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Phoenix Fire of 1916
By Evelyn L. Sauers
The Story of Schroeppel
(Oswego County, NY)
Printed by the Phoenix Press
May, 1974 Phoenix, NY
(No copyright claimed)
On the evening of Sept. 23rd residents of Phoenix had completed their Saturday shopping and the stores were closed, the hotels were still lighted for the weekend customers. A workman on the night shift had just returned to the Duffy Silk Mill with a pail of fresh drinking water from the pump at the Windsor Hotel. When the siren blew at 10:45 PM he rushed to "see which way they went" but suddenly realized that a red glow filled the room from the north - indicating that the fire was at the Sinclair Chair Factory on the other side.
The men headed for the huge vault which held the valuable raw silk, thinking to get it out of the building, but the windows were already beginning to crack from the heat and they only had time to close the door on the vault before leaving the building. They found the building on the other side ablaze, too, but could only stand and watch. When the volunteers arrived with the hose cart and attached it to the hydrant there was no pressure. They sent a messenger to the telephone office on the run and called Fulton, Syracuse, Oswego and Baldwinsville.
The fire was started by sparks from an overheated generator in the small wooden building where furniture was made which was filled with odds and ends of lumber from the saws and dust and shavings from the lathes. It must have practically exploded as it spread to adjoining buildings almost instantaneously. The two pumps that pulled water from the river were located on the first floor of the Duffy Building. An armature was being repaired in one so the sprinkler system on the second floor was not up to pressure and, by the time the volunteer firemen arrived, the other one was knocked out.
The fire company was helpless and the two mills on the north side soon were ablaze. The fire fanned out to the south to the newly remodeled Burrows Factory (now a paper mill) and other buildings at that end. The Sweet Bros. Paper Mill to the north was the last on the "island" to catch. The electricity was knocked out at the Seneca River Power Plant leaving the village in darkness except for the brilliant glow from the well-fed flames.
As the paper and lumber fell into the fiery furnace sparks leaped high into the air, the wind shifted - blowing from the west - and carried them across the canal to the solid mass of two and three-story buildings on Canal Street. The flames reached across the gap of the canal as though it did not exist and ignited the Loomis Planing Mill and Lumber Yard. A Syracuse, Lake Shore and Northern Trolley tried to run through the business section and was caught in the holocaust and its wheels fused to the track while the people ran for their lives.
Up Bridge St. the flames spread from building to building on both sides of the street, destroying brick and frame structures alike. Around the corner on Main Street, like a hungry dragon the fire continued to consume the Windsor Hotel and Opera House and Livery Stables, and several of the largest homes in the village.
Residents stood a block away, horrified, and helplessly watching the business district go up in flames. Those whose houses were near the fire area made trip after trip to the roof with buckets of water, wet blankets and brooms to beat out the brands which fell. Some worked frantically to remove valuables and belongings from the homes in the path of the fire. In some cases would-be helpers loaded the goods on wagons and drove out of town, never to be seen again. Some put their furniture in the Baptist Church on the far side of Main Street, believing it to be safe, but sparks ignited the belfry and the steeple toppled and fell on the roof leaving only the four walls. Burning brands of wood were said to have been carried by the wind as far as Sand Ridge.
After sending telephone and telegraph messages for help the girls at the telephone switchboard stayed at their posts until all the wires were down. The fire companies called got here as soon as they could experiencing varied difficulties. Oswego was the first to arrive with a steamer and a host cart on a special train via the New York Central. The Fulton equipment was towed here behind the automobile of the Fulton Mayor. The Syracuse apparatus had a delay of an hour and a half after it was loaded on railroad flat cars to clear the track.
By the time they arrived the bridge over the canal was damaged so it was impossible to get to the "island" where the large manufacturing plants were being consumed. The firemen took their stand at the Phoenix Hotel, corner of Canal and Lock streets and poured hundreds of gallons of water pumped from the river by their steamers onto the blaze. It was the task of the firemen to confine the fire to the area it had already conquered and, but for their valiant efforts, the rest of Phoenix would have gone too.
In five hours 80 buildings were destroyed for a loss of $800,000 to $1,000,000 with very little insurance since rates were so high. The loss, in proportion to the size of the community, was greater than that of other famous fires about which we often hear in Chicago, Baltimore or San Francisco. The silk in Duffy's vault was saved - valued at $45,000. Half of Sweet's Mill remained and the Crescent Mill escaped - end of "island."
Miraculously, only one life was lost in this raging fire - that of John E. Goodwin, 75, who went back into Parker's Feed Store Building in an attempt to save some of the tools in his blacksmith shop which was located there. He apparently lost his way in the dense smoke and was last seen on the roof but the walls fell before they could reach him. He was known here as the inventor of the chainless bicycle and was a former Justice of the Peace in the Town of Lysander.
Homes destroyed in the fire were those of Arthur Hawks, Richard Latham, Dr. Drurie, Frank Burleigh, Charles Loomis, Mrs. Ira Betts, Hunter Betts, Miss Grace Hubbard, Seth Alvord, Mrs. Wandell, Mrs. Baker and Mrs. W. E. Sparrow.
When the dawn of the Sabbath Day broke there was nothing left but a heap of smoldering ruins where once had stood the center of Phoenix. Only four buildings remained standing in the area swept by fire - The Phoenix Hotel, the blacksmith shop, the cement power house and the Crescent Paper Mill and the northern tip of the "island."
Chief of Police Rock Vincent, who later served as Sheriff of Oswego County, assumed charge of the situation, directing rescue work and rounding up looters, in fact, orders were to shoot pillagers on sight during the night of the fire. Thad Sweet, Speaker of the N.Y. State Assembly from Phoenix, worked through the night with the others. In the morning women of the Methodist Church served breakfast to the firemen. The Red Cross arrived on the scene and gave aid where they could. On Monday there was not a thing to be bought in the village and Hess's Grocery in W. Phoenix was soon emptied. The National Biscuit Company came and distributed bread. Individual cases of distress were cared for by local citizens. Later carloads of food poured in and distribution became a problem.
The next few days brought hordes of sightseers by car and trolley and they wandered over the ruins picking up souvenirs and creating a hazard in the danger area. It is estimated that 30,000 people jammed the roads to Phoenix, making a traffic problem for the village on top of everything else.
Mayor Stone of Syracuse headed a committee to raise relief funds for cleaning up the village and solving water supply and fire protection problems. All funds were channeled through this committee which received donations from remote places such as New York, Buffalo, Boston, Baltimore. The Phoenix Citizens Relief Committee, headed by Thad Sweet, made a survey of requirements and conferred with the Syracuse group. The problems which Phoenix faced were declared to be particularly drastic since two-thirds of the assessed valuation of the village had been wiped out, leaving the operating cost to fall on what remained.
Representatives of furniture factories, silk mills and flour mills offered employment to some of the 300 people thrown out of work. But speaker Sweet countered, "It would be folly to abandon the town - there will be no exodus if business men can help it - we will rebuild." Newton Hughes was mayor of the village and carried on but never found time to reopen his hardware business.
The cleaning up process provided jobs for some but building could not begin with winter coming on. Within a short time some temporary buildings appeared at various spots in the village, some conducted their business from homes or barns; the post office operated from Hillborn's garage, the Duffy Silk Mill announced plans to build a plant three times as large as before which was very encouraging for townspeople. So the village settled down to wait until Spring; burned out families staying with friends or relatives, and trading taking place at odd spots about the village.
It was then that the legend of the "Phoenix Fire Bird" was recalled from ancient mythology. This fabulous bird of brilliant plumage, when it felt life ebbing away, built a funeral pyre lighted by fanning with its wings and rose from the flames with renewed vigor. So too, it was hoped, would the Phoenix of New York