Monday, September 22, 2008

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory - New York & Family History

Today, it suddenly dawned on me that I finally had the time here in New York to go to the location where a moment in history (both for the United States and for my personal family) occurred.

It's now called the Brown Building, but in 1911 it was the Asch Building, located at 23-29 Washington Place - cross street Greene Street. There, 146 employees of the Triange Shirtwaist Factory lost their lives in a horrendous fire. Many safety precautions of the building were revealed to be inadequate, and too many lives were lost jumping out of windows unequipped with fire escapes. It was because of this great loss of life (an incredible amount in 1911, although it still pales in comparison to the 3,000 + of the World Trader Center) that labor unions fought for better employee safety practices, fire and building inspections, and anti-child-labor laws to become in effect.

Where does my family come into this? My great-grandmother, Gertrude Rapp (my grandmother's mother on my father's side) was a forelady on the ninth floor of the building. She is listed amongst the survivor/witnesses as Gussie Rapp. Family lore stated that she survived when she was asked to go across the street by her boss on a sandwhich run, or perhaps just an errand. Family lore also has her witnessing the death of her good friend as she jumped from the 9th floor to the ground below. However, the website claims that "According to her testimony at the trial, she was not actually present at the time of the fire but had left work early." In any case, the timing of her exit from the building was heaven-sent...leaving the 9th floor (the floor that experienced the brunt of the fire's deadly damage), she escaped any danger of the fire. Gertrude (nicknamed "Babe," later took the married last name of "Lubar") told her family later that she did watch her best friend jump to her death. I have a suspicion she either returned to the building when she heard news of the fire and was a witness to it. Or she could have been lying to either her family or the trial (either would be understandable, given the circumstances).

My mom claims that she "did come to this country from Russia, (I think) all by herself in steerage at the age of 13 (I believe.)" Huh...the cornell website lists her and says she "Lived at 604 East 10th St." Cool! Must check out if that location still exists.

Love you, Great Grandma Babe. Didn't know you, but glad you survived!

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