Tuesday, November 08, 2011

I. N. Phelps Stokes Tells Thrilling Story of Rescue of Albany Archives.

April 30, 1911, New York Times, Magazine Section, Part Five, Page 2,


For the First Time Authentic Account Is Given of How Valuable Historical Documents and Relics Were Saved.

IN the rush of news after the fire in the Capitol at Albany, the destroyed archives naturally played a prominent part. First, they were all burned, according to report, and then many of them were said to be saved, but the exact story of the way in which they were saved has not yet been fully told. It makes a pretty thrilling adventure.

A New York man, I.N. Phelps Stokes, shared in the drama. He and State Archivist A. J. F. Van Laer personally carried on the work of rescue with the cooperation of J. L. Wyer, Jr., the Director of the Library; of Gov. Dix, and the Adjutant General.

Mr. Stokes, after some persuasion, told the tale of the rescue in his own way, which means that he eliminated a good deal of what he himself did. He is a very tall, thin person with a black beard and a look in his eye that suggests quickness of decision and a determination to carry out that decision. In short, a good man to have around in a crisis.

"When the fire broke out," said Mr Stokes, "the trustees of the New York Public Library called a hasty meeting and decided that some one should go up to Albany to carry the sympathy of the institution to the authorities of the burned library and express their desire to cooperate in any possible way. They asked me to go, so the morning after the day on which the fire broke out I arrived in Albany. I presented the sympathy of the New York trustees and then went out to see what had happened.

"I was told by those who had watched the fire that flames from the room of the archives window had burst out and spread half across the street. So it was generally believed that there was no chance of finding intact any of the priceless, unduplicated records the room had contained. Mr van Laer, the archivist, however, cherished hopes, and I thought, too, there might be a way of saving something.

"Torrents of water had been poured on the building, and we figured out that the soaked manuscripts might not have burned, that at least those on the lower shelves might have been protected by the fallen rubbish from above. However, there was no means of gaining access to the room. The stairway was gone, and that part of the building had been declared unsafe.

"Being an architect, I came to the conclusion that there was not sufficient weight on the floors above to make it unsafe to enter that part of the building if an entrance could be effected. We decided to ask the fire department to give us ladders so as to make an entrance into the third story, but while arrangements were being made for this scheme, we studied the plans of the building and found that it would be possible to get to the floor the archives were on through the burned floor of the room above the apartment of the clerk of the Senate.

"We promptly did this, and by breaking through the panel of the door, were able to climb into the room where the early records of New York's colonial history had been kept.

"The sight did not encourage us in the hope that anything could be saved. Everything had been burned, the shelves and desks, and there was four feet of smoldering debris on the floor. From the ceiling streams of water leaked through. Here and there little fires were starting. It seemed a hopeless proposition.

"Still, knowing the power of resistance to fire that compressed paper possesses, we made the attempt. Mr van Laer, through many years of familiarity with the archives, knew exactly where to look.

"'Here,' he said, 'were some early Dutch records of the State.'

"When we got down through the debris, we caught a glimpse of paper which, while charred and water soaked, was still decipherable. Here were some remaining Dutch records. Evidently, our idea that some things might be saved was not altogether a vain one.

"As quickly as possible we climbed out again and sought the Governor. We laid before him our plan for salvage, and he readily saw that there was not a moment to be lost. He promised his prompt cooperation, and we got back to the scene of action without loss of time. Adjutant General Verbeck sent soldiers, who helped us dig in the rubbish and formed a chain to pass the baskets full of saved stuff to safety.

"The water came down, not in streamlets, but in a steady downpour, filled with soot. It was indescribably dirty and hopeless looking; but, fortunately, we had to waste no time in looking for the most valuable records, since van Laer could point out where they should be and recognized them the moment they were brought to light.

"The room where the archives were contained was a continuation of the corridor. It was about forty feet long and fifteen feet wide, and had a window at the farther end. When the flames broke through the panels of the door, spreading through the corridor, the length of the room and the window at the other side made a kind of flue for the flames to sweep through, and this, of course, had made the spectacular blaze that was seen during the fire. The manuscripts around the upper shelves had been promptly burned to bits, and, just as we had hoped, their fall and the streams of water poured in by the fire engine had saved some of the things at the bottom.

"Many of the volumes were burned when we got to them and were so hot they could not be held in the hands. We had a hose with us and were constantly obliged to turn on more water to put out the little fires that would break out every once in a while. There was much smoke and discomfort. Although I had assured the men that the building was safe, whenever there was a noise as of something falling they would be startled and anxious to quit work, for which nobody could blame them.

"We tried to sort things roughly and to indicate even as we worked in the midst of the debris of the room which were the most important papers. There was a constant line of baskets passing from soldier to soldier. In this way we were able to get out what Mr van Laer considered the most valuable documents during the first day.

"At seven o'clock the next morning we were back at work. Fire had broken out during the night, and more water had been turned on, so that our task was harder than the day before. Then, you will remember that immediately after the fire a cold spell set in with a high wind. Much of the debris at the bottom was frozen stiff, and could not be taken from the floor, and once in a while a loose paper would be caught up and whirled away.

"There was some criticism of this flying paper afterward, but I do not see how working under such conditions we could have prevented a few leaves from escaping, and the only wonder is that the wind, rushing through the gutted building, did not whirl away more of them.

"We worked hard all through the second day, and at the end were able to feel that about everything had been got out that could possibly be saved. Of course, much that we rescued was in an indecipherable condition, and most of it is in a dreadful muddle, so that it will take a year or more for the archivist and his assistant, who alone know the manuscripts thoroughly, to get them into order and make them available for use.

"The useless debris was thrown out of the window as we dug, Mr van Laer himself standing by to examine every shovelful and make sure that no fragment that could be of value was thrown out.

"It will be remembered that the loss of General Washington's sword and the General Worth sword was reported at the time of the fire. The Washington sword was recovered rather curiously. As we worked the first day I saw a workman pick up a twisted bit of metal and show it to another. The other shook his head, thinking the thing useless, and the finder threw it away.

"Mechanically I noticed the incident and saw where it fell. I thought the bit of iron was one of the supporters of the shelves. The whole room was filled with bits of twisted metal.

"The next day I heard of the loss of the Washington sword and recalled the piece of twisted iron I had seen the men handle. It occurred to me that that bit might have been the sword, and as I remembered where it had fallen I got the men to dig there, and it turned out just as we hoped. It was the sword, very much out of shape, but it can easily be straightened and made the same as ever.

"Bishop Doane kindly gave us the use of the house at 162 State street for our manuscripts. They were all taken there as they were rescued. The reference librarian fitted up shelves of laths, where the soaked material was put to dry.

"A corps was organized from the women employees of the Library, and they set to work to tear off the covers of many of the books. The water collected in the covers and kept the inside damp, so it was better to separate the two and let them dry apart. We telephoned to Herbert Putnam, the librarian of Congress, and asked him to send Mr Berwick, who has charge of the repairing of the national archives, to offer suggestions. Mr Berwick promptly responded.

"The Catholic Society came to the rescue later, when the house at 162 State street was filled to overflowing, and gave their large gymnasium as a temporary drying place for the books and manuscripts. This gives room to work in, and all the saved records are there still, so far as I know."

[This ends the portion of Stokes’ quoted report as reprinted in the New York State Library's 94th Annual Report---the sole document which constitutes the single official "findings" of all aspects of the Capitol fire. However, the Times article continues with an additional six paragraphs of Mr. Stokes’ first-person reminisces:]

"Mr. Van Laer calculates that 20 or 25 per cent. of the value of the archives rooms, that is about 20 per cent. of the importance of the library, has been saved. That does not mean that 20 per cent. of the important books have been saved; it means that the library's value for historical research is now about one-fifth of what it was before the fire.

"Happily, among the saved volumes were the two first books of the Dutch land patents, a series of early records from 1630 to 1664. A good half of the early records are completely destroyed. There is a remaining proportion which is in such fragments and so charred that it is practically valueless. About 20 per cent. of them are saved and decipherable.

"I should say by far the greatest part of the Sir William Johnson manuscript, most valuable for the student of early history, is gone. Perhaps two volumes of the twenty remain.

"Some of the George Clinton papers were saved and some of the Andre papers, with perhaps one-half of the volumes of the Thompkins manuscripts, which bear on the war of 1812. Fortunately the manuscript records of that war were saved intact.

"Of the English Council Minutes after 1664 Mr. Van Laer wrote me a few weeks ago that six volumes, or possibly eight or ten, would be saved. I think perhaps 20 per cent. of the Colonial records are still of use. Some of them, of course, are available in printed form, but some are not.

"The saddest feature of the destruction is that of the Van Rensselaer surveys, extremely valuable documents. Only thirty or forty bundles of leases, not of the earliest period, were saved. The Van Rensselaer family gave them to the State's care only a year ago, so their loss is peculiarly tragic."

Mr. Stokes told his tale with what his listener knew to be glaring omissions, for State Archivist Van Laer has paid a glowing tribute to his courage and skill. However, you cannot expect a man, at least the kind of man Mr. Stokes is, to sound his own trumpet. In between the lines the reader will have to supply the idea of the smoke that made work at times almost impossible and the danger which must have been there, though Mr. Stokes makes light of it, from the falling stuff of the floors above.

Stokes' report places the manuscript archive room at the southerly end of the long corridor running north to south past the Great Western Staircase, with the single window he describes being marked on the plan as Room 328. The third story, being the home of the Senate and Assembly chambers, was of enormous height, perhaps the tallest story of any of the five in the structure, and many reports describe the various substandard mezzanines constructed on this floor over the three decades it was continually being reworked.

Stokes says, somewhat ambiguously, that "we studied the plans of the building and found that it would be possible to get to the floor the archives were on through the burned floor of the room above the apartment of the clerk of the Senate." He must be describing a similar mezzanine level above either Room 325 or Room 327, which abut the location of the archive room.

Understanding that the actual floors between the different stories would have been originally built in solid concrete, or of other fire-proof masonry construction, leaves Stokes' description of access through the "burned floor of the room above the apartment of the clerk of the Senate," as questionable, since this was done "by breaking through the panel of the door," where they "were able to climb into the room where the early records of New York's colonial history had been kept."

Since Stokes describes a holocaust in the manuscript room, where it was visible to those outside when "flames from the room of the archives window had burst out and spread half across the street," he seems to be describing the door between that room and the adjoining room on the mezzanine as functioning successfully as an unbreeched fire-stop.

We must leave aside for the moment the implications behind there being a secondary entrance into what constituted the most precious treasure room in the State Capitol, since even the plan of the third floor proper fails to indicate a clear demarcation between the space occupied by the State Library and that in control of the Senate.

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