Fire was recently in the news for taking a terrible toll on a city with the unthinkable destruction of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. But it was a loss of property and history only, not of life. Fire was once a much, much more pressing concern for cities. We’ve written briefly before on the devastation of the Troy fire of 1862, which wiped out a huge swath of the city. A few years later, on the first day of 1888, the Albany Sunday Express printed “The Fire Record,” an article representing the statics of loss by “the work of the fire fiend” in Albany since 1867. The statistics focused on dollar values of losses, which are somewhat difficult to translate at this remove, but are useful for comparison and give a sense of the scope of loss each year to fire.
The “fire year,” we had no previous reason to know, ended on October 31, so these statistics were given for multiple calendar years.
- Going back to 1867-68, the Express reported a total loss of $303,024.93 (we like the precision), including large fires at the Academy of Music and White’s malt house.
- The loss for 1871-72 was reported at $551,311.16, with large fires at Weed & Parsons’ printing house (in which a fireman died) and at Martin Hall.
- The loss for 1874-75 was $335,533.39, with fires at the Dunlop elevator, the Stanton stable, the Museum building, Swartz’s slaughter house, Rathbone Sard & Co. stove works, and Senrick’s furniture factory.
- The loss for 1879-1880 was $250,691.63, with the principal fires being City Hall, the Delavan block, and the Leonard Building. (This was an earlier fire for Delavan, not the terrible fire of 1894.)
- 1882-83 saw a loss of $388,221.62, with the principal fires being the Tweddle Hall fire, Bellows & Moore building, Walters’ oil cloth factory (flammable? uh…) and Lyons’ furniture factory. Also that year, both the Leonard building and the Dunlop elevator burned again; the elevator was totally destroyed and took a fireman’s life.
- The loss for 1884-85 saw a loss of $302,888.06, including the ever-flammable Leonard building, and the equally flammable Walters’ oil cloth factory (which burned twice that year), Parks’ mill, the Eintracht Hall, and the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company’s freight houses. That year also saw the devastating fire at the Boardman & Gray piano factory, which cost three firemen their lives that year.
For the fire year 1886-87, the Express wrote, “The fire record of the year just closed is not a pleasant subject for contemplation. Although the number of alarms foot up [sic] 324 and the losses are heavier than for the previous year, we have ample cause for congratulation that they are still far below the average for many other cities.” Fires that year included the Wright Building, the Ransom stove plate facing works, the Tower mill, and the Columbia elevator.
The most destructive fire that year was at Larrabee’s cracker and biscuit factory at North Pearl and Livingston, which broke out on Sunday, October 30, 1887, “about 2:46 o’clock A.M.” Losses were tallied at $144,739.98, the greatest destruction of that year. “That so great a destruction of property should occur at a single fire is in no wise attributable to any want of promptness, lack of diligence or mismanagement on the part of the department. Strange as it may appear the alarm for this fire was not given till most of the contents of the building in which it originated were a mass of fire. The flames were bursting from the windows upon all sides, the building containing inflammable materials, which carried the fire from one story to another with lightning speed. When the firemen arrived it was apparent to all that the factory and its contents were doomed, and the efforts of the men were at once directed to prevent the spreading of the fire and if possible to confine it to the buildings in which it was then making such havoc. After a gallant struggle of several hours the adjoining property was beyond danger and in a few hours the fire was completely subdued.”
The day after the fire, Oct. 31, 1887, the Albany Morning Express reported that “About half an acre of steaming, smoking ruins was all that remained of the mammoth bakery of E.J. Larrabee & Co., when yesterday dawned. The ravenous element had done its terrible work well. Such a scene of complete destruction has not been seen in this city for years. Of the entire great building only a few towering fragments of the eastern walls remained, and these tottered as if about to fall at any moment.”
“All the buildings within 100 feet of the burned structure showed the effects of the terribly intense heat generated during the burning . . . Three brick dwellings on the south side of Livingston avenue are blackened and blistered in front, and two frame buildings fully 150 feet away from the hottest part of the fire are badly scorched. The front doors and windows are burned out of the brick dwellings, and the roof is burned from one. . . . All day yesterday throngs of people visited the scene. The street cars did a rushing business, and the sidewalks on all streets leading to it were continuously lined with people going to and fro. Those who clustered about the ruins probably at no time during the day numbered less than a thousand, and the presence of several policemen was required to keep the crowd back.” Yet, there were no fatalities and injuries to firemen were limited. “Chief Higgins was struck on the head with a brick, but his hat saved him.”
While we learned of other locations of Larrabee Cracker, which had previously been called Albany Aerated Bread Company, including Lansingburgh and Syracuse, we didn’t learn whether that spelled the end of Larrabee in Albany.
The Leonard Building is one we haven’t heard much about before, despite its penchant for going up in flames. It was at 605-607 Broadway, and housed Jacob Leonard & Son, which used part of their namesake building, and another building to its rear, in their book printing business. An 1888 guide to the City of Albany says, “The lower floor of the Leonard building is occupied as business office and wholesale paper warehouse. A stock of printers’ supplies will also be found there. The first and second floors of the rear building are occupied as press rooms, where ten large and small presses of the best makes may be seen printing all kinds of work. On the third floor is the bindery, filled with the best machinery and appliances for the manufacture of blank books, machine ruling, etc. On the fourth floor is the job composing room. On the fifth floor is the folding and sewing room, where may be seen the newest and best folding and wire stitching machines . . . Visitors to the city who would like to inspect this establishment will be cheerfully and courteously conducted through its various departments and initiated into some of the mysteries and intricacies of the art of making books.” When we go to look at the building on the 1892 Sanborn map, it is merely a vacant lot, suggesting that one of these fires was the last.
The state of fires, particularly the Larrabee fire, focused the Express’s attention on the fire department itself. “All eight steamers which the city possesses were hard at work, and all the men of the department. The two reserve steamers are practically useless, except to take the place of disabled apparatus. There are neither horses to draw them to a fire, nor men to operate them. Consequently a second conflagration, which providentially did not occur, would have had a chance to get entirely beyond human control before anything could have been done to check it.
“This really deplorable state of affairs is the result of false economy on the part of the common council and the finance board in not providing for the maintenance of a department adequate to the city’s needs. As it is, the record of Albany’s fire service is one to be proud of, as it ranks third in the country, though it is maintained at a far less cost than that of any other city in the United States; but it is insufficient nevertheless, and solely because the money to bring it up to the required standard is not forthcoming.
“Albany to-day has only two hook and ladder trucks. It had the same number seventeen years ago. It has but the eight steamers it had twelve years ago, though the city has extensively grown to the west, to the south and the north since then. And it is doubtful whether it would have more than six even now, if the great fire on Orange and Canal streets about twelve years ago had not stirred up the people to a spasmodic fit of energy, which resulted in the purchase of steamers 7 and 8. Troy, though but two-thirds the size of Albany, has a better equipped department.”