Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Day the Circus Came to Town: Schenectady’s 1910 Circus Fire

Crowds exit from a fire in a circus tent at the Barnum & Bailey Circus in Schenectady on May 21, 1910. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Postcard Collection. 

This blog entry is written by Library Volunteer Mary Ann Ruscitto. 

It was May 21, 1910 when a spectacular fire destroyed the main tent of Barnum & Bailey Circus in Schenectady. According to many eyewitnesses, this Saturday afternoon was an afternoon of terror.

Robert Finn was 9 years old in 1910 and claimed that he witnessed how the fire began. Later in his life, he wrote a letter to the Schenectady Gazette with his recollections of the fire. Finn and his father were sitting on the top bench about five feet from where the fire started. They noticed that two men were laughing and joking and when one of the men raised his arm, his cigar touched the canvas and started the fire. Finn’s father grabbed him and they quickly jumped to the ground and got out of the tent. Other people claimed that a boy playing with matches was responsible for the blaze, while still others faulted a careless smoker who tossed a cigarette or match onto paraffin-soaked canvas.

Onlookers watch the blazing Barnum & Bailey Circus tent on May 21, 1910, at the circus grounds in Schenectady. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Postcard Collection. 

K. H. Schmidt also wrote to the Schenectady Gazette after seeing a story about the fire. In the letter, Schmidt remembered that it was a hot afternoon and he was 8 years old. He went with his grandmother, Emily C. France, to the circus and sat in the reserved section. He states that all at once a large group of workmen could be seen running into the tent yelling, “Fire! Fire! Fire!” And all at once everyone was trying to get out. Many slid down poles that held up the walls of canvas. Schmidt also remembered that the elephants were being lined up for the grand parade entrance into the tent. The animal handlers hurried them down to Van Curler Avenue (at the time, the circus grounds were located where Schenectady High School is today). Schmidt went on to say that in all the confusion, he lost his coat. His mother went to City Hall the next day, where all the personal items that were found at the fire were brought from the fire scene. All was not lost, for this little boy of 8 years old -- when he returned the next year to go to the circus -- still had his ticket stub from 1910 and was able to go for free!

Larry Hart reported in one of his Gazette columns, “For a scant 5 minutes on a May afternoon in 1910 the lives of nearly 12,000 people hung in the balance as the circus tent, which enveloped them, suddenly burst in flames and burned like a mammoth torch.” Miraculously, not one person was killed and only a few were injured.

Circus fire, Schenectady, 1910. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Postcard Collection. 

Hart goes on to say that it was published that the Barnum & Bailey Circus would arrive at the Edison Avenue freight yards at about 4:00 a.m. The customary parade was to leave the circus grounds at 10:00 a.m. The parade route would be down Rugby Road, over Union Avenue and down State Street, then over Church Street and up State Street to McClellan Street and back to the grounds. There were two shows scheduled, one for 2:30 p.m. and the other for 8:00 p.m.

The day did not go well for the circus right from the beginning. One of its circus trains arrived about 1:00 p.m., but it would take nearly 10 hours for the main portion of the big show to finally reach the freight yards. The delay was due to a grass fire along the railroad tracks outside of Rochester, which prevented the circus train from leaving after its last performance. When they finally reached Schenectady, there was difficulty getting the heavy wagons to the grounds due to Edison Avenue being widened and resurfaced. The wagons would be stuck axle-deep in soft dirt. Heavy planking and the elephants were used to pull the wagons out of the dirt with great difficulty. Due to the delay, the traditional circus parade was cancelled.

As the circus tent filled with nearly 12,000 people waiting impatiently for the 2:30 matinee show to begin, the ringmaster announced over his huge megaphone that there would be a slight delay of about 10 minutes before the show would begin. In the mayhem of waiting, someone asked a lady with her child and who had fear written on her face, what is the matter. She replied “Fire!”

Schenectady Gazette columnist Larry Hart went on to report that if it were not for the heroic efforts of Police Chief James W. Rynex, who was at the circus, the fire could have been disastrous. Rynex quickly brought together the dozen uniformed police officers that were on the scene, and recruited about 20 civilians to help maintain order. Chief Rynex’s rapid response helped keep the crowd calm, while at the same time exiting the people very quickly from the burning tent. It took 4 minutes after the first cry of fire to evacuate the tent of nearly 12,000 people.

Fire Chief Henry Yates responded to Schenectady's 1910 circus fire. This photograph of him dates from around 1905. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

Animal trainers herded up uncaged creatures out of the animal tent to a distant lot far away from the fire scene. The trapper bell sounded in Station 6 at Eastern Avenue and Wendell Avenue at 2:48. In less than 2 minutes, the horse-drawn steamer from the fire station pulled into the circus grounds. Deputy Fire Chief August Derra was in charge of firefighters at first; Fire Chief Henry Yates then took over. The entire top of the tent was consumed in flames. The blaze was extinguished by 3:15, and the all-clear signal came an hour later.

To show its gratitude to the Schenectady Fire Department for its quick and efficient response to the fire, the Barnum & Bailey Circus gave Fire Chief Henry Yates the pick of the fire draft horses that pulled the circus wagons. The horse that was picked was assigned to Fire Station 3 on Jay Street; appropriately, they named him Circus.

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