William Chamberlain Patterson for decades seemed to live a charmed life. Brought to Philadelphia as a boy, he became prominent in military, business and political circles there, including presidency of the Pennsylvania Railroad, “amassing a handsome fortune,” according to an obituary. Patterson’s life changed drastically, however, when he involved himself in the pre-Prohibition whiskey industry and a disastrous fire brought him to the brink of ruin.
Patterson neither made nor sold liquor. His role was in providing storage for whiskey as it aged from Pennsylvania distilleries that entrusted their product to him for safe and sanitary keeping. To that end, on Front Street, above Lombard, he had erected a structure known as Patterson’s bonded warehouse. It was composed of eight buildings, all but one seven stories high and 220 by 135 feet. The walls of each structure were 18 inches thick and solid from the cellar foundations to the roof. The buildings were connected by stout iron doors, kept closed at all times.
Said one observer: “Each was supposed to be completely fireproof, and built without connection with each other, and therefore supposed to be perfectly safe for destruction by fire.” During the Civil War the complex had held supplies of sugar, molasses and cotton, but afterward “vast amounts of whiskey” had been placed there by both the U.S. Government and some eleven individual distillers, among them some of Pennsylvania’s best known whiskey-manufacturers, including companies operated under the names of Hannis, Gibson and Young.
On the night of August 4, 1869, one wall of a building facing Lombard Street collapsed, reputedly because of excessive weight from 25,000 liquor barrels on the floors. Stored whiskey went down with the ruins and in a few moments a violent explosion occurred, scattering timbers, bricks and flames. Firemen appeared to have isolated the damage and it was thought other sections of the warehouse could be saved. Then a second building exploded in fire and soon the entire complex was engulfed. The front page of the Harpers Weekly of August 21, shown above, told the story.
Burning whiskey ran down the gutters and into the sewers, exploding and breaking open a section, but not impeding the flow through a sewer leading to a Philadelphia wharf, setting it ablaze. The flames threatened a ship at the pier, but it was towed to safety. Philadelphia folklore says that citizens could be seen scooping flaming whiskey from the gutters with every conceivable container — a story that is unconfirmed. A photo above from the Heaven Hill Distillery fire in 1996 shows what a river of burning whiskey looks like. The ruins of the huge warehouse became a favorite of photographers, some of whom created stereopticon view for 3-D effects.
Accounted one of the worst conflagrations in Philadelphia history, no direct casualties were laid to the disaster. The largest loser among those with whiskey stored there was H.C. Hannis & Co.
Founded by Henry Hannis in 1863, this distillery had experienced phenomenal growth almost from the outset. Establishing his headquarters in Philadelphia, Hannis bought the Mount Vernon Distillery in Baltimore, shown here, and changed the name to his own. Although his Baltimore facility had four warehouses for aging whiskey, they proved inadequate to his needs, leading him to store 8,000 barrels in Patterson’s warehouse, almost one-third of the total lost. Some of his prime whiskey was estimated to be worth $15 a gallon. [See my post on Hannis, Feb. 2, 2012].
Now all eyes turned to William C. Patterson, a man who up until that time had seemed “golden.” Born in Tazewell, Clairborn County, Tennessee, in 1820 he had come to Philadelphia as a seven year old boy with his parents. He was the brother of General Robert Patterson, a man 21 years his senior and already established in the Philadelphia banking community. William’s career began by working for his brother.
The younger Patterson’s rise in business circles was swift, at the age of 34 elected as a director of the Pennyslvania Railroad and chosen as its president a year later. The Pattersons also had political clout and William was elected to the Philadelphia City Council, later to the Pennsylvania legislature, and once was an unsuccessful Democratic Party candidate for mayor.
When the Civil War broke out, Robert Patterson, who had been a major general in the Mexican-American War, was called back to service. Although he inflicted an early defeat on Stonewall Jackson, Robert was blamed for events that contributed to the Union debacle at the first Battle of Bull Run. He was mustered out of the Army in July 1961. William, holding the rank of colonel, had accompanied him to the front as his unpaid aide and the two returned to Philadelphia to resume their business careers, both amassing fortunes.
William continued to aid the war effort by rendering services to the troops. From one account: “Day after day he forwarded to the hospitals and to the refreshment saloon supplies for the passing troops or delicacies for the sick and wounded, and many of the convalescent owed their returning strength largely to drives taken in the carriage he generously placed at their disposal.” In these efforts he was assisted by his wife, Caroline Ellmaker Patterson.
As a result of the fire Patterson faced the greatest challenge of his life. The loss of his warehouse and its contents was placed at $5,000,000 — more than 20 times that in today’s dollar. Of that amount only $2,299,000 of the lost whiskey was covered by insurance. No fewer than 54 insurers were involved, including five in England, all of them to be dealt with individually. Typically insurers were slow to act, difficult to deal with, and often suspicious that whiskey-related fires had been set. Patterson’s burned out buildings also were covered by multiple insurers.
The bottom line for Patterson was the personal responsibility to make good all uncovered losses. The cost is said to have swept away most the wealth he had amassed earlier. Said his obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer: “From this blow his fortunes never entirely recovered, but as he had borne prosperity without being spoiled by it, so he met adversity with a calm front and an equal mind.”
Patterson’s reputation as a businessman remained unaffected by the fire. Opined his obituary: “His business talents and his lofty integrity of character, illustrated by the grace of courtly manners and by natural kindness of heart, secured and retained the esteem of his old associates in mercantile and railroad circles…” When a new Philadelphia bank, the Union Trust Company, was chartered in the early 1880s, Patterson was elected its president.
He held that post for only a few months, however, before a fall on the ice fractured a leg. The break was a serious one requiring a heavy cast and absolute bed rest. The result, according to the medical terminology of the day was “ossification of the arteries.” Patterson died on the morning of June 21, 1883, at the home of a son, William C. Patterson Jr. at the age of 70. He was buried in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery where many of the city’s whiskey men are interred. Shown here is his unusual monument, one shared with his brother, General Robert.
Despite all the precautions that Patterson and his architect had made to fireproof the whiskey warehouse, they had not calculated correctly the weight-bearing capacity of the structure. Anxious to make sure that the interior space was fully occupied, Patterson had allowed the floors to become overloaded with heavy barrels of whiskey, leading to the second largest fire in Philadelphia history up to that time. Thus, because of a single fatal error, the wealth Patterson’s ample talents had earned him over many years of effort virtually were wiped out overnight — a fortune lost in flaming whiskey.