Sunday, November 17, 2019

200th Anniversary of The Great Fire of 1819

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff

November 17, 2019 marks a rather grim anniversary for Schenectady.  Two hundred years ago on that day was the Great Fire of 1819, one of the most destructive events in the history of the city.  The fire started around 4AM in the currying shop (tannery) Isaac Haight on the corner of Water and Railroad Streets.  A fierce southeast wind fueled the fire and soon the entire block was engulfed.  As the wind blew throughout the day the fire raged, jumping from one street to another, eventually burning the west end of the city between State Street and the Mohawk Bridge including most of Union, Church, Washington and Front Streets.  The bridge also caught fire but firefighting efforts eventually saved it.

In all, 169 buildings burned, 150 families, many poor, lost their homes, and most of the city business district was destroyed.  Damages exceeded $150,000 ($2.7 million today).  More details about this fire can be found in a previous post: "The Most Destructive We Have Ever Witnessed": Schenectady's Great Fire of 1819.

At the time of the fire, firefighting techniques were quite primitive in the city.  Schenectady had two fire engines and both were unserviceable.  Each residence was required to possess a leather fire bucket.  When a fire broke out and the signal sounded, the buckets were expected to be put out by the front door and fire fighters would run down the streets collecting buckets and form a bucket brigade from nearby wells or the river.  The sheer force of the Fire of 1819, the strong winds and overwhelming size of the fire made this nearly impossible and firefighters focused on saving the bridge.  Neighbors and Union College students helped people to save what they could from their homes.  Miraculously, no lives were lost but “many persons were much injured and bruised” according to an article in The Cabinet, a Schenectady newspaper from that time.

The cause of the fire was unknown.  For lack of a better reason, it was commonly attributed to spontaneous combustion.  According to The Cabinet, building ruins and cellars continued to smolder for days after.  The proprietor of the Albany Gazette visited the site and reported: “The ruins present a most melancholy and awful scene of ruin and desolation; and the personal distress of many of the sufferers is great beyond description – widows and orphan children and many others, who were in the possession of respectable property, and in the enjoyment of most of the conveniences of life, are reduced to wretchedness, to penury and want, and their forlorn situation at the present season makes an irresistible appeal to the sympathy, the benevolence, and charity of their fellow citizens.” Another observer wrote in a local guidebook that “Schenectady was desolate, stripped of its livelihood and resources.  Wharves were deserted, warehouses boarded up, transportation stalled and morale evaporated.”

Fellow citizens of Schenectady and surrounding areas stepped up to aid those suffering from their losses.  The Cabinet reported that no more than seven buildings were insured.  No insurance companies represented Schenectady and few people could afford to purchase coverage from Albany agencies.  One shop was reported to have insured their inventory but not their building.  As a result, most everyone affected needed assistance of some sort.

People from surrounding towns, especially Glenville, poured into the city bringing provisions to the fire victims.  Loads of lumber came in to help build temporary residences.  The Niskayuna Shaker community did as much as possible to aid the many poor who lost everything.  Jeremiah Fuller dispensed freely from his large storehouse of grain for horses and livestock.

More formal assistance was soon needed and a meeting of citizens was held headed by David Tomlinson and Joseph C. Yates to solicit donations to aid the victims. The Common Council of Schenectady met numerous times in the aftermath.  The minutes from these meetings detail forming committees to address the myriad of issues caused by the fire. A committee was formed to draw up a plan for the collection and distribution of funds for the relief of the suffering. The clerk of the board was asked to notify the Mayors of Albany and Troy that committees would be appointed to make collections in those cities.

Another committee was recommended "whose duty it shall be to ascertain the relative losses and wants of all the individuals who have suffered by the late fire and also to receive and distribute among the sufferers in proportion to their losses and their wants all monies and other contributions that may be received." Despite some victims expecting funds to be evenly distributed, assurance was given the public that they would be used to support the poor during the winter. The council adopted a resolution because "an erroneous impression had been received by the public that the collections made for the sufferers by the late fire in this City are to be distributed among them generally without any regard to their wants.” Another committee was assigned the job of procuring temporary accommodations for sufferers from the fire who had no other place to go and still another committee was named to ascertain the number of buildings destroyed.

A report of the fire along with a call for donations from the Mayor and alderman of the city was published in the Albany Gazette on November 25, 1819 and other newspapers around the state:

"... thus in a few hours, forty nine dwelling house, many inhabited by two and three families and seventy five stores and other buildings of consequence have been utterly destroyed, and their miserable inhabitants, with the commencement of a long and dreary winter turned into in the streets without shelter, and in many instances without furniture, without clothing and without bread, or the methods of procuring either, for such was the rapidity with which the flames spread, that a remnant only of movable articles could be removed  and much even of that remnant was again overtaken and afterwards consumed by the devouring element.  Under these circumstances the doors of those citizens whose dwellings were mercifully spared, have been flung open to the suffered, and subscriptions are raising throughout the city for their relief.  But no effort within the reach of that portion of the inhabitants, who have escaped the common calamity, can meet the exigencies of the case.  The local authors are therefore constrained by the sight of miseries too extensive for them to relive, to tell to other cities the tale of woe, and solicit their cooperation. To this end they have appointed the Rev Dr. Andrew Yates, Abraham Van Eps, and Nicholas F. Beck Esqs. as their agents to represent the necessities of the sufferers in this place, and to solicit, and gratefully to receive any benefactions that the charitable in your city may be disposed to bestow.”

Donations came from as far away as New York City. The Park Theater performed a play on the night of November 24 as a fundraiser and several influential business leaders held a meeting to aid the “poor and distressed inhabitants of the city of Schenectady, who have suffered by the fire, which has lately destroyed a great portion of that city.”  In a letter dated December 24, Henry Yates Jr., Mayor of Schenectady, wrote to Henry Rutgers, one of the organizers of the fundraiser thanking him for the donation of $3,764 (over $62,000 in today's dollars) collected by the citizens of New York City.

In addition to trying to assist the victims of the fire, the Common Council also addressed the urgency to reorganize the city's fire fighting service as well as provide desperately needed equipment for the fire companies. Minutes from a special meeting held the day of the fire report the Council authorized the employment of 16 watchmen at a fee of one dollar each to watch for fires in the western portion of the city between the hours of 6 PM to 7 AM. They also authorized repairs to the existing hooks and ladders. At a meeting held on December 4th, a committee was appointed to "digest a plan of a new organization of firemen" and on December 8th another committee was named to ascertain the expense of buying a forcing pump or engine. At a meeting on December 11 this committee reported the acquisition of a forcing pump was practical and a new committee was named to select suitable persons to form hook and ladder and axe companies. On December 18 a number of appointments to the fire companies were made and additional appointments were made at a meeting on January 1, 1820. On January 22 the committee authorized to inquire into the cost of a forcing pump was empowered to buy one costing not more than $560 exclusive of hose and carriage "to be made after the model of the engine in Albany". On July 1 the Council adopted a resolution that all the fire engines should not leave the city at the same time without authorization.

Schenectady struggled to rebuild after the fire. With the completion of the Erie Canal by 1825 the business district moved several blocks east.  Building boomed and Schenectady soon became an important manufacturing, transportation and trade center.

The Albany Gazette, November 25, 1819
The Cabinet (Schenectady weekly) November 24, 1819
Volume 1, Minutes, Common Council
Fire of November 1819 File: Schenectady Fire of 1819, SCHS

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Genealogy Day 2019

Join us on October 19, 9am-4pm, for Genealogy Day at Grems-Doolittle Library!

We have three speakers lined up to educate you on a variety of genealogy topics and the library will be open extended hours for research. Tickets are $8 for the day and free for members. See the schedule below for more details:

Maps can be great supplements to genealogy research, especially when using land records.

9-10:15am: “Complex Evidence: Untangling Multiple, Same-Name Individuals” presented by Judith Herbert

It’s pretty common for names to be reused in families, but it can be frustrating to track your genealogy when it seems everyone is named John, Jacob, and Mary. Judith Herbert, certified genealogist, will present strategies for untangling the confusion caused by same-name individuals within your family tree.

10:15-11:30am: “Patching Families Together Through Land Records” presented by Tina Post

When genealogists hit brick walls it’s not fun. Land records can provide the clues necessary to put stymied research on track again. This presentation will provide examples of how relationships can be gleaned using deeds, bounty lands and land grants. In addition, platting will be discussed as a means of creating more leads to investigate.

11:30-12:45pm: “Gravestone Conservation for the Genealogist” presented by Christopher White

Have you ever seen that unreadable gravestone or that toppled monument and wondered what can I do to address its condition? There is a correct way and a wrong way to remedy that gravestone. Christopher White, a genealogist, historian, and gravestone conservator, will present a program on gravestone conservation including cleaning, repair, what to do, what not to do, when to do nothing, and when to seek a professional conservator.

12:45-4pm: Research in the Library

Learn to care for gravestones and memorials at this year's Genealogy Day.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Apples of my eye

If you visited the Mabee Farm Facebook page or talked to John Ackner, SCHS Facilities Manager, in the last few weeks, you know it is harvest time at Mabee Farm! The apples and pears in the orchard are abundant this year. John and our volunteers started picking the Wolf River apples and Bartlett pears this week. Wolf River apples are a heritage variety usually used in cooking (rather than eaten raw or processed into cider). These apples are large, often weighing about a pound, with a lovely red and yellow speckled skin. They are mildly sweet and hold their shape when cooked.Wolf River apples are perfect for apple butter.

A gorgeous Wolf River apple picked at Mabee Farm this week, thanks to John and our volunteers!

While most of our produce will be used in the upcoming Mabee Farm to Fork dinner, you can find Wolf River apples and other heritage fruits at farms and markets around the county. Visit the Grems-Doolittle Library for recipe inspiration from the historical cookbooks in our collection. Below are two recipes that I'd love to try, written and collected by women in Schenectady.

Pages 76 and 77 from the 1903 First Reformed Church Cook Book by Ladies' Aid Society

DELICATE APPLES: Fill the place where the core has been removed from apples to be baked, with a raisin, a bit of lemon, cinnamon and as much sugar as possible. When baked, add a spoonful of sherry to each apple (from the 1903 First Reformed Church Cook Book by Ladies' Aid Society)

Page 103 from the 1890 Schenectady Cook Book by Ladies of the First Reformed (Dutch) Church

FROSTED APPLE PIE: Peel and slice tart apples enough for a pie, steam until tender, stir into this the yolks of two eggs well beaten, sugar to taste, one tablespoonful of butter, flavor with lemon and bake; take the whites and frost the top the same as for lemon pie (written by Mrs. H.J. Clute in the 1890 Schenectady Cook Book by Ladies of the First Reformed (Dutch) Church)

Bartlett pear picked (and eaten) at Mabee Farm
Happy cooking and eating!

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Hello from the new librarian!

A walk along the lake, Central Park, Schenectady, NY. 1919 C.W. Hughes and Company, Mechanicville, NY (Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection at Grems-Doolittle Library). Like many of you, I enjoy postcards and collect them personally. This one caught my attention because one of my favorite activities is walking my dog in the park.

I’m thrilled to join the staff of the Schenectady County Historical Society as the librarian. I’ve been involved with historical societies and local history museums for most of my life, but my professional experience thus far has been in higher education. Most recently, I was the archivist at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, OH. 

I grew up in Harrisburg, PA, in a family of teachers. When I started as a history major at Northeastern University in Boston, MA, most of my family expected me to follow in their footsteps, but I fell in love with processing archives and special collections. I started as an assistant in the University Archives and sought volunteer and intern positions in a variety of archives and museums.  One of my favorite internships involved cataloging souvenirs and books in the USS Constitution Museum collection. I earned a masters degree in history from Northeastern and a masters of library science from the University of Pittsburgh. My first job out of college was as a library circulation assistant at Harrisburg Area Community College, but my passion for archives and history drove me to establish the college’s archives and serve as the first archives and reference specialist. I moved to Cleveland a little over three years ago to take the archivist position at Cuyahoga Community College. My work as the archivist there focused on collaborating with faculty to bring the collection into the classroom and increasing the discoverability of the collection through finding aids and other descriptions. Currently, my goals as the SCHS librarian include learning where everything in the collection is located and getting to know the SCHS community, especially our excellent volunteers! Looking forward, I plan to encourage the community’s engagement with the collection through increased access and discoverability, grow and preserve the collection, and use the materials in a variety of programs and outreach activities.

As a new resident of the Schenectady area, I have a lot to learn about the history as well as figuring out my new job and the library collections. All of the staff, volunteers, and researchers have been generous with sharing their knowledge and teaching me what I need to know. I have a long reading list and I’m excited to explore the county. If you have suggestions for books to read, places to visit, or people to meet, please share! I hope you’ll stop by the library to say hello and tell me about your research, family, and memories of Schenectady. 

Erie Canal crossing the Mohawk River at the Aqueduct in Schenectady, New York. 1907 Robson & Adee, Publishers, Schenectady, NY (Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection at Grems-Doolittle Library). I learned about Ohio's perspective on the Erie Canal while living in Cleveland, and I'm starting to learn about its impact on Schenectady.
Marietta Carr