Strolling around the lush, green downtown along the canal in Phoenix on an end-of-summer day, with the water sounds and gentle breezes blowing under a sunshine sky, it’s easy to feel like all is right with the world. And although the waterfront might have appeared a little differently in Phoenix on September 23, 1916 - 100 years ago - there’s a good chance that people were feeling content, comfortable and highly optimistic about their futures. After all, Phoenix was a booming community – the waterfront fired up wall to wall with industry, manufacturing and a growing economy that rivaled its neighbors in Syracuse and Oswego.
All that changed in just seven minutes … on Saturday, Sept. 23, 1916 when a fire broke out around 10:45 p.m. in one of the many factories along the river, sending it ablaze. Within hours the inferno had spread and had devastated almost everything the community had built and grown together. In the end, the Great Fire of Phoenix rivaled other massively destructive fires, with losses totaling close to one million dollars, an amount equivalent in today’s economy to about $27 million dollars.
The fire that changed the face of Phoenix forever began in the Sinclair Chair Factory, with sparks from a defective motor located in the power room, and was first noticed by a fireman Bert Pluff, from an adjacent mill. A primarily wooden structure with machinery choked by powdered dust from the lathes and saws around the chair factory, and filled with kiln-dried hardwoods, the building had caught quick and was burning with ease. Although Pluff sounded the alarm right away, the fire already had a big head start.
Add to the mix a strong northwest wind that quickly sent embers across to the roofs of other buildings, and it wasn’t long before the adjacent Duffy Silk Mill and others buildings close by had also been ignited. At the time, the Duffy Company owned the Phoenix water Works, and in its power plant was one of the two pumps that supplied Phoenix with water. With the fire having spread to the Duffy Mill, the pump was out of commission by 11 p.m., as electric wires feeding the motors had already been burned off. The second pump located at the Springs also quit for similar reasons.
Sadly, the Enterprise Fire Department found themselves all but helpless, with the limitation of their circa 1852 hose cart fire-fighting equipment. More up-to-date equipment, like a steam pump, might have allowed them to pump water from the Oswego River to fight the fire more effectively and more quickly. As it was, with the fire catching to dozens of buildings, it didn’t even take until 11:30 p.m. for the local department to call for help from Syracuse firefighters and other surrounding communities of Oswego, Fulton and Baldwinsville to battle the blaze.
It is said that Mrs. Mark Miller, an operator for the Oswego County independent Telephone Company was on duty when the fire broke out, and “stuck to her post” while the flames were creeping up Bridge Street towards the building where their office was located. She was the one who put out the calls for help to Syracuse and other cities and villages in Central New York, with the “Post Standard” reporting that she “did not attempt to make her escape until the wires snapped and the building caught flame”.
It was Chief Phillip Kantz of Syracuse that took the ‘hurry’ call and within 15 minutes had 14 men assembled, along with a fire engine, ladders, chemicals, and 1,200 feet of hose aboard a special train on the New York Central line, headed to Phoenix.
Unfortunately, railroad officials had difficulty clearing the way for the Syracuse contingent aboard the train, giving the fire even more time to burn before the firefighters and equipment arrived. Oswego arrived first, and then Fulton. By the time the Syracuse group came in, the fire had been burning for two and a half hours, with the factory buildings on the Island all but wiped out.
Evie Sauer’s book, the Story of Schroeppel, from 1974, states – “The fire fanned out to the South to the newly remodeled Burroughs Factory and other buildings at that end. The Sweet Brothers Paper Mill to the North was the last on the Island to catch”. Sparks from the fiery furnace were carried “across the canal to the solid mass of two to three story buildings on Canal Street. The flames also reached across the Canal and ignited the Loomis Planing Mill and Lumber Yard”, and traveled building to building along Bridge Street, destroying both brick and frame structures, before reaching out to consume the Windsor Hotel and Opera House, as well as the Livery Stables.
With the entire business section destroyed by the conflagration, flames were still spreading eastward. With the bridge over the Canal already severely damaged, making it impossible to get to the Island to attempt salvage of any of the large manufacturing plants, and with no Water Works water available, firefighters were forced to turn to the Canal for water, and went to work trying to save any other buildings and residences caught up in the blaze.
In the midst of these few hours, of course, there were people … frantically attempting to save themselves and their valuable belongings from the fire’s path with wheelbarrows, wagons and automobiles. Some even put their belongings in the back corner of the Baptist Church, believing this area would be safe. With the fire spreading quickly from embers flying in the wind, it was a dangerous undertaking to even travel along the streets to safety. Sauers states that 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 as people ran for their lives”.
Syracuse firefighters began fighting the fire at the Murgittroyd residence, located at Main and Lock streets, and considered at the time to be one of the most beautiful homes in the village. It appeared to be doomed, with the garage and roof of the house already in flames, but they managed to succeed in beating back the fire and saving at least part of it from total devastation. With the exception of the Baptist Church across the way, this was the limit to which the fire traveled in that direction. Another line to fight was established at Canal and Lock streets, site of the Phoenix House (hotel), where firefighters pumped hundreds of gallons through their steamers onto the blaze to confine the fire, and which firefighters were also able to save.
The Free Will Baptist Church was actually one of the last to fall in the fire. Erected in 1879 with a tall spire, “sparks ignited the belfry, and then the steeple toppled and fell, leaving behind only four walls,” Sauer’s book notes. Interestingly, the houses on either side of the church were untouched.
Most of the oldest buildings in town were destroyed – the Loomis Block, built in 1846; the building occupied by Betts and Vickery Dry Goods, the Moyers Brothers hardware store (75 years old), the Phoenix Bank, and the entire Hitchinson block. The block housing the Phoenix Register was destroyed and gave way to flames devouring the Murphy Block as well. The residences of Dr. E.J. Drury, C.F. Loomis, Mrs. Anna Betts, H.L. Betts and Miss Grace Hubbard, Lester Luther, and A.W. Hawkes along with several others also were down and gone.
With numerous homes, businesses and factories consumed by this raging fire, there was, almost unbelievably, only one sad loss of life. James Goodwin, former Justice of the Peace, and inventor of the chain less bicycle with patents issued on several other devices, died in the flames. Running a blacksmith’s shop in part of, and sleeping in a room above, the A.C. Parker Feed Store at Culvert and Canal streets, he was determined to go back into the building. Along with a feed store employee, Mr. Barnard, the two attempted to retrieve some of Goodwin’s belongings. Goodwin apparently lost his way, Bernard was unable to find him – barely getting out alive himself – and Goodwin succumbed in the flames. There were also reports that another man was killed when being struck by the train bringing the Oswego Fire Company and equipment to the area.
In the end there was very real devastation – leveling the landscape of the Phoenix downtown. In just a few short hours, 80 buildings were destroyed. All but four manufacturing plants were gone. And only one major building survived going through the fire and remained standing – the concrete building which housed the lock and bridge apparatus on the Barge Canal. Within a few feet of a grain house, and storehouse, which burned to the ground, much of their burned out ruins, left behind, lay over the concrete Lock/Bridge structure, the interior of the building intact. Half of Sweet’s Mill remained along with The Crescent Paper Mill at the northern tip of the Island.
Few if any owners or residents had sufficient insurance, and initial estimates put the losses at between $800,000 and $1,000,000. The Duffy Silk Mill was the largest factory on the island, was constructed in 1886, at a cost of $125,000, separate from equipment. All silk in manufacture was lost, although $45,000 worth of yarn in a fireproof vault survived. Burrough’s Paper Mills stated loss at around $25,000, and insurance of only $3,000.
The destruction extended not only to the physical locations lost, but to the livelihoods of hundreds of people. The Sinclair Chair Factory alone employed between 50 and 100 people. There was also the issue of food and supplies unavailable for people to purchase, as well as access to water. With all the major business concerns gone, the challenges were many.
It was reported by the Post Standard that up to 30,000 people visited Phoenix by train, trolley or auto the next day to get a personal look at the ruins. Sadly this included thieves and vandals who, under the guise of assistance, made off with what they could – even mattresses, furniture, dishes and clothing. Thousands who visited toyed with putting themselves at risk as they wandered through still-smoking areas, picked their way around live electrical wires, and crossed unstable, and even floorless, bridges.
But also, as the next day dawned and the smoke began to clear, true to it’s symbolic name, the community of Phoenix began to rise. Even amongst the ash and scorched surroundings, people and stories, that tell a tale of small celebrations and even humor, began to emerge.
Although placing their own loss at $10,000, the editor/publisher of the weekly Phoenix Register, C.K .Williams, made plans to print the paper out of Syracuse, and reported of its own discovery in the ruins, “We saved the office towel. Yes sir, it was even tied in a knot around the Register files”, to protect them it is surmised.
Also noted in the Register:
“Two barber chairs were standing in front of Mrs. Kirby’s resident. A man was guarding them when Dr. J.E. Hamill espied them and with his characteristic twinkle of the eye slipped up and called “Next” with the exact tone of a tonsorial artist”.
“A cabinet with five dozen thin glasses, wine, cocktail etc. was carried down a flight of stairs and deposited on a lawn a block away. It was found turned down on its back but not a glass was broken or even chipped”.
“The fireproof vault in the Phoenix Bank remained standing, containing thousands of dollars of valuables. C.J. Fuller – a Canal Street jeweler found his safe buried in the ruins – opened it and found $5,000 worth of jewelry contained that was in perfect condition”.
“An enlarged portrait of a middle aged man can be recovered by calling Leon Vickery. It was left at his residence in Phoenix.”
George Wood was among the first to open a place of business the Monday morning after the fire, serving the public his meats from his barn on Jefferson Street. Garrett Smith, a grocer from Bridge Street, opened at the Crandall House on Lock Street, with a full line of groceries.
Moyer’s News Room opened in its usual location under a canvas tent with a board floor.
The following messages were printed in the Register and appeared to direct the people of Phoenix to places of temporary business.
“The Seneca River Electrical Service was back on line within 24 hours, though the power station was destroyed. The office is located in the Ira Pierce residence, Jefferson Street.”
“Hill and Allanson – Furniture and Funeral Parlor - 2 story wooden building on Jefferson near Lock St”.
“Spencer Store opened temporarily at the residence of E.C. Spencer, 24 Lock St. A supply of dry goods, notions, school supplies, underwear and hosiery will be shown.”
Mike Ryan’s manufacturing plant would be housed on the first floor of the Grange Hall and Bradley’s Bakery got back to business at the corner of Fulton and Culvert Streets, in their home. Donovan’s Barber Shop was doing business on Lock Street, and the Moyers Brothers opened up in Armour’s woodworking shop.
The Phoenix Bank announced a total loss, but stated that “total loss of building in no way affects solvency”. They opened up for business in the garage at corner of Culvert and Fulton St. The Register also stated, “Confidence in the Phoenix Bank is unshaken. On the opening day, $8,000 was placed on deposit. Dr. Hamill intimates that the women must have emptied out their stockings”.
The Windsor Hotel and Garage – noted by H.D. Merriam – was “back in business – not at the old stand but at the Phoenix Auto Sales Garage where we have taken up temporary quarters. We will reopen, Saturday, Sept. 30. We are working, as is everyone, for the realization of a better, finer Phoenix – Everybody work for Phoenix”.
People took heed of that call and rallied as well as they could in support of each other. Local citizens cared for families in distress. The National Biscuit Company came and distributed bread. The Red Cross arrived to assist, and carloads of food were donated, although distribution was an issue. The Campfire Girls even turned in $156 to fire relief on Tuesday, and $103 on Wednesday.
Hundreds of taxpayers, many employed by the variety of mills and factories, attended a mass meeting to make arrangements to support those made destitute by the fire. In addition to one person helping another, the mayor, Walter Stone, proposed a fundraising relief effort, working in conjunction with the Syracuse Chamber of Commerce and other organization individuals through a committee to solve local issues like electrical, water and, of course, further fire protection. And then they got to work, each in their own way.
Phoenix was unusually prosperous prior to the fire, and the mills were operating at full capacity. The wake up reality was that most would have to leave the village to find employment. Factories in Syracuse even sent representatives to offer jobs to displaced workers. And business failures were certainly expected in the wake of the fire.
Not to be held down in the wake of such devastation to their high-riding hometown of Phoenix, residents and supporters came together, and did what they could to bring life back to this riverside community. Although many of the most prominent families and businessmen – many in Phoenix since its inception - had lost all their possessions, they were still committed to making something positive out of the destruction at hand.
Even Speaker of the Assembly, T.C. Sweet, representing the spirit of the devastated village, stated with conviction that “Phoenix will rise from the ashes”. He was right in the thick of things as things crumbled around the village, wearing a dark suit, muffed with a long gray sweater, and cap over his face to protect him from the smoke, and “worked untiringly through Saturday night and Sunday morning to help rescue household effects, carrying them to places of safety,” the Register reported.
Today, 100 years later, it’s hard to imagine the Phoenix that existed as a boomtown to rival Syracuse as a economic powerhouse and destination of the times in 1916, and the ongoing reality of that total destruction is that Phoenix has continued to have ups and downs along the time line since then. Yet, it still stands strong with a promise of hope.
An editorial in the Register echoes from that century ago, with a premise that called upon citizens to help move Phoenix forward. “This is a time to plan and to work, not to stand idle, cry and criticize. What should have been done, or could have been done, or an “if” cannot help; it must be “up and doing”.
Somewhere in the mix of community ashes burned to the ground, there was, and is, also a spirit that ignites the possibilities. There has continued to be a focus of character that has spanned a century of time – a core value that still today shines with the fire of the Phoenix. It stands with strength and purpose. It does not give up. And always, always, it rises again.
- - - -
Values reported of Locations Destroyed in the 1916 Phoenix Fire
On the Island
Burroughs Brothers Paper Mill - $25,000; Duffy’s Silk Mill - $150,000; M.C. Ryan Plant (hardware) - $35,000; Sinclair Chair Company - $90,000; Glans and Breed Flour Mill (2) - $60,000; Pierce and Pendergast Grain Mill - $75,000; Sweet Brothers Paper Mill (2) - $45,000; Phoenix Water Company and Phoenix Gas and Electric Co.
Canal Street – West Side
J.H. Loomis and Songs – Wood and Lumber - $50,000
Betts and Vickery block
Betts and Vickery Dry Goods - $40,000; E.M. White Law Office - $2,000; Howard Vischer – Insurance $1,000; Mc Murgittroyd – Barber Shop $1,200
William Stuart – Harness maker - $2,500; E.D. Bradley – Baker - $5,000; D.F. Kinslow – Confectionary - $3,500; D.B. Donovan – Barber shop - $4,000; A&P Grocery Store $6,000; BL Chapman – Lunchroom - $3,000; LR Albro – Cigar Store - $2,000; George Wood – Meat Market - $4,000; AB Dillon – Tailor - $3,500; Hippodrome Theater - $7,000; H.D. Merriam Clothing Store - $10,000; Howard House – John Jolly Owner - $20,000; Moyers Brothers Hardware Store - $12,000; E.R. Spencer Dry Goods store - $25,000; Phoenix House - $11,500; Odd Fellows Lodge Rooms; Miss Harriet Diem Millinery
Canal Street – East side
A.C. Parker Feed Store - $15,000; Seneca River Power Company - $75,000, EM Brosman Blacksmith - $1,500; Phoenix Bank - $15,000; Citizens Club - $3,000; R.S. Keller Drug Store - $16,000; Hill and Allison Furniture - $8,000; Tivoli Hotel - $10,000; Fred Vail – Shoe Store - $5,000; Anna Andrews – Residence - $$4500; S.J. Moyer Confectionary - $4,000; D.B. Donovan – Barber Shop - $3,000; Mrs. Alvord – Residence - $4,500; Harvey Wandel Residence - $5,000; JL Dryden – Dry Goods - $6,500; F.E. Potter – Grocer - $9,500; R.G. Allen Marble Shop - $3,500; C.J. Fuller Jeweler - $6,000; Mrs. W.E. Sparrow - Residence
Bridge Street North Side
Post Office - $5,000; F.S. Gifford Grocery - $6,500; Dr. E.J. Drury – Residence - $8,000; F.W. Burleigh Grocery - $5,500; E.F. Loomis – Residence - $9,000; Mrs, Anna Betts, Residence - $7,500; H.L. Betts Residence - $9,500; Miss Grace Hubbard Residence - $7,500;
Bridge Street South Side:
Benton Brothers Meat Market - $5,500; Isaac Glass Shoe Store - $6,000; David Donaldson Pool Room - $5,000; C.E. Babcock – Meats - $4,500; Joseph Glinsky Junk Yard - $2,500; Phoenix Register - $14,000; Garrett Smith Grocery - $3,500; Oswego County Independent Telephone - $20,000; W.H. Murphy Hardware - $6,500;
Main Street West Side –
Windsor House and Garage - $25,000; Opera House - $15,000; Opera House Livery Stable - $2,000; Lester Luther Residence - $9,000; A.W. Hawks Residence - $12,000; Murgittroyd Garage
Main Street East Side;
Baptist Church – Steeple and Belfry- $18,000
Total Value $1,052,000