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The Great Troy Fire of 1862

Excerpted from the book
Troy’s One Hundred Years 1789-1889
Published in 1891 by William H. Young, 7 and 9 First Street, Troy, NY
TROY FIRE – MAY 10TH, 1862.

About noon, on Saturday, May 10th, 1862, the shingle roof of the eastern section of the Rensselaer and Saratoga Railroad bridge, between Green Island and the city, was set on fire by sparks from a passing locomotive. A gale was blowing from the north-west, and the wind at once carried the flaming shingles and glowing brands to the dry roofs of the numerous buildings in the central part of the city. An alarm was given, and the firemen and engines quickly arrived at the east end of the burning bridge. A futile attempt was made to throw water on the flaming structure, but the excessive heat and flying cinders com pelled the firemen to abandon it. An effort was made to open the draw to bar the progress of the devouring element, but this was also unsuccessful. Great tongues of flame leaped high above the blazing bridge, which soon fell into the river, and parts of the burning sturcture, floating with the current, imperiled the steamboats and the smaller craft cabled along the wharves.

Meanwhile hundreds of houses were on fire. From the bridge south-eastwardly the
flames were widening the area of the conflagration with such fearful rapidity that the terrified people were scarcely able to escape them, while some were suffocated in the streets by the dense smoke.

When the stores on River Street, near the bridge, began burning, the thoroughfare there was so darkened by smoke that it was difficult to discern objects at the shortest distances. The high north-west wind swept the thick clouds of lurid smoke across the city, and covered it as with a pall. In less than an hour and a half a broad belt of fire lay across the city, from the river to the eastern hill. It was impossible to pass from one side of it to the other, except by long detours, either east or west of it. Direful and unfounded reports augmented the terribleness of the calamity. Dwellings on the eastern hill, not directly in the course of the fire, were saved from burning with the utmost difficulty. At one time, on Ninth Street, the greatest consternation prevailed. In that part of the city, it was thought that the buildings there were not endangered, and no precautions were taken to save them from destruction. Suddenly brands were carried by the wind thither, and in a short time a number of unprotected houses lay in ashes on that street.

The most distressing events of the long-remembered day were those in which helpless persons became the prey of the destructive element. Although the fire occurred at midday, when the people were best prepared to escape, yet so rapid was its progress and so great the panic that several persons were overtaken and hemmed in by the flames, and were burned. Ransom S. Haight was suffocated in the smoke on Seventh Street, where he was burned almost beyond identification. Thomas O’Donnell, an aged blind man, living on Green Street north of Grand Division Street, left alone in the house, was burned in it. Zenas Cary, an aged physician, residing at No. 29 Grand Division Street, rescued from his burning dwelling by his faithful wife, was fatally burned, and died on the following day at the Marshall Infirmary. The charred remains of Mary Dunlop and child were found in the ashes of a burned building. Numerous narrow escapes are related by men and women who were imperiled by the rapidly progressive fire.

At the beginning of the conflagration, all human means seemed useless to save any of the buildings in the path of the fire. As it advanced south-east wardly, often slight changes of the wind gave it limitations, and the strenuous efforts of the indefatigable firemen frequently checked its progress in different directions. The conflagration, about six o’clock, was stayed at Donohue & Burge’s carriage factory, on the north-west corner of Seventh and Congress streets, having destroyed five hundred and seven buildings, not including barns and out-houses, covering an area of seventy-five acres in the central part of the city. Viewed from Eighth Street, at night, the field of the fire was one of no little grandeur. Here and there unquenched flames illuminated desolated spaces, and great beds of fire glowed among the blackened walls of the destroyed buildings. The resonant rhythm of the steam fire-engines and the steady cadences of the striking brakes of the hand-engines lulled to sleep the hundreds of houseless people in the neighboring homes of those who hospitably received them.

Among the larger buildings burned were the Second Presbyterian Church, on the south-east corner of Sixth and Grand Division streets; the Associate Presbyterian Church, on the east side of Seventh Street, between Broadway and State Street; the North Baptist Church, on the south-east corner of Fifth and Fulton streets; the Home Mission, on the east side of Seventh Street, between Broadway and State Street; the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, on the north-east corner of State and Sixth streets; the Troy City Bank, on the south-east corner of Four th and Grand Division streets; the Troy Orphan Asylum, on the north side of Grand Division, west of Eighth Street; the Church Asylum, on the south side of Federal Street, between Sixth and Eighth streets; and the Union Railroad depot, on the site of the present building. Fireman and fire-engines from Albany, West Troy, Cohoes, Lansingburgh, and Waterford, came and assisted in the difficult work of limiting the range of the conflagration. The progress of the fire southward along River Street was successfully opposed by the Arba Read and Jason C. Osgood steamers; at the intersection of Fourth and Fulton streets, the Washington Volunteer Company checked the flames from crossing Fulton Street at that point; and at the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Street, the Hugh Ranken and the Empire State engine companies energetically resisted there the advance of the fire. Elsewhere the other companies vigorously battled with the destructive element.

The total value of the property destroyed was appraised at $2,677,892, on which were insurances amounting to $1,321.874. The loss on real estate was estimated at $1,386,080 and that on personal property at $1,291,812; the insurance on the former being $766,691, and that on the latter, $555,183. Fifty thousand dollars were contributed before the end of May for the relief of the sufferers by the people of Troy and of other places. That amount was largely increased during the month of June. In July, one hundred and eighty one new buildings were erected in the burned district, and in November, six months after the fire, all the lots on River Street, excepting two, on which buildings had been burned, were occupied by better ones.”