The City of Schenectady is no stranger to fires. Every school child learns of the destruction of the fledgling village in February 1690 at the hands of the French and their Native American allies. Many know the story of the Great Fire of 1819, which started in a currying shop (where the stretching and finishing of tanned leather was carried out) on Water Street, was spread by strong winds in a northeastern direction, and ultimately destroyed most of the buildings in city west of Church Street from Water Street to the Mohawk River.
The Schenectady Fire of 1861 started innocently enough: boaters on the Mohawk River noticed wisps of smoke emanating from a pile of brush near the southwest corner of a large frame warehouse along the north side of West Front Street (Cucumber Alley) around 4 pm on August 6, 1861.
Within minutes, the flames, fanned by a tremendous gale, spread rapidly to engulf the entire building and were moving toward the corner of Washington Avenue and Cucumber Alley. Clouds of black smoke filled the sky as flames rushed eastward with startling speed and power.
Intense heat from the fire set ablaze the houses located on adjacent corners of Front Street and Washington Avenue.
Accounts of the fire describe scenes of confusion as houses along the northern ends of Washington Avenue and Church Street and the western end of Front Street were being emptied of furniture and goods in anticipation of the advancing flames. Panic stricken people frantically sought assistance in removing their possessions. Later reports said that in the confusion thieves walked off with personal possessions relocated to the street, and pick-pockets worked their trade in the distracted crowds.
Meanwhile, the cries of men shouting orders, the rattling of horses hauling fire engines on the cobblestone-paved streets, and the deafening roar of the fire added to the chaos.
The fire proceeded to engulf houses along the western side of Washington Avenue north to the river and south to include buildings at the present addresses of Nos. 16 to 24. It jumped the street and spread to houses located on the eastern corners of Front Street and Washington Avenue, and to wood shingle roofs along Washington Avenue, Front and Church Streets.
Along the west side of Ferry Street wood roofs were being drenched with pails of water by occupants. The roof of the home of William Chrisler at No. 25 Washington Avenue was saved from catching fire by the efforts of his neighbors in squelching the cinders. On Front Street, the house next-west from the home of Stephen Daggett (at No. 5 Front St) and his barn were torn down to attempt a fire break. Daggett’s house was soaked with water, thus effectively stopping the advance of the fire to the east. On the south side of Front Street, the barn of Stephen Y. Vedder had caught fire, but was torn down, stopping the fire in that direction.
In the midst of this bedlam, smoke was noticed pouring from the latticed windows of the steeple of the old Dutch Reformed Church at the corner of Union and Church Streets. Flames encircled the tower’s clock. Fire engines positioned down by the river could not be re-positioned in time to attend to the fire in the church. People rushed in to remove cushions, books, papers, the chandelier, carpets, the old Bible, and even the pulpit, but the fire could not be stopped. Onlookers watched helplessly as first the steeple collapsed in on the roof, the bell crashed down through the tower floors, and the old church was gutted within its masonry walls.
In the process, heat from the fire set ablaze the house next door at No. 105 Union Street, the home of Mrs. Riggs, now part of the present church lawn , and would have spread to the next house at No. 107 Union Street, the home of a Mr. Barringer, except for efforts to drench the roof and sidewalls with water by firefighters.
Embers from the fire were dropping on roofs across the downtown and as far away as Albany Hill (in the vicinity of the present Veterans’ Park at State St. and Nott Terrace/Veeder Avenue). It became apparent that local fire fighting efforts were inadequate to stop the spread. Messages were sent by telegraph to Troy, Albany, and Amsterdam for assistance and crews and equipment began to arrive from surrounding towns.
A local newspaper later reported that the most impressive effort was the Hugh Rankin from Troy’s Steam Engine Company No. 2. Their steamer was was positioned at the foot of Governor’s Lane and pumped a strong stream of water through 15,000 feet of hose up the Lane, down Front Street and around the corner to Washington Avenue.
Still, by morning, the northwestern corner of the Stockade section of the city and several scattered structures lay in smoldering ruins.
The fire, which was later thought to have started in Otis Smith’s broom factory,* destroyed the warehouse and broom factory, dry house, store house, sheds, 70 tons of stored materials, 3,000 dozen brooms, machinery, wagons, harness and related equipment, and a house. Damage to the factory operations was estimated at $22,000 and the house at $1,000. Smith carried only $8,000 in insurance.
At the old Dutch church and consistory the loss included furniture, the church organ, and gas fixtures. Fortunately, the church was insured, and site clearance and removal of rubble started by early October.
The consistory selected architect Edward Tuckerman Potter of the city of New York to design a new (the fifth) building, which was completed by 1862. Potter, a Schenectady native, known for his design of the Nott Memorial for Union College and the Mark Twain House in West Hartford, CT, designed the new church building in High Victorian Gothic Revival style, setting the building back from the street fronts in a picturesque composition that encloses the bell tower in a corner formed by the church fronting on Union Street and the consistory room facing Church Street. (This building was itself a victim of fire in February 1948, although the church was rebuilt within the surviving stone walls.)
Garret W. Vedder suffered one of the larger losses. Vedder owned a row of brick tenements on the west side of Washington Avenue that included the sites of the present day nos. 18-24. They were completely destroyed. Also destroyed, were a frame dwelling on the north side of Front Street, as well as two two-story frame houses on the east side of Washington Avenue. In 1865, Vedder put the property on the west side of Washington Avenue at the corner of Cucumber Alley up for auction and it was purchased by Nicholas Cain who constructed the present brick townhouses as rental property after he took title in 1867.
A house on the west side of Washington Avenue, then owned by John Barhydt (present No. 26), was severely damaged by the fire. Barhydt rebuilt but “modernized” the house in the then fashionable Italianate townhouse style.
On the east side of Washington Avenue, a frame house at the corner owned by the estate of Stephen Y. Vedder was damaged, the brick-fronted frame house of a Mrs. Brower was destroyed, and a row of brick Federal style rental houses owned by Daniel D. Campbell were damaged but subsequently rehabilitated and modernized.
Otis Smith sought to rebuild his broom factory facilities on the same spot. However, an October 10, 1861 editorial in the Evening Star and Times noted that “citizens” in the vicinity of Smith’s broom factory had begun to protest the erection of another factory at that site. The editorial went on to suggest: “Some of you solid men of Dorp, that live in the west end, just buy Mr. Smith’s lot there, and give it to the city for a park..”
Smith didn’t live enough to rebuild, dying March 22, 1862 at the age of 51. Nothing seems to have come of the proposal to turn the site at the confluence of the Mohawk and Binnekill into a public park. Subsequently houses and a new broom factory, later owned by Charles L. Whitmyre, were constructed on the property.
The cause of the fire was never determined to anyone’s satisfaction. Some claimed that it was caused by the carelessness of roofers tinning the roof on the north side of the building, but that was countered with the accounts of many who were sure that the fire appeared to have started at the southwest corner of the building.
The lead story in the local news section of Schenectady’s Evening Standard and Times for Wednesday, August 7, 1861, devoted two columns to “The Fire of Yesterday – A Deplorable Calamity – Fifteen Buildings Burned – The Old Dutch Church in Ruins.” The paper concluded this article about the fire with the following thought:
“In the few hours on Tuesday, more wretchedness has been condensed, than in any year since 1837. Such a scene of terror is not often witnessed anywhere, and we trust that it will be long before another such a desolating spectacle shall visit the banks of the Mohawk.”
*The growing of broom corn for and fabrication of brooms had been introduced to the Mohawk Valley in the early 1830s, and until about 1880, Schenectady County grew almost half of the broom corn grown in New York State. Otis Smith was one of the leading manufacturers.
Illustrations, from above: painting of Dutch Reformed Church on fire in 1861; and Whitmyre & Co Broom Factory after fire – circa 1870.
Robert A. Petito Jr., AIA wrote a version of this essay for the Schenectady County Historical Society Newsletter, Volume 54. Become a member of the Society online at schenectadyhistorical.org.