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) of 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 people 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