How fires forever changed the Village of Rensselaer Falls

A photograph of McKelvey’s Store and CW Lent Store before it was destroyed by fire on Aug. 27, 1894. Submitted Photo

The Village of Rensselaer Falls is located in the northwest corner of the Town of Canton. Being situated on the banks of the Oswegatchie River with waterfalls, for which the village is named, created a perfect spot for mills and factories to be built in the 1830-40s. Communal needs created rapid growth in the form of stores, mills, churches, and schools. By the 1890s, this hamlet contained hotels, a cheesebox factory, a grist mill, wagon shops, saw mills, a chair factory, harness and livery shops, blacksmith, undertaker and 14 stores. The presence of the railroad line through the village made shipping, both in and out, easier.

Unfortunately, a series of devastating fires over the next 55 years would forever alter the landscape and future of this thriving community.

On the afternoon of Au. 24, 1894, a random spark from a blacksmith’s anvil kindled a blaze that would ultimately leave nearly an entire square of the village in ashes. Blacksmith Archie Van Dyke’s shop on Front Street, and his fine new home along with his paint shop, were the first to be devoured by the flames.

Men formed a bucket line and passed water along in pails from hand-to-hand between nearby wells and the burning buildings. Women and children rushed into houses carrying out furnishings to be placed in safer areas. Sparks were quickly carried on the wind to roofs of other buildings. Men mounted ladders to the roofs, and were handed pails of water to douse the cinders as quickly as they could. Charles Beaman’s house and wagon shop were rapidly consumed by the fire.

Joseph Gilbert’s residence and millinery shop building (which contained McKelvey’s Store & CW Lent Store) on the corner of Front and King streets were destroyed, along with Samuel Orr’s home, harness shop and livery; William Johnson’s residence and barn; and Mrs. Caroline William’s house and barn. As the wind was sweeping the flames toward the center of the village, it appeared that only a miracle could save it!

By this time, the people of the village and surrounding area had been fighting the fire for over three hours. A wire message was sent to Ogdensburg asking for assistance. The Ogdensburg Fire Department arrived by special train bringing a steamer and Hose Company No. 2 on a flat car. By the time they arrived, the fire was under control but they quickly hosed down the smouldering ruins, putting the fires out completely.

A total of 14 buildings had been destroyed, but luckily no lives were lost.

Sunday, April 28, 1895, during the evening church service, an alarm of fire was given. The fire proved to be across the street in the rear of Dr. C.W. Bayley’s drugstore, which was consumed together with C. McCoy’s undertaking rooms and cabinet shop. Also lost were a tenant house owned by James McKee, and a house and barn owned by George Babcock. Fortunately, it was not windy; but the heat was so intense that the front of the Congregational Church, across the street, was badly scorched.

On Oct. 2, 1902, The Phoenix Bent Works built by M.W. Spaulding burned down. Morrison replaced it with a box factory.

Monday, Feb. 2, 1903, the Union Free School Building, which was built in 1883 of wood, was totally destroyed in less than an hour. Seven students were forced to jump from the second story of the building in order to escape the fire. Two girls had minor injuries from the 15 foot drop to the ground. One boy escaping by the stairs, was badly burned on the hands. The furnace, which caused the fire, was perfectly new; the bill for it having just been received. A new school was constructed on the same spot, this one had fire escapes.

Wednesday, May 20, 1903 — about 8:30 p.m. Flames were seen issuing from the rear gable of the Commercial House barn. Although the townfolk turned out again to form a bucket brigade, the fire had obtained such headway it was impossible to check it. Within a very short time, the Commercial House — a large hotel located on the corner of Front and Rensselaer streets — was burning in all parts. Also lost were Samuel Erwin’s dwelling and store, Hinsdale’s general store and icehouse, C. McCoy’s house, a house occupied by Mrs. Barter, and James McKee’s residence. Messages were sent to Ogdensburg for assistance. The Ogdensburg Fire Department arrived by special train. They were going so fast, Heuvelton residents said it was like a streak of light going through!

They had made the 13-mile journey in exactly 16 minutes. They quickly were able to knock down the remaining fire, thus saving McKee’s barn and store. The cause of the blaze was never determined, but assumptions were made that a lantern may have overturned in the barn.

Other smaller fires in years to come, would leave more vacant lots on the main street business area.

Submitted by

The Rensselaer Falls Museum, located in the old Congregational Church, is open to visitors during the months of June, July and August on Wednesdays from 12 to 3 p.m.

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