The fire broke out about 3:55 p.m. and despite the fact that the fire department was notified almost immediately, it was soon burning out of control. Four Lloyd Line ships were docked in Hoboken at the time, the Saale, Bremen, Main, and the line's flagship, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, then the largest passenger ship in the world. The Saale was scheduled to depart the next morning; the others were busy loading in coal for departures later in the week. The Kaiser Wilhelm also had a number of tourists aboard who had come to see the magnificent ship up close.
Within a few minutes, the fire had leaped from the pier to the Saale and within twenty minutes all four ships were on fire. The blaze was so huge that it could be seen from every office tower in Manhattan as well as from points south on the Jersey Shore. Dozens of ships in the harbor raced to aid of the burning vessels. The Kaiser Wilhelm, which carried the most passengers, was pulled into the Hudson. Though her bow and stern had caught fire, these blazes were soon brought under control and the ship was able to anchor safely in the river near 46th Street. All passengers and crew on the Kaiser Wilhelm were saved.
The same could not be said about the other ships. The Saale and Bremen (the two ships closest to the initial fire) had burned through their mooring lines and were adrift. The Saale floated down toward Governors Island and the Bremen floated toward Pier 18 (at today's South Street Seaport), where it set the pier on fire. In both ship, dozens of people were trapped and while they were able to open the portholes (or the glass had burst in the fire), they could not get out -- portholes in this era were only 11 inches wide.
The Saale was eventually towed to Communipaw, New Jersey, where she sank ten minutes after arrival. The Bremen and Main were tugged to Weehawken. The Kaiser Wilhelm had seen so little damage that she was put back in service almost immediately.* The Bremen and Main needed major repairs, but they, too, soon rejoined the Lloyd Line. But the Saale, the oldest of the four ships, was scrapped. In all over 27 ships were damaged that day in the fire, many of them tugboats that had come to the aid of the burning cruisers.
Just four years later, the General Slocum would catch fire in the East River leading to the death of 1,021 New Yorkers. These two events were instrumental in improving safety regulations on passenger ships in American waters.
* The Kaiser Wilhelm was converted into a military transport during World War I and sank off the coast of Africa.
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Read more about the General Slocum and New York's importance as a shipping city inInside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.