Tuesday, November 29, 2011

March 29, 1911, The Evening Post, Page 1, Column 5, RUIN IN CAPITOL,

Damage $5,000,000 or More by Fire


Priceless Documents, Relics, and Manuscripts, Besides 600,000 Volumes, Burned—Costly Grand Staircase, Assembly and Senate Chambers, and Many State Departments Badly Damaged -- Court of Appeals Escaped -- Flames Raged Four Hours Before Being Controlled -- No Fire-Fighting Appliances to Quell Outbreak, Trifling at Start.

(Special Dispatch to The Evening Post )

ALBANY. March 29.—Defective insulation in the Assembly Library on the third floor of the State Capitol started a fire early this morning that destroyed the west wing of the $27,000,000 building. The State Library was completely destroyed, and both the Senate and Assembly chambers burned out. The loss is variously estimated at between $5,000,000 and $8,000,000, but in some respects it is incalculable, for many of the records and documents in the State Library can never be replaced.

One watchman, Samuel Abbott, who was assigned to the State Library, is missing, and is believed to have lost his life. Several firemen were overcome with smoke, or injured by falling stones from the walls.


It cannot be too emphatically stated that, had there been any provisions whatever in the Capitol against fire, the loss would have been relatively small, and the fire itself could easily have been confined to the room in which it started. The Evening Post's correspondent was one of four men on the third floor when the fire was discovered, and was one of the first to reach the room in which the blaze started. At that time only a desk and book-case in the Assembly library were ablaze, and the fire could have been extinguished by a couple of hand-grenades or a few bucketfuls of water. But there were no grenades, no fire buckets, and no fire hydrants, save a few small ones on the sixth floor for sprinkling.

There was delay also in getting streams of water on the fire, even after the firemen arrived, and it was fully twenty-five minutes after the alarm was turned in before a fireman reached the floor where the fire was burning. It was almost three-quarters of an hour before the firemen had streams playing on the fire from the interior of the building. The firemen had the excuse, to be sure, that the fire was a difficult one to fight, and that it was a problem how to get the fire hose up to a point where it could be effectively used. But to the total lack of fire appliances of any sort is due the enormous and irreparable loss which the State will be called upon to sustain.


Here is the story of the fire, as seen by the Evening Post's correspondent from his point of vantage within the burning building:

At 2:20 o'clock the Capitol was practically deserted save for the night watchmen, who are supposed to be posted one to a floor; H. S. Gorham, the manager of the Postal Telegraph office in the Capitol. Dwight Gowey, a proof-reader to the Assembly, and two newspaper correspondents. At that time, Gowey, who had been working late in the Assembly document room, returned to the Assembly library, which was located in the rear of the Assembly chamber, and separated from it by the clerks' room and the stenographers' lobby. Gowey intended to close his desk, which was located in a corner of the library, and go home to bed. As he opened the library door he was met with a cloud of smoke, and saw that one of the high book-shelves, immediately behind his desk, was all ablaze. He rushed at once into the corridor, shouting for the watchman.

"What's the trouble," called one of the correspondents.

"There's a fire in the Assembly Library and I'm afraid it may be a bad one," Gowey called back.

Gorham and the correspondents ran around the corridor to the west wing of the building. Smoke at that time was pouring from the Assembly library, but it was possible to enter the room. When your corespondent caught a first glimpse of the fire. Gowey's desk was ablaze and the book shelves adjoining it were a mass of flames, which were rapidly climbing upward among the books, piled to a height of thirty feet from the floor. A balcony ran about the library, forming a sort of mezzanine floor some twelve feet from the floor itself, and the flames had already reached this balcony, although apparently nothing but the books were at that time on fire.


Meanwhile Gowey had found a watchman and he had turned in an alarm. It was fully twenty-five minutes before any firemen put in an appearance. By that time the fire had spread, with indescribable rapidity, among the book shelves; the electric light bulbs were exploding, and the whole room had the appearance of a furnace.

The firemen stood helplessly watching it for a moment, apparently unable to decide what to do. From the street, however, a feeble stream was soon playing against the Assembly library windows. Before the fire hose had been hauled up the winding million dollar staircase to the third floor, the flames had burst from the library into the hallway and lobby, and the firemen were forced back by the heat and dense, suffocating smoke before they could get a stream into the blazing library.

At this time, however, the fire chief expressed confidence that he would be able to confine the fire to the rooms adjacent to the Assembly chamber. He was emphatic in his statement that there was little or no danger of the fire extending to the State Library, which occupied the greater part of the west wing fronting on Capitol Place from the third floor up. Ten minutes later when the flames had already reached the head of the great western stairway and were swirling up the elevator shaft in that corner of the building, he changed his mind and declared that he feared the State Library was in danger.


The fire entered the State Library wing by way of the binding room located on the fifth floor. But this was fully an hour and a half after the fire started, and, in that time, had there been anyone on hand to do the work, many of the priceless books and records in the library could have been saved. One of the most striking facts of the fire was the total inefficiency or inadequacy of the employees of the State superintendent of buildings. They stood about idly in groups on the first floor of the building, but they did not venture above stairs, and many thousands of dollars' worth of State property was needlessly sacrificed as a result.

Step by step the firemen were forced to retreat before the advancing flames, until, with a roar, the fire burst into the State Library. It was then a foregone conclusion that the whole library was doomed. The firemen confessed themselves helpless, and gave up any attempt to check the fiery advance. The books and papers, many of them resting on pine or walnut shelves, proved ready fuel for the flames, and within thirty minutes after the flames had passed the stone partitions, the library was afire from end to end.

At this time, with the entire west wing ablaze, the sight across the broad central court from the eastern part of the building was one never to be forgotten. The mass of flames reached higher than the eye could see from the windows looking out on the court. Within the court enclosure the sparks fell in showers. The smoke in the corridors was so thick that it was impossible to stand it long, and the few spectators on the third floor, as well as the helpless firemen, had to rush to the windows every few minutes for a breath of fresh air. It was impossible to recognize a person, even across the narrow corridors. The flames had driven the fire-fighters out of the western corridors altogether within five minutes after the spread into the library, and they were compelled to lay new lines of hose along the corridors running alongside the Senate chamber and on the fourth floor immediately above.

Here the fire was fiercest, and here the hardest and most successful fight against the advancing flames was waged. The fire chief realized that if the fire once got headway in the region above the Senate chamber the whole structure was doomed. But the fight was successful, and the fire was stopped before it had passed into the north wing.


On the Assembly side the fire, which had died down for a while, now broke out a new, and soon the notorious Sheehan papier-mache ceiling, which was the cause of so much scandal back in 1886, was seen to be blazing. A great section of it directly over the Speaker's desk, fell with a crash, and two of the enormous chandeliers fell with it. A body of volunteer firemen was organized among the half-dozen Assemblymen, Senators, and newspaper correspondents who had by this time put in an appearance, and a line of hose was hoisted and pulled in through the windows, and a stream of water was soon playing on the crumbling papier-mache. Almost every part of the building was soon flooded with water, and the loss from this cause is estimated to be extremely large.


The State architect roughly placed the loss on the structure alone at between $3,000,000 and $5,000,000. The loss on furnishings is many thousands if not a million, and that on the library and other public records is incalculable. A conservative estimate places the entire loss at $8,000,000. The State carried no insurance on any part of the Capitol or its contents.

Andrew S. Draper, commissioner of education, said that while the loss on the State Library was deplorable and included many documents and manuscripts which it would be impossible to replace, some of the more priceless of the States historic possessions, such as Washington's Farewell Address and other papers, and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, had been removed to his fireproof safe on the first floor of the building and were unharmed.

W. T. A.

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