Remembering the dead in Binghamton
Monday was a significant anniversary in the history of labor in New York State, as well as in the upstate city where I live. It was the 100th anniversary of the Binghamton Clothing Co. factory fire, which killed 31 people, mostly immigrant women, on July 22, 1913. To this day, it stands as the single greatest loss of life in Binghamton.
A little backstory first, drawn from speeches at the event today as well as the Wikipedia entry. Binghamton was once a significant manufacturing center, and downtown was home to factories making cigars, pianos, and clothing. It’s hard to imagine now, but thousands of people, largely immigrants that formed the Italian, Irish, and Eastern European communities that still exist here, traveled on streetcars to work downtown. The Binghamton Clothing Co. made men’s overalls, some of them treated with chemical waterproofers, and employed more than 100 workers, most of them women.
Shortly after 2 p.m. on that day, a worker noticed a fire in the basement, tried to douse it with a fire bucket, but was unable to stop the spread. It quickly climbed the single staircase up to the third and fourth floors, where the factory was. Within minutes, the building was engulfed by flames that burned so hot that firefighters couldn’t approach within 100 feet, and fire ladders themselves caught fire when they touched the building.
Before the building collapsed 20 minutes later, most of the workers had escaped down the single staircase. Two in particular are remembered to this day in Binghamton: Nellie Connor and Sidney Dimmock helped many escape, Connor by guiding women down the stairs, Dimmock by carrying people out. It cost both of them their lives. As the memorial plaque at the site notes: “Their names are worthy of honor and praise.”
Some women died after jumping from the roof. Twenty of the 31 dead were burned beyond identification: their names are known because the factory’s employee list survived the fire.
I was privileged to attend the memorial service at the site. It was a moving event, with firefighter bagpiping, prayers and a reading of the names. You can see some of the images in the gallery above.
The parallels to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire are eerie. In contrast to that deadly fire, which happened just over two years before, the Binghamton Clothing Co. held fire drills, and there were no locked doors that trapped workers. But in the wake of Triangle, New York State had launched an investigating commission into factory fires. It made a series of reports over the next few years, and the Binghamton fire added a sense of urgency to its mission. The Binghamton Clothing Co. fire was the subject of investigation by that commission, and this event helped the commission eventually put forward 20 regulations that were adopted by New York to establish stricter safety and occupational health rules for factory workers in the state.
Like at Triangle, workers in Binghamton had to die to force factory bosses and money men to spend some money and effort ensuring the most basic safety measures were taken in their properties. The speakers at today’s event took pains to note that the factory owner in Binghamton was heartbroken, and devoted the rest of his life and fortune to caring for the victims’ families. I have no doubt the grief was real. But imagine how different today would have been if, after Triangle, he had taken it upon himself to make improvements in the factory?