Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by David von Drehle


108305Triangle is a poignantly detailed account of the 1911 disaster that horrified the country and changed the course of twentieth-century politics and labor relations. On March 25, 1911, as workers were getting ready to leave for the day, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York’s Greenwich Village. Within minutes it spread to consume the building’s upper three stories. Firemen who arrived at the scene were unable to rescue those trapped inside: their ladders simply weren’t tall enough. People on the street watched in horror as desperate workers jumped to their deaths. The final toll was 146 people—123 of them women. It was the worst disaster in New York City history. Triangle is a vibrant and immensely moving account that Bob Woodward calls, “A riveting history written with flare and precision.”


I felt like I knew turn of the century New York going into this book – I’ve been studying it since I was a kid. In middle school we learned about the Tammany political machine and yellow journalism. In college I learned how the Triangle fire led to changes in the fire code, and that exit doors should always open out instead of in. A couple of years ago I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and gained a ground-level appreciation of the time.

It turns out that was only the barest of frameworks. Triangle shores up the weak bits, fills in the gaps, and extends the lessons of the fire into the New Deal and beyond. And it was a wonderful read to boot.

Big social and political movements such as garment worker strikes and pushes for political reform are masterfully illustrated using details from the lives of real people that were affected by them. The fire itself is a big part of the book, of course, and the harrowing minutes are covered in detail and from many different angles. I was scared the post-fire narrative would wane but the drama of the Triangle owners’ trial was the most riveting part of the entire story.

Von Drehle’s research is exhaustive and impressive, with notes and appendices taking up nearly a third of the pages. He also complied a complete list of victims, an impressive feat as no one had bothered to give it a try in the 90 years following the fire. (!) All in all it’s a wonderful piece of non-fiction that made me vow never to forget March 25, 1911.

I finished this book not long after reading The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy and they make an interesting compare and contrast study. They are both about historical fires that killed roughly 150 people but differ in every other respect.

Part of it has to do with the subject matter. The circus fire was due to a single company not following the law, forgoing fireproofing and dipping the big top in paraffin and white gasoline to waterproof it instead. (Smart.) The Triangle factory, on the other hand, passed inspection – the problem was with a lack of regulations in the first place. So while Triangle covers large-scale impact decades down the line Circus barely moves from the scene of the crime.

The authors themselves compound the differences. Triangle is a non-fiction book by a non-fiction writer, lovingly and painstakingly filled with end notes and references. Circus is a non-fiction book by a fiction writer, crafted for story while remaining true to known facts. There may be more creative non-fiction stuff going on but it produces chapters that I was unable to put down midway.

When I finished The Circus Fire I thought, that was awful. I’m glad I wasn’t there. When I finished Triangle I thought, that was awful… but a bunch of amazing people were able to parley it into a greater good.

Circus is about finding closure. Triangle is about making progress.