Fire on the SS City of Philadelphia

I found a thing! My mom said that when my great grandma Nell came over from Ireland, there was a fire on-board the ship while it was waiting to dock. I haven’t had any luck finding info about it, and I suspected it wasn’t a big enough deal to warrant news coverage. But I thought I’d trawl area newspapers for 2 Oct 1916 (she arrived on 1 Oct 1916, on the SS City of Philadelphia, and I doubted it would have been in any papers before the following day). I hit the jackpot.

Liner Philadelphia Fought Fire at Sea
“Liner Philadelphia Fought Fire at Sea,” The Sun, 2 Oct 1916, p. 1, col. 5; digital images, Library of Congress ( : accessed 4 Jun 2017), Chronicling America

Liner Philadelphia Fought Fire at Sea

American Steamship, 646 Passengers Oblivious of Peril, Docks Here.

Secret Known to Few

Blaze in Hold, Discovered off Grand Banks, Smothered by Steam.

A fire smouldering in her after hold unknown to all except a few discreet and favored persons among her 646 passengers, the American liner Philadelphia, from Liverpool, anchored at Quarantine yesterday morning. Included in her 110 cabin voyagers were several distinguished Americans and Britons. Capt. Candy did not let Quarantine officials know anything about the fire, and as there were no outward signs of it aboard the ship news men down the bay asked no question. Even after the steamship had docked little information was available from the passengers, and nearly all wanted to know from their questioners if there really had been a blaze at sea.

Miss Elsie Mackay, leading lady for Sir Beerbohm Tree, who was a passenger, when asked how she felt being on a burning ship, remarked in startled surprise:

“Fire? Why, nobody told me anything about a fire. That was what must have made it so hot in the saloon on Thursday evening.”

Sir Beerbohm Tree was also completely in the dark. This was due in part, he said, to his being a poor seaman, preferring the seclusion of his cabin most of the trip and not really caring whether or not disaster menaced the ship, which is the usual disposition of a poor sea-goer.

Captain Admits Blaze on Liner.

Capt. Candy admitted the existence of the fire after the ship had been made fast to her pier, but he did not regard it seriously. Exactly what damage it has done, or may be doing, will not be known until this morning, when a force of longshoremen will enter No. 7 hold, next to the last on the ship, and remove the charred cargo, consisting mostly of baled cloth, dress goods, and women’s hats.

Among the few who knew the captain’s secret was Dr. Joseph Byrne. An officer whom he knows well told him on Thursday afternoon, just after Chief Engineer Joyce had turned steam into the hold where the fire was, on condition that he keep the information from all other passengers. The doctor is a nerve specialist, and soon recovered his composure. A little later he studied the effect of the secret on the stewards, all of whom had been informed of the fire so they would be prepared for any emergency.

Stewards Pale and Silent.

The stewards looked paler than usual and were unusually quiet the rest of the trip. A steward delights in giving passengers exclusive information regarding almost anything, and absolute silence about the liner’s peril was a positive hardship. They were grave and occasionally talked in whispers. Meanwhile the passengers went about as if they hadn’t a care in all the world.

The natural reasons for keeping the travellers in the dark were the fear that if all hands knew about it the supersensitive and highstrung might suspect a plot to destroy the ship, or that there had been a secret submarine attack, or almost anything except the plain truth. Capt. Candy did not want to give his passengers any chance to misuse their fervent war imagination, and that is why he cautioned everybody to keep silent until the Philadelphia had put the last passenger ashore.

The saloon for several days was unusually hot. Some of the passengers remarked about it and asked the nearest steward why it was. But he adroitly attributed the warmth to the Gulf Stream, and that satisfied them. The heat, however, was due to the steam that was pouring through the perforated pipes of hold No. 7 and smothering the blaze.

Tells of Fire’s Discovery.

Capt. Candy said that early Thursday afternoon, when the Philadelphia was east of the Grand Banks, he learned that smoke was coming out of No. 7 hold. He went to Chief Engineer Joyce and steam was turned into the hold, the hatch of which is near the steerage dining room. Only a few passengers in the cabin knew about the fire and there was no confusion or excitement.

The captain said he had considerable anxiety for the well being of his 646 passengers and that is why he kept the knowledge of the fire from them. After the steam had been turned on an hour or so he went to the hatch and found the danger was apparently over. Smoke had ceased to pour out and steam was taking its place. He kept the steam on and it was still going when the ship docked and will continue to flow until longshoremen enter the hold this morning

Capt. Candy is inclined to believe that the fire was due to spontaneous combustion, perhaps in among the bales of cloth. Whether or not this is so will be ascertained this morning.

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