Edward Delavan was born in Westchester County, NY, in 1793. His father died when Edward was eight and he and his mother, brother, and two sisters moved to Albany. Edward began work in a printer’s office at 13 years of age and after several years, left to work at his brother’s hardware store. While at the hardware store, he began selling wine, which proved very successful.
In 1814, Delevan formed a partnership with his brother and left for Europe to find more and better sources of wine for their growing business. In the years 1825-1830, he speculated in real estate in Albany and showed large profits. This was a time when the Erie Canal was in peak operation with Albany as its busiest port. In 1831, 14,960 canal boats passed through Albany and the first railroad was just being built.
In 1829, Delavan became one of the founders and first directors of Canal Bank of Albany. The bank was formed on May 2nd, 1829 and eventually failed July 11th, 1848.
By 1829, Delavan became convinced of the evils of alcohol and began supporting the temperance cause. That same year, he formed the New York State Temperance Society together with Dr. Eliphalet Nott, who was later president of Union College. The American Temperance Intelligencer and the Temperance Recorder were both financially supported by Delavan and published in Albany. Delavan’s substantial financial support enabled these publications to become the largest and most influential temperance publications in the country.
In 1835, he engaged in a well-publicized public debate over whether alcoholic wines should be used in church communion, which created much controversy. He also published an article in Thurlow Weed’s Albany Evening Journal saying that Albany brewers were using filthy water from Albany’s Rutten Kill Creek in their brewing. This resulted in a suit being filed against him for libel, which Delavan eventually won.
When the American Temperance Union was formed in 1836, Delavan was elected chairman and donated $10,000 to support its operations. In 1840, he obtained a series of drawings purporting to show the evil effects of alcohol on the human stomach and spent $7,000 of his own money circulating 150,000 copies of these pictures. In 1841, he began to publish the Enquirer, a small temperance journal.
Delavan was also very generous to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Albany. A December, 1836, church report mentions that of the $160 raised in the previous day’s collection for the missions, Edward Delavan had donated $100.
In 1844, Delavan built the Delavan House, at the time, Albany’s finest hotel and restaurant. The Delavan House was a six-story building with a relatively plain facade, located almost directly across the street from the Union Depot, Albany’s Victorian New York Central train station. Although Delavan was a strong temperance leader, wines and spirits were served at the Delavan. The Delavan House saw many noteworthy guests, including such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt, P.T. Barnum, Charles Dickens, “Boss” Tweed and almost every state political figure of the day when they came to conduct business at the state Capitol.
The year 1845 brought many changes to Albany. The streets were first lighted with gas; the telegraph came to Albany stretching from Springfield, Massachusetts on the east to Buffalo in the west; the population of Albany reached 41,139.
The first passenger train in the United States rode from Albany to Schenectady in 1831 and over the next twenty-three years, many small segments were combined to form the New York Central Railroad in 1851.
While Erastus Corning and his supporters were developing passenger trains, Delavan saw tremendous potential in building a railroad to transport coal from the coal fields of Pennsylvania to the northeast, where it would fire the coal stoves of residents and fuel the heavy industries of Albany. Delavan and one of his neighbors, Robert Hewson Pruyn, attended the formation meeting of the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad Company on April 2, 1851. Pruyn was one of two principal speakers at the meeting and Delavan was elected the first president of the line.
The construction of the Albany and Susquehanna proved much more difficult and expensive than anyone expected and it took 17 years to complete. The company ran out of money several times. Upon completion, it was a tremendous success and, following a hostile takeover attempt, it was leased to the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company to form the Delaware and Hudson Railroad in 1870.
The year 1861 was one of the most exciting at the Delavan. Abraham Lincoln had been elected President of the United States and took a well-publicized train trip from his home in Springfield, Illinois to Washington stopping at Albany. Susan B. Anthony, president of the New York State Chapter of the American Anti-Slavery Society, put together a group of prominent anti-slavery speakers to hold conventions at all major New York State cities preceding Lincoln.
Anthony’s group included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Frederick Douglass and others. The Delavan House hosted the group. Two weeks later, Abraham Lincoln and his family arrived at the Delavan.
In about 1850 the Delavan House was sold to T. E. Roessle & Son, a noted Albany area vegetable grower and hotel owner. Edward Delavan died in 1871.
On Sunday night, December 30th, 1894, the Delavan House was the scene of one of Albany’s worst fires. At the time, the New York State Legislature convened on January 1st and swore in its new members with much ceremony. Many politicians arrived in Albany a day early, prepared to spend New Year’s Eve at the Delavan and meet at the Capitol the next day.
The Delavan was Albany’s most popular hotel at the time and some of the most significant political figures stayed there, including the speaker of the Assembly Hamilton Fish. During the dinner hour, while waiters were rushing to serve a packed dining room, a fire broke out in the kitchen, located on the lower floors of the hotel. The two lower floors were quickly engulfed in flames. The fire spread quickly up a back stairwell to the upper floors, which housed the lodging quarters and the dining room.
The upward flow of the fire trapped some guests on upper floors. The first Albany firemen to arrive knew immediately that they were in deep trouble. The four-story Delavan was higher than any of their ladders and the water pressure from Albany’s system would only reach up about two stories. Since the fire burned fiercely on the two ground floors the firemen could not enter the building.
A honeymooning couple from Brooklyn named Heilman was trapped in their fourth-floor room. With their window open and smoke pouring out, they could see that no ladder would reach. The firemen created a human net, forming a circle, bending forward and interlocking arms, offering their backs as a target. They told Mrs. Heilman to jump. At a time before workers compensation or disability insurance, the volunteer firemen knowingly and without hesitation, risked severe injury to save her. She landed on them, and although severely injured, survived.
Her husband was not so fortunate. He looked down and saw that it was a long way to the ground. He thought that he could jump to a second floor balcony and escape to lower floors from there. He stood on the windowsill and jumped, but he was too far out from the building. He awkwardly hit the iron railing of the second floor balcony and caromed off and fell to the street where he hit with a thud. He died a few hours later.
Firemen also spotted Mr. and Mrs. Henry Fookes of Chicago screaming from a fourth-floor window. They raised their ladder as high as they could but it was far short of the window. Using uike poles they propped the ladder straight up to create a little more height but it was still six to eight feet too short. A fireman, gaining access to the roof and risking the possibility that he would be trapped there, lowered a rope in front of the window.
The only chance for the couple was to grab the rope and lower themselves to the stretched up ladder. Mrs. Fookes, terrified by the flames burning all around her, climbed out the window and grabbed the rope. She was suspended for an instant but unable to support herself, she fell through the air and crashed to the pavement. She was killed.
Her husband grabbed the rope but as he climbed out and left the window, he began to swing. He swung back and forth for minutes unable to align himself with the ladder. The firemen maneuvered the top of the ladder back and forth with their poles, trying to get it under him. As Fookes dangled helplessly 40 feet in the air, a few firemen were visibly trembling; an onlooker fainted. Behind Fookes, the four-story hotel was a raging inferno. He swung back and forth.
Fookes regained his bearings slightly and wrapping his arms and legs around the rope began to slide down. The firemen moved the ladder to him and rested it against his leg. He got one foot on a step and still holding the rope, got his feet on the ladder. A fireman rushed up the ladder as his partners gently placed the top of the ladder against the building. Fookes was guided to the ground.
A general alarm was put out to all of Albany’s horse-drawn fire companies and all ambulances were ordered to respond. Albany’s Fire Chief Richard Fleming described the situation when he arrived: “…when we got to the hotel it was burning hard. Just as we reached Columbia Street, we saw the first ambulance arriving and a few minutes later we learned that several of the guests had jumped from the building.”
Unknown to the firemen, at least 14 maids resided on the top floor, rear of the hotel. The maids had retired for the night and were in an isolated section of the hotel and unaware of the fire raging below them. By the time they became aware of the fire, it was too late. Possibly overcome by smoke, they crashed through to the basement when the hotel collapsed. By the next morning, only eight bodies had been recovered. The last body was not recovered until February 23rd, almost two months later, as the hotel’s remains, mostly a pile of bricks, were removed. (A fictional account of this fire plays a major role in William Kennedy’s novel Flaming Corsage.)
The Albany Morning Express castigated the city’s lack of water pressure, inadequate firefighting equipment and lack of a full-time professional firefighting force. A short time after the fire, Albany hired its first 35 full-time firefighters and purchased better equipment although its horse-drawn equipment was considered to be among the best in the country at that time.
After the fire, the New York Central Railroad purchased the site and built their new Union Station. Throughout the later years of his life, Delavan continued with his temperance activities. At about the time of his death, Albany had 26 active temperance associations. He also donated a collection of shells and minerals to Union College in 1858. He was married twice: to Abby Smith of Lyme, Connecticut and second, to Harriet Schuyler of Albany.
The Delavan family lived at 23 Elk Street in Albany. Edward C. Delevan died on January 15th, 1871. Delavan and his family are interred at Albany Rural Cemetery (Lot 10, Section 53). When Albany Rural Cemetery was first opened in the early 1840s, Edward C. Delavan purchased the first plot.
Illustrations, from above: The Delavan House on Broadway in Albany (ca. 1840s); portrait of Edward Deavan; an advertisement for the Delavan House from the later 19th century; and the remains of the Delavan after the fire of December 30 1894.
Julie O’Connor says
Roessle bought Delavan circa 1850. It was his first hotel purchase.
John Warren says
Thanks Julie, I’ve added that detail.