I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
A century ago, Charities Pier at the end of Twenty-sixth Street by the Hudson River was called Misery Lane since it was where bodies were sent after a disaster. It also became the site of a makeshift morgue for 146 New Yorkers after the tragic 1911 fire that burned the top three floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory, a ten-story building at 29 Washington Place at Washington Square Park. It was the worst workplace disaster until 9/11.
Most of the dead were women and young girls; many of them immigrant garment workers who had recently arrived in the United States from Italy, Austria, and Russia. In the years that followed, the fire (and the circumstances that led to it) inspired a host of workplace reforms from improved safety conditions and routine factory inspections to more unionized shops.
This year, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire marks its centennial, and with its passing, a commemorative exhibit of artifacts and ephemera is on display at New York University's Grey Art Gallery, the site of the former factory. Art/Memory/Place: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire traces primary source documents and photographs surrounding the fire, the subsequent criminal trial of its owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, and the more than 30 bills that were passed in its wake that addressed improved safety in the workplace.
The fire itself was an avoidable tragedy, made worse by the fact that many of the workers located on the eight- and ninth-floors could not escape because they were locked inside. (It was common at the time to lock individual factory floors since workers were searched before leaving the premises. Having one common exit eliminated the chances that a bit of fabric or lace could go missing.) When they could not escape the smoke and flames, dozens of workers jumped to their deaths, including a trio of girls who first wrapped themselves in an American flag before leaping.
Many circumstances about the incident made it deadlier, including the piles of fabric that were at the foot of each sewing machine, the scores of boxed shirts that were nearly blocking the elevators, the empty pails on each floor that were supposed to be filled with water, the rusty fire escape that collapsed under too much weight, and the elevator cables that snapped, killing all inside. Although fire crews arrived swiftly, there was little firemen could do. Their ladders and hoses could not reach beyond the sixth floor and their nets were too weak for the force of a body falling from eight or nine floors up.
Just as the Triangle Shirtwaist fire became symbolic of the horrors of the Industrial Revolution, the sad event captured the hearts and minds of New Yorkers, thousands who took to the streets in protest of the factory's harsh conditions. Much more than a single tragedy, the grief and remorse surrounding the deaths of so many of our nation's young women became a catalyst of positive change for the working class.