Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Walter Arndt at The Evening Post, April 8, 1911.

April 8, 1911, The Evening Post, Page 1, DIX ACTS ON FIRE DANGER.

Has Already Set Men at Work to Make Albany Buildings Safe.

ALBANY, April 8.--Gov. Dix to-day took summary action to put the Capitol and every structure in which State property is housed or stored in an immediate condition of safety from fire loss. He will not even wait for the return of the Legislature.

He has employed an expert electrician to rewire the capitol building, and this man had a force of employees at work this morning. The expense, estimated at $75,000, will be carried by an appropriation.

The Governor had not heard of the dangerous condition surrounding the State geological collections, which are stored in an old wooden structure on the river front, which is used also by a firm that manufactures washing powder from potash. [A full account of this will be found in another column.] When this fact was called to his attention, however, he said at once that he had called for a full report from every State department in regard to State property stored in private buildings.

"I am going to see that the Capitol and all the other State buildings have as complete protection from fire as any modern factory," he said, "the buildings will be at once supplied with every safety appliance, stand pipes, fire extinguishers, and so on, and a systematic and competent corps of watchmen will be installed. We were fifty years behind the times, and it took a calamity to awaken us; but we shall soon be so amply safeguarded that a recurrence of a fire such as that of last week will be impossible."

April 8, 1911, The Evening Post, Page 6,



Half-Million-Dollar Geological Collection Stored in a Fire-Trap -- Documents from Capitol Fire Blowing Around Streets -- Final Vindication of Sheehan Paper Ceiling.

(Special Correspondence of The Evening Post.)

ALBANY, April 7.--That the bulk of the valuable collection of geological specimens owned by the State, and at a conservative estimate said to be worth between a half and three-quarters of a million dollars, is stored in a ramshackle old fire-trap, part of which is also used by a concern that manufactures washing powder, a constituent part of which is potash, a highly inflammable material, was the astounding fact brought out to-day by the searching inquiry as to the safety of the State's collections that is being made as a result of the fire in the State Capitol.

This geological collection constitutes only a part of the State's large scientific collections. All are under the control of the science division of the State Department of Education, of which Commissioner Andrew S. Draper is the executive head. In addition to the geological collection, the State possesses botanical, biological, paleontological, ethnobiological, and anthropological specimens of great value. None of them is properly housed. It is planned in the course of time to place them all in the new State educational building, now in course of erection, which was also to have sheltered the burned State library. At present these collections are necessarily scattered around the city in all sorts of places, some parts of them are on exhibition in the Geological Hall on State Street. Others are displayed in the Old State House. Some are stored in the basement of the State Capitol. Still others are packed away in a deserted church.


For some time the greater part of the geological specimens were stored in an old malt house. About a year ago the malt house was leased to a manufacturing firm, and the collections had to be removed. An old wooden warehouse on the river-front was rented--or, rather, space in it was rented--and the specimens removed there. A few months ago A. Mendleson Sons, a firm which makes a washing powder from potash, rented that part of the warehouse which the State did not occupy, and set up their manufactory therein. This firm had recently been burned out of their last home, and needed a new place to carry on their business at once. They did not mind the geological specimens a bit.

Their "process," or patent, provides for the use of large quantities of potash, with which a quantity og rosin is mixed. They begin their work alongside the State geological collections, and set up a large vat in which the rosin was cooked. It happens that on the very same floor are stored many specimens from all parts of the world, valued, it is said, at several thousand dollars apiece. On the same floor, also, are stored some 30,000 volumes of valuable reports and other geological works, and possibly a hundred thousand duplicate volumes, for which there was no room anywhere else.

Several times within the year the Mendleson firm had had serious fires before they were finally burned out of their old factory, and they have had at least one blaze, it is reported, since they established themselves in the warehouse with the geological collections. These facts came to the knowledge of the authorities, and Commissioner Draper, after having an investigation made, protested. The Mendleson people declared that there was no danger of fire. The commissioner laid the matter before the attorney-general with the request to see what could be done about it, and there it was when the3 Capitol fire occurred.

Meanwhile, the powder-makers have stopped up some holes in a brick wall that separated the main part of their plant from the warehouse where the State's property is stored. Dr. Draper was not sure that this was a sufficient safeguard, and he called in an insurance expert to advise him. The expert reported that the danger was less with the holes stopped up. And there the matter rests. Whether the commissioner will now take steps to have the collections removed to a place of greater safety, or whether he will allow them to stay where they are, trusting to luck that they will not burn, as he did in the case of the archives has not yet been decided by him.


Gradually some idea of what the salvage from the recent fire amounts to is being obtained. At first this was not possible, and, indeed, there can be no final adjustment of the enormous property loss until what remains has actually been checked off against what was known to exist before the catastrophe. As a matter of fact. It is becoming more apparent every day that the grossest carelessness has been shown in the method of sifting and sorting the heaps of debris and partially burned refuse from the fire. It would have been a comparatively easy thing to have fenced in that part of the street into which the remains of the library were dumped, and to have had it carried thence to some covered enclosure where it could have been dried out and sorted later on. Instead of that very little effort was made to save anything from the debris that was carried from the building. Great heaps of burned books and papers were cast from the windows and allowed to blow about the street. Curious souvenir seekers were allowed to maul and overhaul the heaps to their hearts' content.

Finally it was all dumped in carts — or so much of it as had not blown away — and carried off to the public dumping ground in Beaver Park. There every day a crowd of men and boys has been at work poking over the pile, and it is known that several books, papers, and other things of value have been recovered. How much has been appropriated by the finders will never be known.


The case of the State coin collection is worthy of mention as showing how the affair has been mismanaged. In the delivery room of the library there was a collection of several thousand valuable coins, both foreign and American. It was known perfectly by the library assistants where this collection was located, and it would have been a comparatively simple matter to have saved entire such parts of it as were not melted. Part of it to be sure, was saved, and some two thousand coins have been recovered so far. On the desk of Gov. Dix there is a lump of silver as big as two fists which is composed of melted silver coins. But when all the melted metal and all the entire coins were counted it was found that there were many hundreds missing. Commissioner Draper therefore sent word to the principal of the public school near the dumping-ground and at recess and after school all the children turned in and hunted for coins in the debris. Last night the principal sent to the commissioner some twenty specimens that had been found during the day. And there are probably hundreds more either lost or in the hands of those who will consider them lawful spoils of the fire.


Many documents of value have been picked up in the streets. Two land patents dating from the first half of the eighteenth century were found a block from the Capitol building. Only yesterday several papers of the Revolutionary Committee of Safety, dated 1777 and 1779, were picked up in the street. The papers and documents have blown far down State Street. Some of them have been carried by the wind as far down as Broadway, seven or eight blocks from the burned wing of the Capitol. One manuscript dated 1842 was picked up in front of the Hotel Ten Eyck. Yesterday the librarian received from a man in New York a pre-Revolutionary  manuscript of considerable value. It had been found by an Albany friend and sent to the New Yorker as a souvenir of the fire, but he had recognized its value and returned it. These are only a few instances of the many "finds" that  the careIessness of the authorities alone has rendered possible.

There is a grim humor in some of the discovered letters and papers. Many hundreds of letters on file in the Senate finance room were scattered broadcast, and some of them have turned up. One man has in his possession two letters of more than ordinary present interest. One letter from Prof. Charles A. Collin, the Governor's late bill drafter, written some years ago in regard to a legislative hearing at which he, as the registered lobbyist of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, was anxious to appear. Another is a characteristic letter written to Jotham F. Allds, asking him to include an appropriation for a friend of his in the appropriation bill, which Allds, as chairman of the Finance Committee, was helping to draw. A significant part of this epistle was the postscript, in ewhich the writer asked Allds to be his guest on an Adirondack fishing expedition.


There is humor to be found in some other aspects of the disaster, too. Forty squares of the famous Sheehan papier mache ceiling in theAssembly chamber were so badly burned that they had to be removed. The contractors who are doing the job are Sheehan & Feeley. Commenting on this coincidence, "Packy" McCabe, the Senate clerk, remarked rather irreverently the other day, as he watched the workmen:

"Verily, a Sheehan putteth up and a Sheehan taketh away."

As a matter of fact, the Sheehan ceiling burned very slowly, much more slowly than the oak that it was at first supposed to be would have burned under similar conditions. And that circumstance has led certain optimistic persons who insist on looking at the bright side of things to evolve the theory that the State has really turned out to be the gainer by the ceiling scandal, after all.

"There were about two hundred thousand dollars' worth of books and so forth stored in the lofts over that ceiling," said one of these philosophers. "If the ceiling had been oak, they would have all have burned. The papier mache wouldn't burn worth a hang, and they were all saved as a result. The grafting contractors are reported to have made about eighty thousand dollars out of the State in 1886. The ceiling they gave us saved the State two hundred thousand in 1911. So the State is about one hundred and twenty thousand to the good, after all. It's pretty poor graft that don't benefit some one."

The repair contract calls for papier mache, and the State's inspectors are going to see to it, it is said, that no contrctor attemps to foist carved oak panels on the State. W. T. A.

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