Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Night Pelham's Town Hall Burned

The night of October 23, 1908 was cloudy and, thus, unusually dark.  Yet, it was a festive night for many.  A marching band and about 200 local Republicans marched throughout the Town and gathered at "Lyman's corners" (the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 1st Street in front of the combination Lyman's Pharmacy and post office in a structure that still stands today).  See Pelham Republicans Have a Big Rally, The Daily Argus [Mt. Vernon, NY], Oct. 24, 1908, pg. 4, col. 2.

Two divisions of marchers celebrated throughout the Town as they traveled to a campaign rally in the Village of North Pelham.  The first division began its march of the clubhouse at the Manor Club in the Village of Pelham Manor at about 8:00 p.m.  It marched to Lyman's corners where it met the second division of Republican marchers.  Id.  

During their march, the two divisions passed two large bonfires treated to blaze bright red.  The band played gaily and the crowd celebrated merrily as it made its way through North Pelham to Firemen's Hall -- a large gathering hall on the second floor of the firehouse on Fifth Avenue.  There, the hall was "elaborately decorated with flags, bunting, shields and pictures" all in support of a large rally to support the campaign of William Howard Taft, the Republican presidential candidate, and Charles Evans Hughes, Republican New York gubernatorial candidate.  Id.  

The crowd was particularly boisterous and celebratory.  Its candidate of choice, William Howard Taft, was a brother of long-time Pelham Manor resident Henry Waters Taft.  Once the rally and speeches began, the rafters of the firehouse shook with each huzzah.  Local Republican candidates for local office begged for votes and the crowd cheered.  Id. 

Late in the evening, while the festivities continued, four giddy participants left the celebration a little before 11:00 p.m. and began to make their way down Fifth Avenue toward their homes.  They stopped briefly near the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 2nd Street.  See Stubborn Blaze In Old Building, The Daily Argus [Mt. Vernon, NY], Oct. 24, 1908, pg. 1, col. 7 and pg. 4, col. 5.  

The lower end of Fifth Avenue was deserted.  The cloudy skies made the night darker than usual.  As the men stood together near the intersection, they noticed a light in the windows of the Pelham Town Hall, a wooden structure built principally of pine.  At first they assumed someone was working late inside, but soon they noticed the flickering of the light and suspected something far worse.  One ran to the front door of the structure and broke it open.  Smoke poured forth.  A raging fire was well underway.  Id.  

The men ran all the way back to the firehouse to sound the alarm.  As they arrived, the Republican rally in Firemen's Hall on the second floor of the firehouse was just ending.  They and the firemen inside realized that if they sounded the alarm, panic might ensue and those attending the rally might be hurt in a stampede to exit.  Id.  

Several firemen quietly left the building with a wheeled "jumper" hose wagon.  They raced to the scene and began to fight the blaze.  When the crowd had dissipated, the fire alarm was given and the fire whistle at the local ice plant also sounded an alarm.  Id.    

While the firemen were laying the hose, they heard a "muffled roar as if an explosion had occurred."  The building and its contents seemed doomed.  Id. 

The water pressure, however, turned out to be surprisingly good.  Within thirty minutes the fire was under control.  It was declared to be out within forty-five minutes.  Incredibly, the flames never reached the Town records in the Town Clerk's office.  The walls of that office were scorched, but the records did not burn.  Id.  

Speculation on the cause of the fire was rampant.  Unidentified "members of the town board" reportedly were certain the fire was deliberately set given that the area was deserted and Republicans were rallying at the fire station when the fire began.  Id.  Others believed the fire began through spontaneous combustion in a pile of old rags in one of the jail cells in the structure.  Id.  

The old, wooden Town Hall was built on Fifth Avenue after New York City annexed much of the Town of Pelham -- including the Town's small brick Town Hall that once stood on today's Shore Road near the Pelham Bit Stables -- during the mid-1890s.  Following the loss of the wooden structure, the Town was forced to build a new Town Hall, this time of brick and stone.  That structure still stands and is the center of the Town's government today.  

Detail from an undated photograph of the old Pelham Town Hall
on election day, Courtesy of The Office of The Historian,
Town of Pelham, NY

Below are transcriptions of two newspaper articles describing the fire that destroyed the old Town Hall and of another newspaper article that describes the Republican rally that was underway when the fire began.

Pelham Town Hall Gutted by Fire Last Night - Origin a Mystery
Panic at Mass Meeting Nearby Prevented---Some Believe Fire Was Set

North Pelham, Oct. 24. -- The town hall on Fifth avenue, North Pelham, was gutted by fire last night, shortly before 11 o'clock, and if it had not been for the quick and effective work of the fire department, would have been totally destroyed, together with many valuable records in the library in the town clerk's office.  The fire occurred just at the close of the Republican mass meeting in the firemen's hall, on Fifth avenue, which was crowded with people, just beginning to pass down the stairs.  There might have been a panic but for the fact that the firemen waited until the firemen's hall was practically cleared before sounding the alarm.  The town hall is insured for $2,500.  The loss is not known.  The origin of the fire is a mystery.  

The blaze was discovered practically at the same time, by John Smith, Mr. Donovan, Walter Lindstrom and William Griffin.  These men were on their way home from the mass meeting, and were standing on the corner of Fifth avenue and Second street, when one of them happened to look in the direction of the hall, where they saw the reflection of a light on the windows.  At first it was thought that someone was in the hall, but when the light began to flicker, one of the men shouted that the building was on fire.  As soon as this discovery was made the men ran to the hall and one of them pushed the front door open.  The building was filled with smoke, and fire was seen in the jail located on the southeast corner of the building.  Mr. Lindstrom hurried out of the place and running around to the rear of the structure, found the jail in flames which were spreading very rapidly to other parts of the wooden structure.  

As soon as it was seen that the fire could not be put out by their efforts, the men ran back to the headquarters where the firemen were notified as quietly as possible on account of the crowd of people in the hall overhead.  While those who had attended the meeting were leaving the place, a number of the firemen grabbed hold of the 'jumper' and in a few moments were on their way to the fire.  A few seconds later an alarm was sounded from the fire house, and the fire whistle at the ice plant was blown.  But by this time the hall had been cleared of people.  

When the hose company reached the court house it seemed doomed to destruction.  The southeast corner of the building was in flames and great clouds of black smoke were rolling from all sections of the structure.  While the firemen were laying lines of hose, there was a muffled roar as if an explosion had occurred.  Immediately afterward a sheet of flame shot out through the front of the building and it seemed certain that the place would be destroyed in a few moments in view of the rapidity with which the fire was spreading, the hall being largely built of pine wood.

Five minutes after the alarm was sounded, the firemen had a stream of, water on the fire and prevented the progress of the flames, so that in a half hour the fire was under control.  It was declared to be out 
(Continued on Page Four).
(Continued from Page One).

three-quarters of an hour after it was first discovered, but not until the building had been gutted.  Under the leadership of Chief Lyon the firemen did great work in preventing the building from being destroyed.  The water pressure was excellent and was a great factor in enabling the firemen to save the structure.

Altho [sic] the tow [sic] hall is badly damaged and it will take a good many hundred dollars to rebuild those parts burned and damaged by the water, the town records in the town clerk's office were not burned, tho some of them may be damaged by water.  A peculiar feature of the fire was the fact that it did practically no damage to the town clerk's office, tho the walls were scorched by the intense heat from the flames in the jaul which is separated from the office only by a wooden wall.  The office, however, was flooded with water.

The origin of the fire is a mystery.  Some are of the opinion that it may have been started by spontaneous cumbusion [sic] in the jail.  However, the members of the town board believe that the building was set on fire.

No better time could have been selected for an incendiary to work.  The lower end of Fifth avenue where the town hall is located, was deserted last night while the mass meeting was in progress.  The two village policemen were in the hall, and a number of the firemen were in and about the place.  The night was dark and cloudy.

Those who do not believe that the place was set on fire, say that spontaneous combustion among rags in a cell could have taken place.  They say that it would not have taken long for the flames to spread.  In view of the mystery surrounding the fire's origin the fire commissioners may deicde [sic] to make an investigation.

The town hall is one of the oldest buildings in the town.  It is used not only as a meeting place for village and town officials, but as a court house and a place for social functions.  As a court house it has been the scene of many important trials."

Source:  Stubborn Blaze In Old Building, The Daily Argus [Mt. Vernon, NY], Oct. 24, 1908, pg. 1, col. 7.

Lockup Is Burned, but Luckily No Prisoners Are in Cells.

Officials are investigating a mysterious fire which partly destroyed the Pelham town hall early to-day. 

Republicans had a big rally there last night [Editor's Note:  This is incorrect.  The rally was in the fire house.] and shortly after the meeting adjourned there was an alarm of fire.  The eastern end of the town hall where the cells are located was on fire.  There were no prisoners in the lockup, or they would have been burned to death.

Politicians who had taken part in the rally joined the volunteer firemen in fighting the flames and saved part of the hall and prevented the fire from spreading to other buildings."

Source:  Fire Partly Destroys Pelham Town Hall, The Evening Telegram - New York, Oct. 24, 1908, p. 5, col. 2.   

The following is a transcription of an article published in The Daily Argus of Mt. Vernon, New York about the Republican rally that took place at the time of the fire that destroyed Pelham's Town Hall on October 23, 1908.


North Pelham, Oct. 23.--'Taft is elected; Hughes will carry the state.'  These were the beliefs expressed at the mass meeting of the Republicans in Firmen's [sic] hall, on Fifth avenue, last night.  The names of the two candidates were cheered again and again whenever they were mentioned.  The interior of the hall was elaborately decorated with flags, bunting, shields and with pictures of Taft, Hughes and some of the county candidates.  The place was crowded to the doors.

The meeting was preceded by a parade of about 200 Republicans, music being furnished by a band.  The first division left the Pelham Manor club house in charge of Marshal W. P. Brown about 8 o'clock.  as the paraders reached the Fifth avenue bridge they were greeted with a display of red fire was burned and the first division was joined by the second, commanded by Marshal G. I. Karbach.  The two divisions then marched through the principal streets of the village.

They reached the hall about 9 o'clock.  It was not long before the place was crowded to the doors.  The band rendered a number of patriotic selections.

Allan Robinson, chairman of the Republican town committee, presided and made the first speech of the evening.  He said in part:  'The time has come for every voter to stand up for the ideals of this party; to stand where he can be seen and heard and make his position known.  This meeting is called to express interest in the campaign, not only for waht has been accomplished, but for what is going to be accomplished.  In my judgment the national election is settled.  There is no need of going into any details about that.  This state will go for William H. Taft by the thousands and the tens of thousands.  (Applause and cheers.)

'The fight for Hughes is not so hard now as it was two weeks ago.  Two weeks ago Chanler would undoubtedly have been elected, but the tide has turned during the past two weeks, and in two weeks more there should be no question but that he will be elected.  Governor Hughes has been accused of not having any sporting blood in his veins.  What finer example of a man with lots of sporting blood in his veins than that presented by the governor himself when he took up the fight in this state two weeks ago.'

Mr. Robinson introduced as the first speaker Frank S. Hutchins of New Rochelle.  Mr. Hutchins spoke briefly and said that there were only two issues in the present campaign, one being the records of Taft and Bryan, and the other being the personality of each man.  He continued:  'I submit that the man who has the best memory will vote the Republican ticket.  Our Democratic friends are crying up and down the land, 'Shall the people rule?'  If Governor Hughes is elected in this state, the people will rule, for heaven only knows the bosses did not want him.  If he is elected, you will encourage men elsewhere in this country who are trying to do their duty as they see it.  It was Lieutenant Govern Chanler himself who said only last winter at the Hotel Waldorf:  'We have at Albany a man to whom I take my hat off.'  He urged the voters not only to support Governor Hughes at the polls, but the county candidates.

Theodore M. Hill, former justice of the peace, was the next speaker.  He said in part:  'I believe that the Republican party has selected one of the sanest and soundest men that has ever been elected president of this country.  I don't know much about Mr. Taft, but if he is anything like his two brothers, one of whom lived in this town, it is my opinion that he has every qualification to endear him to other people.

'Not only am I desirous to see Mr. Taft elected president, but I am equally desirous to see Charles E. Hughes governor of the state of New York.  If there is anybody we admire in this town it is a fighter.  We admire a fighter and the man who wins a fight.  I heard some talk in this town to the effect that they are opposed to the anti-gambling laws.  In 194 [sic], when Governor Hughes was not even thought of, the people of New York voted that there should be no gambling in this state.  Now Governor Hughes did not make the laws of this state.  The people made them.  What kind of a man is it that makes a law and will turn on the man who tries to enforce it?'  Mr. Hill spoke about the value of the Public Service Commission and said that he would not care to be obliged to return to old conditions on the New Haven road.  He said that those who say that they are opposed to the commission were not so much against it as they are opposed to Governor Hughes appointing the commission.  'We don't want to go back to old conditions here,' he said.  'When Chanler was in Mount Vernon he said nothing about abolishing the Public Service Commission.  The tide is certainly turning.  Two or three weeks ago I was fearful that Governor Hughes' elections would be very close, but in political currents the lighter objects come to the surface first.  The tide has now changed.  The state of New York has one of the greatest men in the country and New York is waking up to that fact.  It took the west to find that out for us.  He has stood for everything that is just and good, and I hope that in the town of Pelham Governor Hughes will get a vote that will make him feel that this community, at least, endorses his administration.'  (Applause.)

Holland S. Duell, the Republican nominee, spoke briefly about the various candidates.  He said that he was not as confident about the election of Hughes as some of the previous speakers were.  He thought that the voters would have to do all in their power to bring about the election.  He said:  'It seems to me that if Governor Hughes should not be elected it would be the severest blow that good government could possibly receive.  It would serve as an inducement to certain undesirable interests to attempt to get control of this government.  It would be a demonstration on the part of the people of the state of New York that they are not willing to support such a public servant as Governor Hughes has been.  'I put Chanler in the same class with Bryan.  He is in this campaign for the votes that he can get and for the office.'  He declared that he was in favor of direct nominations for members of the legislature.  He concluded:  'I will try and represent the people as I did two years ago.'

H.B. Boedecker, of Mount Vernon, Republican candidate for coroner, spoke briefly.  He said:  'I have no record; Dr. Banning has.  You all know what that is.  I will leave it to you, and I think that your vote will count on election day.  It is not necessary to be a doctor to become a coroner.'

Herbert L. Fordham, of New York spoke until J. Mayhew Wainwright arrived at the hall.  Mr. Wainwright said in part:  'I am very hopeful of the result.  I look on this campaign as the most important one that I was ever in.  The national campaign is of absorbing interest.  But the state campaign is of transcendent interest.  The people are anxious for the kind of government tha [sic] has been given them under the leadership of Charles E. Hughes.  He has opposition.  I wonder what kind of a government these people do desire.  Do they want an administration of corporations, or do they want an administration such as has been given them?  Governor Hughes has conducted the affairs of this state in the open.'  He told of the achievements of the Republican party in this state.  In regard to the Public Service Commission, he said that the Democrats would like to have the members of this commission elected by the people.  He continued:  'What we have been trying to do is to keep such an organization out of politics.  We now have our opponents in a position where they have no issue whatever.  Mr. Chanler says that he will not repeal the Agnew-Hart bill.  If they are not going to change the law, why change the administration?  If they will not change it, they they [sic] have no final grounds for support.

'There can be no doubt but that the action of the state convention in nominating Charles E. Hughes will be supported by the people of this staff at the coming election next November.  

'Personally, I come before the people on my record.  If they find anything in it to condemn, then I shall ask them not to vote for me.  If they find that I have been a faithful public servant, I shall ask for and shall expect the support of every Republican and ask for the support of those who have not identified themselves with any particular party.

'I believe that this county is going to give the national and state tickets great majorities.  Unless all signs fail, it means that the best citizenship of this county has been aroused to the needs of the hour and that the citizens will express this feeling at the polls next November in favor of Taft and Hughes.'"  

Source:  See Stubborn Blaze In Old Building, The Daily Argus [Mt. Vernon, NY], Oct. 24, 1908, pg. 4, col. 2. 

I have written about the two Pelham Town Hall structures that preceded the one that is used today.  For more, see:  

Mon., Jun. 27, 2005:  The Precursor to Pelham's Town Hall on Fifth Avenue.  

Fri., Jul. 13, 2007:  Midnight Fire Destroyed Pelham's Town Hall in October 1908.  

Tue., May 11, 2010:  Mystery Solved - Pelham Town Hall That Once Stood on Shore Road Was Used as a School.  

Wed., May 12, 2010:  Fire Partly Destroyed Pelham Town Hall in 1908.   

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