The 1911 Capitol Fire

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The 1911 Capitol Fire
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    (TEXT VERSION - The Fire)

    Fire at the Capitol: March 29, 1911 at 2:42 a.m.

    This is the first photograph of the fire taken at 3:30 a.m. by amateur photographer Harry Roy Sweney. The "New York American" paid twenty-five dollars for the first print of this photo showing the Capitol in flames.

    Fire at the Capitol

    Harry Roy Sweney lived on South Swan Street, just around the corner from the Capitol building. The fire had been burning for almost an hour before he began to capture photos of the horrific event.

    Fire at the Capitol

    Fireman can be seen aiming their hoses at the blaze. Unfortunately, their equipment proved inadequate in reaching the source of the fire in the upper levels of the building. Fire fighting equipment inside of the building itself was virtually non-existent.

    Fire at the Capitol

    Smoke emerges from the disintegrating southwest tower. On the third level (right), a plume of smoke escapes from the window of the manuscripts room in the library where thousands of historical documents were lost.

    Fire at the Capitol

    When truck no. 2 of the Albany Fire Department reached the scene, firefighter John A. Russell commented that the third floor of the west tower on Washington Avenue was "a mass of flames and the glass was breaking in the windows when they were raising the ladders."

    Fighting Fire

    Firemen aim their hoses at the southwest tower.

    Fighting Fire

    In the north end of the library reading room, firemen rest their hoses on the Loan Desk and aim the water up towards the fourth gallery.

    Fighting Fire

    Aided by corridors and open courtyards such as this one, the fire quickly and easily spread throughout the Capitol building.

    Fighting Fire

    A firefighter aims his hose through an open corridor.

    Fire Chief William W. Bridgeford

    William W. Bridgeford, chief of the Albany Fire Department, shown here in both his dress and work uniforms, lead his men through the treacherous conditions of the Capitol fire. At one point, he and his crew was nearly crushed by the collapse of the Assembly chamber ceiling. However, the plaster-covered firemen shook themselves off and resumed their arduous work.

    The "Fire Engine" of 1911

    In 1911, the fire engines of the Albany Fire Department were still pulled by horses. In total, ten horse-drawn steamers and three horse-drawn serial ladders were at the scene.

    The Albany Fire Protectives

    The Fire Protectives, unlike the fire department, were hired by insurance companies and were focused less on fighting fire and more on rescuing property.

    The Albany Fire Protectives

    Rather than use hoses or axes to fight fire, the protectives equipment included objects like tarpaulins to cover furniture, sawdust to soak up water, and shovels, brooms and materials to cover holes in roofs and windows.

    Albany Fire Protectives' "Record of Fires"

    Entry number 29 shows the initial report taken at Fire Box 324 at 2:42 a.m. on March 29, 1911 citing, "State Street, Washington. 5 Story Stone [building]. State Capitol. [Cause] Unknown"

    Fighting Fire

    During the Capitol Fire, four alarms were called into the Albany Fire Department between 2:41 a.m. and 3:25 a.m. Their heroic battle of nearly 125 firefighters against the flames was followed closely by the press and detailed in the papers in the following days. (photo credit: Albany Institute of History & Art)

    Front Page News

    Additionally, as government offices had been displaced, the newspapers helped disperse information to the public about where all the agencies had been relocated.

    Crowds Observe the Fire

    A fire department steam pumper, visible at center, is surrounded by crowds of onlookers. Thousands of people flocked to Albany to catch a glimpse of the fire-ravaged Capitol.

    Crowds Observe the Fire

    Hundreds gathered along State Street to observe the fire taking its toll on the southwest tower. Additionally, several of the nearby homes had to be evacuated because of the threat of falling debris from the collapsing tower and dormer windows.

    The General Reading Room

    In the main reading room, looking towards the northeast corner, are visible the crippled remains of Scotch granite columns and the void of the upper two tiers of the oak book case where it had been simply burned away.

    Diagram of Destruction

    The "Albany Times Union" published this diagram of the destruction on the day after the fire.

    The Southeast Tower

    At first glance, it is difficult to discern the utter devastation that the southwest tower suffered. Upon closer examination, it is clear that within the roofless, skeletal remains of the tower, little to nothing remained unscathed.

    The Southeast Tower

    The southwest tower suffered more damage than any other area of the Capitol because, per square foot, it was the most densely packed with books, paper materials, and makeshift pine shelving.

    The Southeast Tower

    Darkened windows and the collapsed roof indicate where the fire caused the most extensive damage to the interior of the southwest tower.

    The Southeast Tower:Pre-1911

    The southwest tower is shown here, unscathed, at the far left. After the fire, little remained of that portion of the building.

    The Southeast Tower

    A small section of the collapsed roof still clings to the wall. The two large depressions in the wall mark where three-foot I-beams were once nested.

    The Southeast Tower

    Looking down from the southwest tower into the interior of the south stack, the thin strip of exposed brick marks the channel for a wooden lift that was used to shuttle books between the third floor and attic.

    The Southeast Tower

    The fire and heat dissolved the stone, brick and structural ironwork surrounding this lone dormer.

    The Southeast Tower

    View looking down at the tangled mess of iron trusses and bricks that collapsed through two to three stories below.

    The Northwest Tower

    In contrast, the northwest tower, while charred and gutted, remains structurally intact.

    North Library Stack

    The fourth-floor windows and roof of the north library stack melted and crumbled from the extreme heat of the fire.

    North Library Stack

    Another view of the ravaged roof of the north library stack.

    General Reading Room

    The scotch granite columns were not the only features of the main reading room to melt away from the intense heat. Barely visible at the center of the arch sits the remains of the circular frame of a burned-out clock. Remarkably, manuscript records of the War of 1812 were found intact in a closet next to the clock.

    General Reading Room

    The Scotch granite columns were consumed by the intense heat of the fire.

    Photographs by Library Employee W.H. Barker: Room 55

    Room 55 contained all of the administrative records of the library, including the annuals and periodical check list, gift list, order, accession, shelf list and Book Selection. Lost forever was the record of every book purchase from 1856 to 1911.

    Photographs by Library Employee W.H. Barker

    At left, Barker documents the collapsed cast iron floor of the stacks that housed the entire set of Great Britain Patent specifications and oversized Fine Arts books. At Right, Barker's photograph displays a pile of wreckage over forty feet deep. It took over two solid weeks to clear away the debris.

    Photographs by Library Employee W. H. Barker

    In this view from the northwest tower into the dome space over the western staircase, an arrow indicates a portion of the cheesecloth 'wall' that withstood the heat. Enlarged on the right, the ladder-like object is a typical stack standard in which some of the galvanized iron shelves are still in place.

    Balancing Act

    A workman balances on fallen roof trusses in the south stacks of the library. An additional three levels of stacks once existed through the long rectangular opening visible in the background.

    The Senate Finance Committee Room

    The enormous heap of debris that settled in the Senate Finance Committee Room could not simply be pushed out and thrown away. Located directly above was the Library's manuscript room, and every inch was carefully searched for coins, salvageable manuscripts and other valuable items that may have fallen through the ceiling.

    The Senate Finance Committee Room

    Debris from the manuscript room, including the remains of the Travel and Biography collections, spilled through the doorway to the adjacent corridor behind the senate chamber.

    Twisted Metal

    Heat and stress turned once strong, straight, and sound iron girders into twisted, tangled and jumbled wisps.

    Court of Claims Corridor

    Located in the northwest tower, adjacent to the library stacks, this corridor in the Court of Claims is cluttered with collapsed bricks and debris.

    Law Library

    On the left is a view of the pristine and orderly law library. At right, the same room is visible post-fire at the end of a scorched corridor.

    Library and Education Department Examination Record Room

    By 1911, space in the Capitol was severely limited. The examination record room was crammed into this attic space.

    In the Attic

    This photograph shows the remains of an attic space similar to the examination record room that existed between the northwest tower and Assembly attic.

    Display Cases of the State Museum

    At the time of the fire, priceless Native American relics collected by Lewis Henry Morgan had been on display in the Capitol in these glass cases located along the perimeter of the Great Western Staircase.

    Priceless Native American Relics Lost

    While hundreds of museum objects were destroyed by fire, falling debris, and water, much of the collection was salvaged by Arthur C. Parker, the museum's archaeologist, who rescued the items while much of the fire had yet to be fully extinguished.

    Capitol Corridor

    In spite of the complete absence of a ceiling, chandeliers still hang in this corridor. Even more notable, the light bulbs remain completely intact.

    The Fire Returns: April 6, 1911

    More than a week after the initial fire, smoldering ash ignited another fire on the third floor of the northwest tower of the Capitol. The Albany Fire Department dispatched two steamers quickly put out the flames.

    Albany Fire Protectives' "Record of Fires"

    Call Box 324 was utilized once again on April 6, 1911 at 9:13 p.m. to report the rekindling of fire at the Capitol. The Albany Protectives responded to the call, however were only on the scene for about 20 minutes.

    The Search for Samuel J. Abbott

    Only a single individual perished in the Capitol Fire. Samuel J. Abbott, the seventy-eight-year-old night watchman was conducting his rounds when the fire broke out. Unaccounted for the following day, workers search for their missing comrade.

    Samuel J. Abbott

    Samuel J. Abbott was born in Syracuse in 1833. After serving in the Civil War, he returned to his hometown and worked in public service. In 1896, Abbott moved to Albany to work in the newly finished capitol.

    Samuel J. Abbott

    Abbott's body was found on March 31 in this narrow passage on the fourth floor. His pocket held a key to a nearby door, through which he may have been trying to escape.

    Samuel J. Abbott

    A military guard assists in removing Abbott's remains from the Capitol.