By Deborah Large Fox
During the last week of July 1940, the residents of Camden NJ sweltered in a heat wave with temperatures reaching nearly 100 degrees. The sun beat down on the alleys and brick row houses of the hard-working people, who got little relief from open windows and noisy fans. The employees working at the R.M. Hollingshead plant at 9th and Market got even less respite from the heat when they clocked-in for work at the six, brick and wood, five-story buildings where they manufactured waxes, automobile greases and fluids, polishes, and other highly flammable and vaporous products. In Building 4, where the heated wax polishes were piped into cans by female workers, a 36-inch fan in a window on the third floor was the only vent for vapors. The ladies, however, worked on the bottom floor, far from the fan. The floors above them contained three-story vertical tanks filled with flammable waxes and polishes.
On 30 July 1940, Laura Jakubowski was one of the women filling the wax cans in Building 4. Laura, my Babcia’s sister, was the beauty of the Jakubowski family, “quite a looker,” as the men would say at the time. The youngest of five girls and one boy born to my great grandparents Stanislaw and Katarzyna (Tolpa) Jakubowski, Laura had blond hair and dreamy “bedroom eyes.” As a child, I would stare at Laura’s portrait and wonder if she had been a movie star.
On 30 July 1940, Laura was not at home on Jackson Street, where she was supposed to be. That morning, Laura had agreed to work her sister Katherine’s shift at the factory. Katherine was pregnant and not feeling well in the oppressive heat, so Laura took Katherine’s place besides three other women on the filling line in the basement of Building 4.
A few minutes after 1:00 p.m., Building 4 exploded and collapsed.
Laura and nine others lost their lives in the conflagration. Almost 200 people were injured. The block of factory buildings was reduced to rubble after explosions and fires that lasted for days. Thirty-two houses near the factory were destroyed; thirty-one more, damaged. Sixty automobiles were burned or destroyed. The losses totaled almost two million dollars; in 2020 dollars, this figure would amount to almost forty million.
The emotional toll on the Jakubowski family cannot be measured. My great grandmother, Babcia Katarzyna, suffered multiple breakdowns and had to be sedated for weeks. At one point, a doctor was called and pronounced Katarzyna to be in critical condition. My Dziadek Stanislaw and his son John spent days and nights in the hot and dangerous ruins, alongside rescue crews, searching for Laura’s remains. Stanislaw’s hair turned white overnight.
Laura’s funeral and burial added more heartbreak to a family already suffering from unimaginable loss. The remains of the four women working together on the wax filling station could not be individually identified, so they were placed together in a silver casket and buried at Arlington Cemetery in Pennsauken. Laura was denied a Catholic, family burial because she could not be separated from the others. The devout family suffered an emotional and spiritual blow when Laura could not be buried in the family plot at the cemetery owned by the Polish parish of St. Joseph. The family members had to say goodbye to their beautiful Laura while in the public eye at a large funeral given for the four women jointly. Katarzyna was hysterical at the service, according to news reports and family accounts.
I visit Laura’s grave occasionally. Sometimes I see flowers left by others at the memorial erected to the four women, but as the years pass, the story of the Hollingshead fire fades from family and Camden memory. July 2020 marks the 80th anniversary of the fire and of Laura’s death.
For detailed accounts of the fire, see http://www.dvrbs.com/fire/camdennj-hollingshead-fire.htm A film of the fire can be seen at https://youtu.be/Bw0Kumf5Ug8
And that’s what Deb said…