Uncovering the History of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

The author behind the authoritative retelling of the 1911 fire describes how he researched the tragedy that killed 146 people

On March 25, 1911, 146 workers perished when a fire broke out in a garment factory in New York City. For 90 years it stood as New York's deadliest workplace disaster. (The Granger Collection, NYC)
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Some testimony was spellbinding, such as factory foreman Samuel Bernstein's marathon account of his efforts to fight the fire and save the workers. Capt. Howard Ruch of the New York Fire Department told of his initial survey of the charred ninth floor. "I stepped on something that was soft," he said, and only then realized he had reached a pile of bodies. Line by line, the transcript restored history to three dimensions and provided a Rosetta stone for understanding Leon Stein's notes from the lost volume of testimony.

Through the cooperation of NYCLA and Cornell, my experience of reading the lost transcripts is now available to anyone with an Internet connection. In 2004, Kheel Center director Richard Strassberg carried the Steuer volumes to the Ithaca campus, where each page was scanned and digitized. Because the quality of the originals was so poor, the process captured only about 40 percent of the text. So Patricia Leary of the Kheel Center painstakingly corrected every page.

Last autumn, after more than a year of effort, the Kheel Center posted the entire text on its Triangle fire Web site: ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire. The site, which receives some six million visitors each year, is a model for archivists who want to make their records available to students and researchers. By June, portions of the recovered record had been downloaded more than 1,100 times, Strassberg reports, including nearly 400 complete copies.

The Triangle fire catalyzed reforms in New York that spread nationwide—outward-swinging exit doors and sprinklers in high-rise buildings, for example. These reforms in turn fueled the careers of people like Smith and Wagner and Perkins, the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet. Half a century after the fire, she still pointed to that day as the birth of the New Deal. Today, the memory of the fire moves reformers to wonder why some workers in the United States—and many more abroad—still toil in needlessly dangerous conditions.

Those who experienced the horror firsthand could not have anticipated the impact. Nor could they have imagined that, someday—thanks to a lawyer's vanity, a buried footnote, a diligent librarian and the power of technology—their long-silent voices could speak directly of their experiences to readers around the world.

David Von Drehle wrote Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.


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