Friday, October 21, 2016

Schenectady's Fire of 1861

This post was written by library volunteer Diane Leone

The week of October 9-15, 2016 was Fire Prevention Week, an annual public education campaign since 1927, commemorating the Great Chicago Fire of October 8-9, 1871, one of the deadliest blazes in US history.  Like most other cities and towns, Schenectady has had its share of fires.  Perhaps the most well-known is the 1690 blaze set by the French and Hurons during the Schenectady Massacre, which consumed the frontier village.  The other major conflagration is the fire of 1819, which wiped out the business district on the Binnekill, destroyed many early Dutch buildings, and left 200 families without homes.  In 1861, the city was to experience the second significant fire of the nineteenth century. 

Broomcorn growing along the banks of the Mohawk with the Burr Bridge in the background
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
In the mid-1800s, Schenectady was growing.  Broom making was a major industry in Schenectady County, with Schenectady, Scotia and Glenville responsible for 1,000,000 brooms per year. These brooms were produced from broomcorn, a type of sorghum. The low-lying land and islands of the Mohawk River were fertile grounds for growing this crop.  Otis Smith was one of the first to grow broomcorn in the county.  He owned 125 acres, and a factory that by mid-century turned out 192,000 brooms and 180,000 whisk brooms (Cheetham, Peg. “Broom Trade Once Swept Schenectady into Spotlight.” Schenectady Union-Star, 22 Apr. 1955.) Unfortunately, on an August afternoon in 1861 that factory, located on the northwest corner of Washington Avenue and Cucumber Alley, was the source of a conflagration that eventually destroyed it.

How the fire started is not entirely clear.  A contemporaneous newspaper report describes how a worker at the broom factory may have been at fault: “He had been pitching the roof with a pail of tar.  In some way, perhaps in lighting his pipe, the pitch burst into a blaze and spread and ran down to a heap of dried broom stalks as inflammable as guncotton.”  (“The Great Fire in August, 1861.” Schenectady Gazette, 20 Dec. 1911.).   Claims by some that this occurred on the north end of the building were contradicted by others’ assertions that the fire started at the southwest corner of the building.  In any event, the First Dutch Reformed Church bell would have rung out the alarm, along with other church bells and locomotive whistles.

Once it began, the fire, assisted by a strong wind from the northwest, quickly spread from Otis Smith’s factory at the foot of Cucumber Alley to the corners of Church and Washington, and the western end of Front Street.  It spread along the western side of Washington to the Mohawk River in the north and extended south, and reached houses on the eastern corners of Front and Washington.  In an effort to beat back the fire, residents on the western side of Ferry Street were soaking their wooden roofs with pails of water.

Photo of an early "engine" in Crescent Park. Courtesy
of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
Firefighting in the mid-nineteenth century was very different from that endeavor today.  After the fire of 1819, the city purchased a piece of equipment called a forcing pump, which has been described by Larry Hart in Volume 1 of Tales of Old Schenectady  as “…a tub on wheels (though called an engine) which was fitted with a fixed nozzle  and dragged to the scene of a fire like a feeble cannon.”  Hauling this cart over cobblestone streets could not have been an easy task for the volunteer firefighters; horses were not used until 1896 because part-time volunteer companies could not look after the animals.  Fighting the fire was a bit awkward, as the firefighters had to position the cart correctly in order to aim the hand-pumped stream of water at the flames.  The cart was filled with water from cisterns, located at key points in the city, and refilled as necessary.  By the 1830s, the city turned to suction pumpers, which replaced the need for bucket brigades in drawing water from the cisterns.  One model was the “Button” hand pumper, pulled by a large crew of men, who also had the exhausting job of operating the pump handles.  Individual residents still used leather pails to quench fires in their homes. 

One can imagine the pandemonium let loose by this catastrophic event.  In 1861 the firefighting service had a limited capacity to check the spread of fires.  Residents were very concerned, some even panicked, about the ultimate safety of their homes and possessions.  Many were dousing their houses with water. Some were conveying their property into the streets.  Adding to the chaotic scene was the cacophony of sound, made up of the shouting of firefighters and residents, the clacking of fire engine wheels and the licking of the flames devouring wood.  Completing the picture was the chilling sight of buildings ablaze, with the billowing clouds of smoke looming above.  Sadly, thieves took advantage of the disorder to ply their trade.

Painting of the 1861 fire that consumed the Dutch Reformed Church. Courtesy of the
Schenectady History Museum.
In the path of destruction stood the Old Dutch Reformed Church.  This brick building, which had a cupola and bell tower encasing a two-ton bell, was constructed in 1814.  Among its treasured contents were a very large brass chandelier and an organ.  While people were occupied with the danger to their own homes and businesses, the edifice caught fire.  Unfortunately, the engines were located near the river, which put them too far away from the church to save it.  However, people did their best to salvage whatever they could on the inside, including the pulpit, books, carpets, and a chandelier; the organ was not saved.  Ironically, in 1861 the church’s 3,200 pound bell had been in use for only 13 years.  It replaced the famously sonorous 1732 bell, which cracked in 1848 and was melted down into miniature bells for the congregants.  A local reporter dramatically described the destruction of the steeple and the bell on that afternoon in August of 1861:

“With steady rapidity the work of destruction circled the steeple, till it tottered and fell with a tremendous crash, and spread over the roof till it thundered down.  The bell, weighing 3,200 lbs., was eaten away from its supports, and fell, crashing through floors, partitions, and masonry, making more noise in its last moments than it ever made in its life, killed, like a faithful sentinel, by the very enemy whose approach it had heralded.” 

(“The Fire of Tuesday.” Evening Star and Times [Schenectady, NY], 9 Aug. 1861, p. 1.)

In an interesting side note, the pastor was reputedly far from distressed by the collapse of the building. On the contrary, the destruction “…was viewed with unconcealed joy by the pastor, who had been struggling and fighting for a new church for years.”  (“The Great Fire in August, 1861.” Schenectady Gazette, 20 Dec. 1911, p. 12.). 

Although the five volunteer fire companies were making heroic efforts to stem the tide of the flames, it became clear that they needed aid from other locales. In the absence of the mayor, the city’s recorder telegraphed Albany, Troy and Amsterdam for help.  All responded, arriving as the fire was dwindling.  Extraordinarily powerful at the time was Troy’s steam pumper, the Hugh Rankin.  Although situated in Governor’s Lane north of Front Street, it pumped water all the way to Washington Avenue through 15,000 feet of hose. It was reported that the powerful stream destroyed the walls of the building it was targeting.  In spite of these efforts, the wind-swept fire did spread to areas farther away.  Embers landed on rooftops as far afield as the area around the junction of State Street and Nott Terrace/Veeder Avenue.  A building on Nott Terrace was set ablaze, as well as one at 117 South Center Street, near the corner of Franklin Street.

Members of the Protection  Hose Company No. 1.
 located on State Street near South Ferry. Courtesy of the
Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
The cost of the fire was $120,000, which is equivalent to over $3,000,000 today.  Although no one died, there was substantial property damage. The Smith factory and warehouse were destroyed, along with ancillary buildings, equipment, and products. The Old Dutch Church was destroyed.  Severe damage was done to the western portion of Washington Avenue, particularly heading north to the river; only one building remained standing between the Otis broom shop and the Scotia Bridge at the end of Washington Avenue.  Additional damage was done to two houses on Washington Avenue south of Front Street.  The eastern corners of Front Street and Washington Avenue were also involved in the blaze, as was Church Street.  Destruction was limited by the concerted efforts of residents, who doused buildings with water and, in some cases, knocked down blazing structures to halt the spread of the flames.

Photo  showing Cucumber Alley and the Whitmyre Broom Factory.
The Dutch Reformed Church can also be seen in the background.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
The fire brought changes.  The Otis property was purchased by Charles L. Whitmyre, who later built the Whitmyre and Co. Broom Factory on the site.  A new stone church was built in 1862, positioned farther away from the front of the street.  Sadly, it was the victim of the fire of February 1, 1948 and was once again rebuilt.  The fire department replaced hand pumpers with three steam pumpers between 1864 and 1869.  These too were replaced in 1872, as the introduction of fire hydrants, as part of a municipal water system, made them obsolete. Toward the end of the century, hand-drawn hose carts gave way to horse power. 

The broom factory at Cucumber and Washington would see another
blaze in the 1870s. After it became the WhitmyreBroom Factory.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
The First/Dutch Reformed Church would also see another
destructive fire in 1948. Courtesy of the
 Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
The 1861 fire was certainly not the last in the city. With the continual evolution of firefighting techniques and more sophisticated equipment, we will never again witness a conflagration like those of earlier times.

For more information on the fires of 1819 and 1861, see Robert A. Petito Jr.'s excellent article “The Fires of Schenectady,” in the May-June 2011 issue of Schenectady County Historical Society Newsletter

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