head by a falling beam. He died on August 2nd has result
of the injuries. The four alarm fire was under control in two
hours and was fought by twelve engines and four ladder companies.
Steeplechase Park would be rebuilt and it was closed in the 1960's.
Less than a year later, July 9, 1908,
the Pabst Loop Hotel, the Vanderveer Hotel and the Culver depot
of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit would be victims of the "Red
Devil". The name of Pabst Loop Hotel came from the fact the
hotel was curved and the BRT tracks looped around the building
to change direction back to Brooklyn. The loss for these three
building was set at $200,000.00. Located across the street from
Dreamland, on Surf Avenue and W. 5th Street, the firemen had visions
of the Island burning again. The new high pressure water system
was ordered turn on and several hose lines, hooked to the hydrants
were soon operating. The fire was held to these three buildings.
The new high pressure system saved the Island from burning. With
the new water system the big fires of the past appear to be a
Dreamland open its doors in 1904 and
cost $3.5 million to build. It was located on Surf Avenue between
W. 10th and W. 5th Streets to the ocean. A 400 foot long iron
pier stretched from the park out over the ocean. The park was
laid out with wide walkways and sites, like the Canals of Venice,
the waterfalls of Pompeii, and the Tower of Seville. Attractions
included the Leap Frog Railway, the Fighting Flame Show, Chariot
races and the Hellgate, a cross between the water rides of today
and the Tunnel of Love ride. Dreamland also had one of the first
"wild animal" park, though be it in cages. On the morning
of opening day, May 27, 1911, Dreamland would change forever.
The fire started around 2 A.M., from
an explosion of some light bulbs that were near a pail of tar
in the Hellgate that was being repaired. Built of pine, paper
mache and freshly painted for the new season, the fire spread
very quickly. The high pressure water system was down for repairs.
Instead of water pressure being 150 pounds, it was meager 25 pounds.
The Tower of Seville, was 80 feet tall and could be seen over
ten miles out to sea when the lights were turned on at night,
burnt in thirty minutes. The fire spread through out the park
trapping the wild animals. Some of the animals had escaped and
were driven mad by the flames, were fighting each other before
being consumed by the flames. One lion escaped into the streets
with its' mane on fire, frightening everybody, including the firemen.
The police cornered the frighten lion and pumped him with bullets
to no avail. The lion charged the policemen and was hit in the
head by an ax, that one of the policemen had borrowed. All of
the animals were destroyed in the fire. The fire also spread to
the 400 foot long iron pier used by excursion boats from Manhattan.
It also had several restaurants and fishing areas on it. Nobody
thought of notifying these people of the fire, trapping several
fishermen and restaurant workers. They were rescued by a police
By the time the fire was out a total
of fourteen acres from W. 5th Street to W. 12th Street, were burnt
and destroyed. The only thing to save Coney Island from completely
being wiped out was the shift in the wind. It changed direction,
blowing the fire toward the ocean and away from the buildings.
The fire went to a fifth alarm and two Borough Calls, (a 3rd alarm
assignment in another Borough that responded to this fire). As
beautiful as Dreamland was it was never a profitable operation
and was never rebuilt. The loss was estimated between $3,000,000.00
and $5,000,000.00. The land was turned over to the City and made
into a park. Today, the New York Aquarium sits on the famous Dreamland
It would be twenty one years before
the next big one would strike the Island. This "Big One"
was not in the amusement area but, mostly a residential area that
has not been visited by fire. Before the day was over, Wednesday,
July 13, 1932, five blocks, would be wiped out. The fire was started
by four boys doing their civic duty of cleaning up rubbish under
the Boardwalk at W. 22nd Street. With no place to put the rubbish,
they decided to burnt it. The rubbish was tinder dry and a forty
mile an hour wind was blowing off of the water. The first alarm
was transmitted from the box at Neptune Avenue and W. 21 Street,
three block away at 3:14 P.M.. A minor fire and probably not visible,
it was made a false alarm. The next alarm received was at 3:26
P.M., bring Engines 318, 244, 245, Ladders 166, 161, and Battalion
43 to the fire's location. The companies attack the fire that
had spread to several concession stands by the time first company
had arrived. Due to the high winds, the flames were jumping at
will and setting buildings on fire behind the fire lines. The
fire burned from W. 21st Street to W. 24th Street, along the Boardwalk,
to Surf Avenue and to Railroad Avenue between W. 22nd and 23rd
A total of 178 building were destroyed.
These included; seventy five, one story, eighteen, two story buildings,
fifty six, three story buildings, four, four story buildings,
one, six story apartment building, housing over 200 families,
twenty four bath houses, and over 100 automobiles. The fire took
a fifth alarm response pus two Borough calls and the recall of
the off going shift at 6 P.M. to stay in the firehouses until
the fire was under control at 12:32, the next morning. A total
of forty three engines, twelve ladders, two rescues, one search
light, two fireboats, one ambulance and two gasoline fuel trucks
responded along with sixty men without apparatus. The fire left
over 1000 homeless and over $5,000,000.00 in property damage.
The one good thing coming out of this fire was that $400,000.00
would be used for a new high pressure water system.
The next great fire of Coney Island
was at Luna Park on August 12, 1944. The Park opened in 1903 and
cost $600,000.00 to build. The park contained 38 acres and was
located on the north side of Surf Avenue between W. 8th &
12th Streets to Neptune Avenue. One of the main attractions when
the park opened was the Trip to the Moon ride. In a dark room
people would board spaceships and travel to the moon and outer
space. The Park was decked out with over 1,000,000 light bulbs
on every building. In the beginning a large crowd at Luna Park
would be around 80,000 to 90,000 per day. The first year 4,800.000
people visited Luna Park, making it one of the most profitable
of the amusement parks. By the time of the fire a good crowd would
be under 20,000 per day.
The fire started in the washroom of
the "Dragon Gorge" a roller-coaster that was made of
wood and measured 60 feet high, 100 feet deep and, 90 feet wide
in the front. As with all the other fires in the area, employees
try to put out the blaze before calling the fire department. The
delay in sending in the alarm by several minutes help to spread
the blaze. Within 25 minutes of the first alarm at 3:45 P.M.,
five alarms were transmitted, bring twenty six engines and eight
ladder companies to the fire. The high pressure system was boosted
up to 175 pounds of pressure. After the fifth alarm a simultaneous
call (a fifth alarm assignment) for Brooklyn Box 1227 (8th Ave.
& Union St.) was transmitted for a total of sixty two companies
operating. During the height of the blaze, the 125 foot Coca Cola
tower came crashing down missing several companies operating near
the tower. Due to the flying embers, many places were in grave
danger of burning also. On of these, was the Brooklyn Borough
Gas Company gas tanks. Unfortunately several blocks away, twenty
old wooden BMT railroad cars started to burn. This went to four
alarms just to get enough equipment and men to handle this fire.
The Park fire was under control after 5:00 P.M.. A total of twenty
eight rides were destroyed, about half of Luna Park. Thirty five
people were injured, and the lost was placed at $500,000.00.
The last of the big fires was on May
12, 1947. The fire started in rubbish behind 1228 Surf Avenue.
This fire burnt through a dozen or so building between Surf Avenue
to Bowery Street, and Henderson Walk to W. 12th Street. This area
has been wiped out by fire on at least three other times. The
fire was a fifth alarm assignment and injured forty five people,
mostly firemen. Today, this area is just west of the Astroland
Over the last one hundred years, there
has been hundreds of other fires. The above stories are the biggest
to visit Coney Island. Some of the other fires include, Steeplechase,
again in 1939, Cox Baths, in the fall of 1939, Mardi Gras in 1940,
and the Chamber of Commerce, just to name a few.
Return to Mike Boucher's F.D.N.Y. History Page