|On March 16, 1906, three
firemen died and eight were badly injured in a blaze that
destroyed the old armory building at Mickle and West streets
downtown. It was a fire that might be forgotten today if it
weren't for a couple of coincidences that brought it to light.
Through his research, Robert Bartosz, the official fire
photographer for Camden County and the Camden City Fire
Department, has been able to tie the deaths of the three
firefighters together with a postcard, an identity tag, a
prediction and the search for the firemen's graves.
Bartosz, an award-winning Courier-Post photographer who has
retired, said the coincidences began in 1981, with the discovery
of a 1906 postcard by a Camden deputy fire chief at a flea
market. It bore the pictures of William Jobes, George Shields
and William Hillman and carried the inscription: Heroes of the
Armory Fire, Camden, N.J., March 16, 1906.
He said that over the years, the incident had faded into time
and that, until he began his research, neither he nor the city
fire department had ever heard of the tragic blaze.
Bartosz, 68, said the postcard was given to Camden Fire Chief
Joe Marini, a history buff.
"Understanding little of the postcard's significance because
the fire was unknown, Marini filed it away in his desk drawer
and it was forgotten," Bartosz said.
"Because it was such a long time ago, it was like a kind of
nondescript fire," explained the 54-year-old Marini, who has
been Camden's fire chief for six years. "Nobody in the
contemporary fire department ever heard of the incident.
"They knew there were a few members killed, but no one knew
any particulars or details about what occurred. Then, when we
started to do historical research on the yearbook for the fire
department's 125th anniversary, some very interesting things
about that fire came to light." Eerie reminder
Five years later, in 1986, a vacant, boarded-up house at 525
Kaighn Ave. caught fire, Bartosz said. Firemen from Engine 8,
Ladder 2, based half a block away on Kaighn Avenue, fought the
The house, he explains, was destroyed, and while the
firefighters were pulling debris down and extinguishing hot
spots, a fireman found a small, oval ID dog tag, similar to
those worn by Civil War soldiers.
Written on the tag was the name "George W. Shields," with his
home address. It was found between a wall and a closet in what
had been Shields' home at the time of the armory fire.
The tag was given to Marini, who thought it was a great
coincidence that a fireman from the same fire company as Shields
should find a fellow fireman's dog tag 80 years after it had
been lost. Shields' father, it was later discovered, had given
the tag to Shields in 1895.
"Camden firemen have not used dog tags in a century," Marini
When Bartosz and Camden fire officials started to put
together the department's 125th anniversary book in 1991, they
decided to research the connection between the dog tag and the
postcard. The remarkable link nagged at Bartosz, causing him to
spend sleepless nights wondering about the tie between the two
After doing years of research with his wife, Patricia, at the
Free Library of Philadelphia, Bartosz believes he knows what
happened on March 16, 1906. Piecing it together
Bartosz explained that the armory, which took up half a city
block, was built in 1872 at a cost of $75,000 and had not always
been an armory. Originally, it was a marketplace, but in the
1890s the Army took over the building and turned it into the
Sixth Regimental Armory.
After constructing an armory on Haddon Avenue, the Army vacated
the old building and sold it to the Pennsylvania Railroad, which
planned to use it as a warehouse.
In that era, Bartosz explained, firemen earned approximately
$600 a year. When Shields, a former factory worker, joined the
department, that was his salary.
"Firefighters at that time had to stay in the firehouse for more
than 20 days a month, 24 hours a day," Bartosz said.
"They were allowed to go home on certain days for three hours
and were allowed to go home each night for one hour for dinner,
but their families would bring breakfast and lunch to the men
Bartosz also pointed out that firemen would try to get stationed
near their homes. When Shields went into the fire department in
1890, he was stationed at Broadway and Ferry Avenue and had to
walk about 11 or 12 blocks to and from his Kaighn Avenue home
As industry increased in Camden, according to an 1899
Courier-Post story, the city decided to increase the number of
fire stations. When it opted to build a firehouse at 6th Street
and Kaighn Avenue, Shields jumped at the opportunity for a
"So, in 1900, when the firehouse opened, Shields was transferred
to that company, which was Engine 8, Ladder 2," Bartosz said.
Hillman was also a member of that company, and he brought
another eerie dimension to the story.
On the morning of March 16, 1906, Hillman, who, according to
1906 Philadelphia Inquirer reports, had a knack for predicting
incidents, told his captain that he had a strange feeling there
was going to be a bad fire that day and some firemen were going
to get hurt.
According to reports in the Inquirer, the captain noticed
Hillman was still concerned two hours before the call would come
in and said to him, "Bill, can't I talk you out of what you are
Hillman replied, "No, we are going to have a bad fire."
According to the report, Hillman then predicted the armory would
be on fire and "some of us boys are not going to come back."
"At 5 p.m. that same day, Shields leaves to go home for
dinner and, reaching home, he apparently hung his coat in a
closet near the kitchen and sits down to dinner with his
family," Bartosz surmises.
Fifteen minutes later, the call went in for the armory fire.
"Shields, hearing the alarm, runs to the closet, grabs his
coat, and the dog tag apparently falls out and into a crack in
the floor and lays there until it is found after the 1986 fire
in the house," Bartosz says.
At the same time, William Jobes of Engine Company 1, at 4th and
Pine streets, is also at home at 576 Line St. eating dinner,
"He hears the alarm and walks back to the fire station to get
his fire coat and hat and runs to the fire," Bartosz says.
When all three men met up, they began taking a hose line into
the front of the blazing building with eight other men. A worker
warned the firemen not to go into the building, according to
research, and told them it was a firetrap and the roof could
Despite the warning, the 11 firemen, including Hillman, Jobes
and Shields, went into the burning building.
"After reaching about 50 feet inside the building, the roof
collapses onto the second floor, and the second floor crashes
down onto the 11 firemen," Bartosz explains.
According to reports, eight of the firemen were able to find
the hose line and pull themselves out of the rubble, suffering
broken bones, burns and other injuries. Hillman, Jobes and
Shields were trapped under the debris and crushed to death.
Bartosz, an honorary Camden battalion chief, says officials knew
Hillman and Shields were missing but did not know there was a
third man (Jobes) crushed under the rubble.
They thought he was at home eating dinner and were not aware
of him being at the scene. When officials worked their way into
the smoldering building, they came upon the three bodies.
"After the fire, the city went into mourning," Bartosz said.
The Courier-Post reported that "there were thousands of
people from all over Camden lined up for hours. Both black and
white, women, children and men turned out to honor these men."
Hillman and Shields were buried at Evergreen Cemetery on Mount
Ephraim Avenue in Camden, and Jobes was laid to rest in Harleigh
Cemetery on Haddon Avenue in Camden. Marker needed
During his research, Bartosz found that Jobes' grave was
marked by a large monument, but Hillman and Shields had no
headstones at the time of their burials. Later, a marker was
placed on Shields' grave.
So Bartosz and retired Camden Deputy Fire Chief James Alexander
have started a drive to raise money to purchase a tombstone for
"We had these T-shirts made up with the Camden Fire
Department logo on the front and the portraits of the three
firemen on the back, with the inscription: "Heroes of
Yesteryear.' The profit will be used to buy Hillman's grave a
marker and to fix up the other two grave sites," Bartosz said.
"When the dog tag was found, it was like Shields telling his
fellow firefighters not to forget about them," Bartosz
"We feel that once Hillman gets his tombstone, all three will
be able to rest in peace and that all three will be recognized
as Camden firemen who died in the line of duty, serving the
people of the city."
Thomas A. Bergbauer is a retired Courier-Post copy editor and
can be reached at (856) 346-0371, email@example.com, or through
Communities, Courier-Post, P.O. Box 5300, Cherry Hill, N.J.
WHERE TO CALL
The Camden Fire Department would like to hear from anyone who
can prove he or she is a direct descendant of former city
firemen William Hillman, George W. Shields or William Jobes.
Descendants are asked to call Robert Bartosz at (856) 468-0866
or Camden Fire Headquarters at (856) 757-7511 and leave a
HOW TO HELP
To commemorate the anniversary of the armory fire and to
raise funds to erect a marker on the grave of one of the firemen
killed in the 1906 fire, T-shirts are being sold by Robert
Bartosz and James Alexander. They can be purchased by sending a
check for $20, made payable to Camden Armory Fire, to P.O. Box
239, Haddon Heights, N.J. 08035. Specify your choice of size (M,
L, XL, XXL).