Thursday, July 24, 2014

"The Most Destructive We Have Ever Witnessed": Schenectady's Great Fire of 1819

This blog entry is written by Library Volunteer Victoria Bohm. 

Throughout its 350-plus years of history, Schenectady has had its fair share of destructive fires. Like most cities grown from colonial times built for the most part of wood, the threat of fire was familiar and inevitable. The lack of building codes and standards and zoning laws only enhanced that threat.

The great fire of 1819 was a particularly destructive event in Schenectady’s history. Firefighting -- its techniques, equipment, and manpower -- was still fairly primitive. The wooden structures creating the crowded, unregulated urban sprawl were an architectural tinder box wanting only that first spark. On November 17, 1819, between the hours of 4:00 and 5:00 in the morning, that spark was ignited in Isaac Haight’s currying shop on Water Street. By the time the fire was finally out, most of the city between State Street and the Mohawk Bridge (itself barely saved) lay in ashes. It was one of the worst disasters since the Massacre of 1690.

Len Tantillo's painting Schenectady Harbor renders the city as it may have looked in 1814, just a few years before many of Schenectady's buildings were destroyed by fire. 

The winds were definitely a major factor in 1819; the fire quickly jumped to John Moyston’s home and store, on the opposite side of the street from Mr. Haight's currying shop, and went almost immediately out of control. From there, adjoining buildings were quickly engulfed in the flames. As the stiff south-easterly wind swept the fire along, many buildings in the city between State Street and the Mohawk River burned to the ground; the pitiful remains smoldered on for days.

Injury to the firefighters and to all those who put themselves in harm’s way to help those directly threatened and affected, their persons and their possessions, was severe. About 160 buildings, including homes, storefronts, offices, barns, and other outbuildings, were simply destroyed, along with most of the personal property in them. Trees, grain supplies, and other provisions were destroyed. An article in the Schenectady Cabinet following the fire estimated the damage at over $150,000.00 (over $2.7 million today). Water Street, State Street, Church Street, Union Street, Washington Street, and Front Street all suffered massive damage. Fortunately, not one life was lost in the blaze. Those left homeless had to look to friends, relatives, and charity for help. Union College students were among the largest group who came to the aid of those in need, in helping to protect homes from being burned and in assisting those suffering from the losses after the fire. The town of Glenville started a succession of regional aid actions to bring the basic necessities to the victims, especially those who escaped with only the clothes on their backs in frigid November weather. The region’s Shaker Communities also stepped up to offer aid and comfort, and David Tomlinson and Joseph C. Yates headed up a relief drive in Schenectady.

Certificate signed by Henry Yates, mayor of Schenectady, appointing Daniel Vedder, Bartholomew Schermerhorn, Nicholas Bradt, and John Pangburn as Relief Collectors in Rotterdam (then referred to as the Third Ward of Schenectady) immediately following the fire of 1819. The collections were intended to help those "who, by an awful visitation of Providence, have been suddenly deprived of their dwellings, and in many cases of their all -- and who are thus cast, without a shelter, without cloathing [sic] and without bread, upon the charity of those friends and neighbors whom the devouring element has spared." Image from the Historic Manuscripts Collection, LM 323, Grems-Doolittle Library.

Schenectady in 1819 had only two fire trucks which, given the scope of the fire coupled with the wind and weather, proved almost useless. There were neither the material resources nor the technology to battle such a fire. And, it was later discovered that the winds had blown bits of burning shingles and other materials as far away as Charlton, a distance of about nine miles! Attempting to save personal property, even with so many able bodies, including the students from Union College, also proved for the most part futile. The best solution found with spur-of-the-moment desperation, was to heave furniture and other items onto any available flat-bottom boat and float out into the middle of the Mohawk River and stay along the banks to which the fire did not reach. The smoldering aftermath revealed yet another sad fact; very few of the buildings destroyed were in any way insured.

These notes of thanks, from people whose homes were saved by the efforts of volunteers who battled the fire in Schenectady, appeared in the Schenectady Cabinet newspaper on November 24, 1819, a few days after the fire destroyed a number of homes in the city. Image from 1819 Fire clipping file.

Jonathan Pearson’s History of the Schenectady Patent cites the 1819 fire as a catalyst for bringing in a newer, more modern style of architecture as the city rebuilt itself, specifically the English style replacing the original Dutch style. In his 1902 book Schenectady County, New York: Its History to the Close of the Nineteenth Century, author and historian Austin Yates claimed that no truly official documented historical record was ever made regarding the 1819 fire, and that most information about the fire came from eye-witness accounts jotted down before the witnesses died out. Yates then offered another re-telling of those extant descriptions collected through the years for articles and books.

No comments:

Post a Comment