State Museum 1911 Capitol Fire Exhibit Opening

The “1911 Capitol Fire” exhibition will open at the New York State Museum on March 19 as part of a series of special events and programs commemorating the 100th anniversary of the devastating fire that struck the New York State Capitol.

Many Albany residents awoke in the early morning hours on March 29, 1911 to see the Capitol on fire. The entire western side of the presumed fireproof building was engulfed in flames shooting 200 feet high. The fast-moving flames destroyed much of the State Library, the fifth largest in the U.S., which was housed in the Capitol.

More than 8,000 Museum objects stored in the Capitol were also destroyed or lost. The fire caused the unprecedented destruction of the state’s intellectual, cultural and historic property and also claimed the life of the lone night watchman.

Special events will include a commemoration ceremony at the Capitol on March 29 at 10 a.m., sponsored by the New York State Commission on the Restoration of the Capitol. The State Museum also will host a preview of a WMHT documentary – “The New York Capitol Fire” – in the Huxley Theater on Monday, March 28 at 12:15 p.m. It will air on WMHT on Thursday, March 31.

Open until June 18 in the lobby of the Office of Cultural Education (OCE), the exhibition is a collaboration between the State Museum, State Library and State Archives and chronicles how the fire affected each of the OCE institutions and their collections. It is based largely on the book, “The New York State Capitol and the Great Fire of 1911,” written by Paul Mercer and Vicki Weiss, senior librarians in the State Library’s Manuscripts and Special Collections unit.

The exhibition will include dramatic photographs, eyewitness accounts and artifacts that survived the blaze. One of those is a section of the iron chain link that stretched across the Hudson River between West Point and Constitution Island to prevent British vessels from navigating up the river during the American Revolution. West Point was a strategic site because of the s-curve in the Hudson there that forced large ships to slow down and become an easy target. The links were recovered from the State Library ruins after the fire. Another section of the chain is preserved at the West Point Military Academy.

Also on display are an 1892 fire helmet, lantern and fire nozzle, courtesy of Warren W. Abriel, a deputy chief in the Albany fire department and a fourth-generation Albany firefighter. The helmet was worn by Abriel’s great-grandfather, Reuben H. Abriel, who manned Steamer 2 for the Albany Fire Department when it was a volunteer force.

There also will be several objects showing fire damage that were part of the Museum’s world-famous Lewis Henry Morgan collection. New York state commissioned Morgan to gather objects from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) communities in the state and from the Six Nations reserve in Canada in 1849-50. All but 50 of some 500 objects were on exhibit.

On the day of the fire Arthur C. Parker, who was Seneca and the state’s first archaeologist, risked his life to save Museum collections and wrote that he was only able to save about 1,500 of the 10,000 objects. The only items in the Morgan collection that survived were in his office. The Parker family assisted Morgan in assembling the collection.

More information on the Morgan collection will be available at one of the programs planned at the Museum to complement the exhibition. The talks are all on Tuesdays at 12:15 p.m. They are:

* March 29 – Talk and Book Signing: “The New York State Capitol and the Great Fire of 1911.” Mercer and Weiss will present dramatic stories and images from their new book. The book will be for sale after the talk and also is available in the Museum shop and from the Friends of the New York State Library &#8211, which will receive all royalties from the book.
* April 5 – “The Conservation of Burned Documents.” Paper conservator Susan Bove of the State Archives will discuss contemporary preservation methods that were used to repair documents salvaged from the Capitol Fire. She will also talk about the conservation treatment protocol that she developed to meet the needs of these especially fragile items.
* Tuesday, April 12 – “Lessons Learned: Modern Response to Fire Events in Cultural Institutions.”

Paper conservator Michele Phillips of the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation’s Bureau of Historic Sites will provide an overview of best practices in action to safeguard collections and their impact on salvage and recovery.

Tuesday, April 19 – “A Capitol Loss: The Lewis Henry Morgan Collection.” Dr. Betty J. Duggan, the Museum’s curator of Ethnography and Ethnology, recounts the collection’s history and the experience of its young curator, Arthur C. Parker, during and after the fire.

The State Museum is a program of the New York State Education Department’s Office of Cultural Education. Located on Madison Avenue in Albany, the Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Further information can be obtained by calling (518) 474-5877 or visiting the museum website at

Photo: Amateur photographer Harry Roy Sweney captured the Capitol inferno at 3:30 a.m. on March 29, 1911. The New York American paid $25.00 for the first print of this dramatic photograph. Courtesy New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections.

Event: State Capitol and the Great Fire of 1911

On Sunday, March 6, at 2:00 pm, the Albany Institute of History & Art will host a free lecture and book-signing by Paul Mercer and Vicki Weis, authors of the recently published book, The New York State Capitol and the Great Fire of 1911 (Arcadia Publishing, 2011). The lecture will complement a library case display at the Albany Institute of 10 historic photographs documenting the event, including the only known photo in existence of the full view of the building fully consumed by flames.

Weiss and Paul, of the New York State Library’s Manuscripts and Special Collections will discuss their pictorial history of the fire, which occurred on March 29, 1911. The book combines dramatic photographs with eyewitness accounts of the fire, which severely damaged the western portion of the capitol.

Virtually the entire collection of the State Library—as well as significant holdings of the New York State Museum—were destroyed in the blaze, which struck as the Education Department was mere months from relocating to the State Education Building across the street. The book tells not only the story of the fire and its aftermath, but also recounts the history of the construction of the capitol, as well as the pre- and post-fire history of the library.

The Albany Institute of History & Art’s library case display documenting the event includes a selection of 10 rare photos, showing both exterior and interior views taken during and after the actual fire. It also includes images of many of the firemen who responded to the blaze, The display opens on March 4 and closes in June. Viewing is free and open to the public.

The March 6 lecture and book-signing is free and open to the public. Museum admission is not included. Call (518) 463-4478 or visit for more information.

Broadcast Marks 100th Anniversary of Triangle Factory Fire

On March 25th, 1911, a deadly fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York’s Greenwich Village. The blaze ripped through the congested loft as petrified workers &#8212- mostly young immigrant women &#8212- desperately tried to make their way downstairs. One door was blocked by fire and the other had been locked by the factory owners to prevent theft.

Some workers managed to cram onto the elevator while others ran down an inadequate fire escape which soon pulled away from the masonry and sent them to their deaths. Hundreds of horrified onlookers arrived just in time to see young men and women jumping from the windows, framed by flames. By the time the fire burned itself out, 146 people were dead. All but 23 of the dead were women and nearly half were teenagers.

The harrowing story of an event that changed labor laws forever, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Triangle Fire is directed and produced by Jamila Wignot (Walt Whitman, The Rehnquist Revolution) and will premiere on Monday, February 28, 2011 at 9:00 PM (check local listings.)

Adirondack Fire Towers History and Lore

A few years ago I made a list of the Seven Human Made Wonders of the Adirondacks. Taking a look at Martin Podskoch’s two-volume Adirondack Fire Towers: Their History and Lore, I feel like I left one wonder off that list. Podskoch’s endeavor to chronicle the history and lore of each of the nearly 60 Adirondack fire towers deserves a spot on the shelf of not just those interested in the history of the Adirondacks (where it’s an essential volume), but also those with an interest in the history of forestry, conservation, wildfires, rural labor and community life in remote places. Podskoch’s extensive interviews with those familiar with the towers serves as an important Adirondack oral history of New York’s leadership in wildfire suppression.

After the great fires of 1903 and 1908, when the fire tower system was young, spotters in their lofty perches reported the majority of Adirondack fires, and Forest Ranger set out to put them out. &#8220Times changed for both fire towers and rangers,&#8221 Podskoch writes &#8220With advances in telephone communications and a greater awareness of the dangers of fire, more and more fires were being reported initially either by a passerby or by the person who caused the fire.&#8221 A 1987 study confirmed once and for all that the fire towers were no longer necessary compared to cheaper overflights. In the previous four years, observers had reported just four percent of the state’s 2,383 wild fires.

Today we don’t generally think of Adirondack forest fires as a threat (that much), but in the early 1960s, dry conditions fostered thousands of fires &#8211 1,532 in 1962. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller closed the Forest Preserve completely on three occasions during 1963 and 1964. More visitors and second home owners in the late 1960s meant more fires, but at the same time better spotting and reporting using aircraft meant better control.

Still, damaging forest fires seemed so threatening as late as 1971 during the debate over creation of the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), that Chair of the Essex County Board of Supervisors James DeZalia could argue against the APA by saying that &#8220these proposals call for the removal of fire spotting towers, exposing the property and homes of the people in the Adirondacks to destruction by fire.&#8221 Thirty years later the debate continues over whether to remove long abandoned fire towers (see Almanack pieces by Dave Gibson and Phil Brown).

There had once been 57 fire towers in the Adirondacks (public and private). In the 1970s and 1980s the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) closed more than 40. In 1990, when the DEC closed the last of the Adirondack fire towers &#8211 Bald (Rondaxe), Blue, Hadley, and St. Regis mountains &#8211 just 26 remained standing. During the 1990s historic preservationists, local community boosters, and other began organizing to save their local fire towers. Although the Whiteface mountain tower was moved to the Adirondack Museum in 1974, the Blue Mountain tower was the first of the abandoned towers to be restored in 1994.

The two volumes of Adirondack Fire Towers, covering the southern and northern districts, are filled with pictures, memories, and stories, but also hard facts about the origins, locations, and life of the observers who lived and worked them.

Podskoch is now working hard on a new book about Civilian Conservation Corps camps in the Adirondacks.

Note: Books noticed on this site have been provided by the publishers. Purchases made through this Amazon link help support this site.

ADK Backs Plan to Remove 2 Fire Towers, Preserve Others

The Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) supports the preservation of the vast majority of Adirondack fire towers, but concurs with the Department of Environmental Conservation’s conclusion that the towers on St. Regis and Hurricane mountains are non-conforming uses and should be removed, according to a recently issued press release.

“Fire towers are an important part of the Adirondacks’ history and culture and provide important educational and recreational benefits,” said Neil Woodworth, ADK’s executive director. “For the hiking public, which ADK represents, a fire tower can provide the reward of a panoramic view after a demanding climb. But Hurricane and St. Regis already have spectacular views, so even if these towers were open, they would add nothing to visitors’ experience of these summits.” Here is the rest of the club’s press release:

For nearly two decades, the Adirondack Mountain Club has been a leader in the effort to preserve and restore the Adirondacks’ historic fire towers, which are monuments to the fire observers who protected the region’s forests and communities. In 1993, the club invited interested parties to the Indian Lake Town Hall to discuss ways to restore the Blue Mountain Fire Tower. That successful restoration effort became a model for other fire tower projects. ADK also publishes “Views from on High,” by John P. Freeman, a guide to fire tower trails in the Adirondacks and Catskills. Furthermore, ADK’s volunteer and professional trails crews have done considerable work in recent years to maintain the trails to fire tower summits, including Mount Arab, Azure Mountain, Pillsbury Mountain, St. Regis Mountain and Hurricane Mountain.

ADK has been an equally strong supporter of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, including its language permitting the maintenance and restoration of fire towers in Wild Forest areas. The Master Plan, which is codified in state Executive Law, clearly states that fire towers located in Wilderness, Primitive and Canoe areas are non-conforming structures. In 2005, ADK’s board of directors passed a resolution opposing any changes to the Master Plan that would allow fire towers to remain in Wilderness, Primitive or Canoe areas. The ADK board also opposed spot zoning that would carve out historic-area footprints on fire-tower summits in Wilderness, Primitive or Canoe areas.

ADK welcomes DEC’s “Fire Tower Study for the Adirondack Park,” an in-depth, thoughtful analysis that will provide much-needed guidance in determining the future of the 20 remaining fire towers in the Adirondack Forest Preserve. It takes a broad, parkwide view that takes into account the characteristics, location and existing or potential public benefits of each tower. It goes a long way in resolving, through objective criteria, the debate over which towers should remain and which should be removed.

Aside from the substantial legal issues, a number of practical considerations make these two towers poor candidates for preservation and restoration in their current locations. Neither is used for communications purposes. Both towers have long been long closed to the public, with their lower stairs removed. Despite the removal of the stairs, some people still attempt to climb these towers, which makes them public hazards.

From a historical perspective, neither of these structures is unique. The St. Regis and Hurricane fire towers are 35-foot Aermotor steel towers, Model LS-40, erected in 1918 and 1919, respectively. There are 11 other fire towers of this same size and model extant in the Adirondack Forest Preserve. Neither St. Regis nor Hurricane is the oldest, the newest, the shortest or the tallest among Adirondack fire towers.

Nor does the towers’ listing on national and state historic registers provide them with any special status. These and other Adirondack fire towers were added to the historic registers pursuant to a 1994 agreement between DEC and the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation that acknowledged from the outset that some of these towers would be saved and others removed.

While ADK supports removal of these two towers from their current locations, the club does not believe they should be discarded or scrapped. Relocation has long been an important tool in preserving structures of historic significance, including the Adirondack fire towers that have been relocated to the Adirondack Museum and the Adirondack History Center in Elizabethtown. The St. Regis and Hurricane towers should be relocated to other mountain summits or to public locations where the public can view and enjoy them.

The Adirondack Mountain Club, founded in 1922, is a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to protecting the New York State Forest Preserve and other wild lands and waters through conservation and advocacy, environmental education and responsible recreation.

New York City Fire Department History Lecture

The New York Public Library’s Bloomingdale Library (150 W 100th St, NYC) will play host to a lecture on the history of the New York City Fire Department on Thursday, October 8, 2009 from 6:00 PM &#8211 7:30 PM. Robert Holzmaier, Chief, Eleventh Battalion which covers Manhattan’s Upper West Side will be discussing fire extinguishing in 1609, the first controversial fire tax- hooks & ladders- horses and dogs- the connection to the city’s water supply- the city’s great conflagrations- attempts to destroy the city by fire- fire company feuds- and the the uses of volunteers.

You can learn more about the history of the New York City Fire Department at:

William F. Fox, Father of NY Forest Rangers

Last week the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) held a ceremony to honor William F. Fox, the &#8220father&#8221 of the state’s modern-day forest rangers, on the 100th anniversary of his death. Fox was born in 1840 in Ballston Spa, Saratoga County, and graduated from Union College in Schenectady in 1860. He served in the Civil War as Captain, Major and then Lieutenant Colonel in the 107th New York Volunteers and later wrote a number of books on both the Civil War and forestry. Fox’s 1902 History of the Lumber Industry in the State of New York, written under the auspicious of Gifford Pinchot, is considered the first authoritative work on the logging industry in New York.

Fox became New York’s &#8220Superintendent of Forests&#8221 in 1891. He quickly came to the conclusion that the then-current fire patrol system &#8212- which used &#8220fire wardens&#8221 (firefighters who only worked when there were fire emergencies) and local ad hoc firefighters &#8212- couldn’t handle the job of forest protection. He wanted a paid staff &#8211 a new &#8220forest guard&#8221 service &#8212- to cover the Adirondacks and Catskills.

Fox wrote a report to state leaders outlining how he’d organize the patrols: each ranger assigned to a township seven-miles square, residing in a log cabin built near the center of the township &#8212- but in the woods, not a village. This forest guard &#8220would keep a sharp watch on any skulker who might be a possible incendiary.&#8221 In sum, Fox said he wanted to shift the emphasis from reacting after fires started to patrolling the woods before.

Despite Fox’s advocacy, the state Legislature did not act immediately. Meanwhile, towns became reluctant to enlist local firefighters because of costs. Then came massive fires in 1903 (500,000 acres burned in the Adirondacks) and 1908 (605 fires over 368,000 acres across the state), finally prompting elected officials to take action. In 1909, Gov. Charles E. Hughes signed legislation that brought sweeping changes to the Forest, Fish and Game law that included the creation of a fire patrol service in Adirondacks and Catskills. Fox died shortly thereafter at age 69.

Further legislation followed, replacing the &#8220Forest, Fish and Game Commission&#8221 with a &#8220Conservation Commission&#8221 and creating the title &#8220forest ranger&#8221 in 1912. Though he didn’t live to see his vision fully carried out, Fox is still credited with being the father of the forest rangers. One hundred years later, the DEC, which evolved from the Conservation Commission, today employs a statewide force of 134 uniformed Forest Rangers. Their mission of protecting the state’s natural resources remains consistent with Colonel Fox’s vision.

The ceremony was held at Fox’s graveside at the Village Cemetery in Ballston Spa, Saratoga County.

This story was cross posted at Adirondack Almanack, the leading online journal of Adirondack culture, history, politics, and the environment.

P.T. Barnums American Museum On The Web

The New York City History blog The Bowery Boys has a great post on Barnum’s American Museum that includes a podcast, lots of images and a link to The City University of New York website devoted to Barnum’s, The Lost Museum. Both sites are worth checking out.

Barnum’s American Museum was located at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in New York City from 1841 to it was destroyed by fire in 1865 [pdf of NY Times Article]. P.T. Barnum’s partner was John Scudder the original owner of the museum (then known as Scudder’s American Museum). Scudder recently found new fame as character inspiration for the HBO series Carnivale &#8211 a must see for those interested in carnies, the ballies, flying jennys, sugar shacks, the midway, and oh, the Great Depression.

According to wikipedia:

Barnum opened his museum on January 1, 1842 to create a place where families could go for wholesome, affordable entertainment but his success drew from the fact that he knew how to entice an audience. Its attractions made it a combination zoo, museum, lecture hall, wax museum, theater and freak show,that was, at the same time, a central site in the development of American popular culture. At its peak, the museum was open fifteen hours a day and had as much as 15,000 visitors a day.

On July 13th, 1865, the American Museum burned to the ground in one of the most spectacular fires New York has ever seen. Animals at the museum were seen jumping from the burning building, only to be shot by police officers. Barnum tried to open another museum soon after that, but that also burned down in a mysterious fire in 1868. It was after this time that Barnum moved onto politics and the circus industry.

While we’re talking Phineas Taylor Barnum, we should point readers to Robin Freeds’ &#8220In Business for Myself: P.T. Barnum and the Management of Spectacle.&#8221

Also, the Disability History Museum has the full text of Barnum’s 1860 catalog online.