page 119According to Roseberry, the fire began in the Assembly library, (which is the room marked 346 on the plan below) then the "[f]lames exploded through its glass transom and also through rear windows to leap catercorner across an air-shaft into the State Library corridor." However, this would not have been simultaneous. The fire would have first had to break through the glass transom over the doorway to Room 346, and then enter into the east/west hallway that leads from the rear of the Assembly chamber to the Assemblymen's lavatory, indicated on the plan by a row of stalls. The flames would then have had to break through the small window fenestrating the lavatory into the air shaft, just north of the Great Western Stairway, in order to jump "catercorner" to break through the larger windows between the air shaft and the corridor marked on the plan as Room 344. However, at this point fire wouldn't have entered the State Library proper, those rooms to the west of the corridor marked 339 and 340 on the plan, and separated by thick masonry wall, and, one assumes, heavy oak doors. According to Roseberry's scenario, the fire extended out from Corridor 344 to enter into the stone hallway of the Great Western Stairway to the east of the entrance to the Main Reading Room of the State Library, marked as Room 338 on the plan (but most often referred to as Room 35 in the various literature about the Capitol and Library,) where "a sheet of flame swept along the arched ceiling of the corridor [and the] high window panes burst." This would be the fourth set of windows that the flames were able to penetrate. However, there is no indication that such "a high row of window panes" existed above the main door of the State Library.
Meanwhile the Assembly library had become a furnace. Flames exploded through its glass transom and also through rear windows to leap catercorner across an air-shaft into the State Library corridor. A wooden mezzanine which had been erected above the north portion of that corridor for extra book shelving took fire on the instant. The two newsmen beat a retreat to where the Senate corridor turns off at right angles, and watched from there.
Until now, Fire Chief William W. Bridgeford was confident of keeping the fire out of the State Library. The stone partition was thick between the corridor and the library, the only breach being the central door to the main reading room and a high row of window panes above it. Firemen played three streams into the wall of fire, expecting to confine it to the north half of the corridor. Chief Bridgeford had Mullins go back downstairs and fetch an emergency key to the library. Mullins was fumbling with the key at the heavy oaken door when a sheet of flame swept along the arched ceiling of the corridor. The high window panes burst and a strong draft seemed to suck the flames into the library, where they leaped from shelf to shelf. The Chief ordered his men to get inside the main reading room and work their way south, heading off the blaze, “if it were possible to live there.” They tried to rush in, but heat scorched their hands so they couldn’t hold on to their nozzles.
Once the fire had invaded the reading room, it was clear that the State Library would have to be written off. Its own carefully prepared firefighting apparatus was worthless. “A tidal wave of water was needed then,” wrote one observer.
In fact, within the highly limited body of historic imagery extant in the public record of the State Capitol and State Library, where very little else can be proven with any assurance, the absence of such a row of window openings between the Main Reading room of the library and the stair hall to the east can be ascertained with a great deal of certainty.
Even after fire had burned away the bookcases and mezzanine, we see nothing but the solid masonry wall which stood between the library and the stair hall.
March 30, 1911, The [Syracuse NY] Post-Standard, CAPITOL FIRE-SWEPT; PRIDE OF THE STATE IS QUICKLY A WRECK. COULD HAVE PUT OUT FIRE WITH A PAIL OF WATER
ALBANY, March 29.—L. M. Howe, one of the legislative correspondents, who was in the Capitol when the fire started, gave this description of it:
"At about 2:15 this morning another newspaper man and I were working on the third floor of the Capitol, when the clerk of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, accompanied by one of the night watchmen, ran through the corridor, shouting:
"There is a fire in the Assembly library!"
"Rushing over to the room," said, Mr. Howe, "which is in the rear of the Assembly, we looked in the room and saw the desk in the southwest corner a mass of flames.
"The fire at this time could have been easily put out with a pail or two of water. We searched in vain for anything to serve the purpose, and finally decided to close the door and keep out the draft. The night watchman ran downstairs to sound the alarm, there being no alarms in the building.
Flames Spread Rapidly.
"While we waited for the department we could see the flames through the glass transom rapidly filling the entire apartment, but we were helpless to do anything. By the time the department reached the building the room where the desk was located was a roaring furnace, but at that time it had not spread into the hall or adjoining room.
"Before a hose could be brought into use the fire, with a loud explosion, burst simultaneously through the transom into the hall leading to the main entrance to the State library; the transom of the door leading to the room immediately east of where the fire started; and through the large plate glass window into the street.
"The tongue of flame which swept out over the transom opening into the hall appeared to instantly set fire to the underside of the wooden floor, forming the mezzanine floor that occupies the northern half of the library corridor. So fast did the fire spread over this floor that we were obliged to escape to the Senate entrance to escape being caught by the flames. In less than twenty minutes the State library had caught and the flames were shooting through the roof at the northwest angle."