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 08, 2015

The Miraculous Night in 1904 When No One Died

It was the miraculous night when no one died.  Times were simpler then.  It was an early spring evening.  As the night progressed, homeowners in Pelham, Pelham Manor, and Mount Vernon began to go to bed, turning off their lights.  Like today, some drifted to sleep without turning off the lights.  Others were night owls, leaving their lights on as they rested or padded through other rooms of their homes.

In those days, however, those who turned off their lights for bed did so not with a flip of a switch but with the turning of a valve.  For, in those days, most homes in the region were lit by gas -- not electricity.  

The Westchester Lighting Company supplied gas for gas lights and other purposes in homes and businesses throughout the region.  The massive gas utility facility was located where today's Post Road Plaza (containing Fairway and Modell's, among other businesses) stands.  The gas utility was a fairly routine operation that was far more convenient than the days of oil lanterns that graced homes and streets in the region only twenty-five years earlier.  On the evening of Sunday, April 17, 1904, however, the operation was not so routine.  

For unknown reasons, that night an employee of the utility disrupted the free transmission of gas through the pipes of the Westchester Lighting Company by closing an important valve.  The error was promptly discovered and employees reopened the valve.  In those days, such a brief interruption meant that gas lights in homes throughout the region were extinguished.  As the transmission of gas resumed, the deadly substance was quickly pumped into homes and businesses throughout the region.  

People throughout the region were at risk of death.  Executives and employees of Westchester Lighting Company were immediately aware of the brief disruption of gas transmission and knew how little time there would be before hundreds of lives would be lost.

An official of Westchester Lighting Company who realized the risk immediately ordered the shutdown of the entire gas supply of the entire region and alerted the Mayor of Mount Vernon who alerted the local fire and police departments.  The Westchester Lighting Company dispatched twenty-five employees with route books identifying their gas customers.  The employees fanned out through the region to warn subscribers and to urge them to shut off all gas jets in their homes and businesses.

The mayor urged the City's police and firemen to "Create as much disturbance as possible!'  The fire department blew the fire whistle and rang fire bells incessantly. Police and fire personnel "rang bells, and hammered and shouted and kicked at doors."  Police throughout the region became involved and even "[pried] open windows to arouse the people of Mount Vernon, Pelham and Pelham Manor."  According to one account, "Great excitement reigned in the streets, half-clad men and women in greatly excited manner rushed back and forth, hysterically asking each other what was the trouble."  The New York Times reported that in the villages of Pelham (today's Pelham Heights) and Pelham Manor, "scenes similar to those enacted in Mount Vernon were witnessed.  The Fire Departments and police forces were called out and every family aroused and warned." 

Dogs, cats and canaries were found dead.  Several families became ill from the gas.  The son of a Mount Vernon School Commissioner was discovered unconscious and unresponsive at home, but was carried outside by a Police Detective and revived.  Miraculously, however, not one person died.  Indeed, the following day an official of Westchester Lighting Company contacted sixty local physicians and learned that "not a single case of asphyxiation had been reported to any of them."

Disaster was averted in the region on that early spring evening in 1904.  Although many of the news accounts focused on the larger community of Mount Vernon as the location of the disaster, others more correctly noted that residents in Pelham and Pelham Manor also received gas from Westchester Lighting Company and were endangered by the affair.  It was, for the entire region, a miraculous night when no one died.  

Detail from 1910 Map Showing Location of the Westchester Lighting Company
Facility (In Upper Left Corner).  Source:  "Map of the Town and Village of Pelham"
(Plate 18) in G. W.Bromley & Co., Atlas of Westchester County, New York, Vol. I
(Philadelphia, PA:  G. W. Bromley & Co. 1910).  NOTE:Click on Image to Enlarge.


After a thorough scare that the city of Mount Vernon received Sunday night from the turning off and on of the gas in the entire city, not one case of serious asphyxiation has been reported.  

Several deaths were expected in the city but the good work done by the police and the firemen throughout the city, rousing people in every house within its precincts, prevented many a death from gas poisoning.  Several families were made ill by the escaping gas into their bedrooms and hallways.  The greatest damage done was to business and manufacturing concerns in Mount Vernon that depend on gas for fuel.

That the police even played burglar, prying open windows to arouse the people of Mount Vernon, Pelham and Pelham Manor on Sunday night, after the gas had suddenly been turned off and then turned on again, became known yesterday.  One case where a human being was made unconscious was reported.  Several animals were killed.

That hundreds of lives were not lost was due to the prompt precautions taken by Mayor Brush, of Mount Vernon, and President Stratton, of the Westchester Lighting Company.  President Stratton ordered the entire gas supply of the city shut off at once, and collecting a force of twenty-five employees, gave them route books and hurried them out through the city to warn each subscriber to shut off the jets in his house.

Mayor Brush, through the fire and police departments, also worked hard.  'Create as much disturbance as possible!' were the orders of the Mayor as he dispatched the firemen and policemen to the different parts of the city.  The police rang bells, and hammered and shouted and kicked at doors.

Detective Atwell found Thomas Beattie, the son of School Commissioner Beattie, unconscious at his home.  He was in a room with the door closed, and the gas was coming from three jets.  The detective took him out on the veranda, where he was soon revived.  The families of W. H. Martens and Allen Buckley found their houses filled with the fumes, and suffered slightly from nauseous effects.  Several dogs, cats and canary birds were choked to death.

Mr. Stratton Monday said he called up sixty physicians and learned that not a single case of asphyxiation had been reported to any of them."

Source:  GAS DID NO DAMAGESThe New Rochelle Press, Apr. 23, 1904, p. 7, col. 2.  

Gas Supply Cut Off by Company For The Purpose of Preventing Possibility of Death by Asphyxiation.
This Caused Low Pressure in Some Sections of the City and Lights Went Out in Numerous Houses


Chief Angevine Ordered Fire Alarm Siren Sounded to Awaken Residents and Force of Men and Policemen Instructed to Visit Every Home and Inform the Occupants of the Houses and Buildings and Say That all Gas Jets and Burners Should be Closed Until After Illuminant Was Allowed to Flow Through the Mains at Noon Today -- General Alarm of Fire Called Out Entire Department and Members Patrol the Streets and Visit Every Occupied Structure -- Telephone Notice Given to All Subscribers -- Many Instances of Escaping Vapor But no Accidents Resulted.

Feeling that the lives of all the residents of this city were in danger from asphyxiation from escaping gas Sunday night, the fire whistle was blown, the fire bells were rung, all the police were called and every member of the volunteer fire department was called upon to arouse the people from their beds and to warn them of the impending peril.  Great excitement reigned in the streets, half-clad men and women in greatly excited manner rushed back and forth, hysterically asking each other what was the trouble.

No one seemed to know, and as the bells continued to ring and the whistle to blow, the feeling of anxiety grew more and more tense and the crowds were augmented.  They gathered on every corner, and the people who had telephones in their homes were besieged by those less fortunate to try and find out what caused the alarm that was being sounded.

The officials of the Westchester Lighting Company found that it would be impossible for them to supply their patrons with the illuminating fluid, and they notified all they could by telephone, telling them to turn out their gas and not to re-light it until noon to-day.  Then, feeling that many had retired for the night, the police were called upon to arouse those who were asleep; but the territory to be covered was too large for such a small force to handle, and a general fire alarm was sounded.

When the members of the various companies responded to the call of duty they were informed of the existing conditions and each company was given a district to patrol, with instructions to go up and down every street and avenue, ringing their bells and calling out to the people to shut off all gas and not to turn it on until further orders.

Up and down the various streets and avenues went the firemen, their bells and gongs sounding a mad alarm that aroused everybody.  Windows were thrown up and disheveled heads appeared, their owners excitedly asking their neighbors what all the noise was about.  Many men on leaping from their beds immediately struck a light and attempted to light the gas.  In many instances the gas did not respond to the flame of the match, and in others and fewer ones, just a feeble flame appeared, flickered a few seconds and then went out.

This being left in darkness added to the feeling of terror, and the telephones were quickly put in use and indignant voices were to be heard asking for the gas company and wanting to know why in the name of common sense sufficient light was not furnished them so that they could see what all the commotion was about.  When they learned the facts of the matter many of the men went out on the streets half-dressed and discussed the affair with their neighbors.

In the outlying districts the excitement was even more intense than in the heart of the city, for out there very few telephones are in use, and the continued clanging of the fire bells, the hoarse sound of the siren and the subdued murmur of the galloping hoofs of the fire horses served to create an intense alarm.  Crowds arose from their beds, stopped only long enough to put on enough clothing to keep themselves warm and then started for the scene of the excitement.

The recent holocaust at Columbia Hall was in the minds of many, and it was thought that another fearful conflagration was in progress.  When the facts of the case were known, the crowds went down to the gas works or congregated around the houses of the various fire companies and there talked over the matter.

The officials of the gas company did all they could to prevent any loss of life.  Not content with the general alarm that had been sent out by means of the fire companies and the police, they routed out all their employes [sic] and sent them through the city streets in wagons and carriages of all descriptions with bells which they rang at regular intervals, at the same time calling out to the people to turn off their gas and under no circumstances to retire for the night with any gas light burning.

It was feared that if the lights were left burning the gas would not have sufficient strength to keep up the flame, but that enough gas would escape to asphyxiate the sleepers.  Fortunately no such accident happened, although several cases were reported where people had retired for the night leaving the gas lighted, as was their regular custom.

While all the gas had been shut off from the headquarters, it was feared that enough remained in the pipes to kill some one, and this was what both the gas company and city officials were afraid of and which they prevented by their prompt action.

All the trouble was caused by the asininity of one of the employes [sic] of the Westchester Lighting Company who was stationed at the South Eighth avenue gas works.  He turned off a valve near the governor of one of the large mains leading away from the works and distributing gas throughout the city.  This greatly reduced the pressure and was the cause of many complaints being received from the lower sections of the city that the gas was burning poorly, flickering badly and in many instances going out altogether.  As soon as these reports started to come in an investigation was made and the valve immediately opened, which caused the gas to flow freely.

R. M. Searle, the chief engineer, was out of town and the matter was reported to Frank A Stratton, vice-president of the Westchester Lighting Company.  He realized the danger that existed of some people going to bed with the gas turned on, and sooner than running the risk of asphyxiating any one he ordered the gas turned off for the whole city, and this threw Mount Vernon in darkness.

Arrangements were made to have circulars printed, informing the general public of the incident and telling them how to re-light the gas when it was turned on at noon to-day.  These circulars were distributed throughout the city by gas company employes [sic] this forenoon.

Although no casualties were reported there were several cases where asphyxiation was narrowly averted and had it not been for the prompt action in ordering out the fire companies doubtless several lives would have been lost as the result of one man's acting without knowing what he was doing.  As it was, the families of William Martens and Charles Buckley narrowly escaped suffocation, according to reports made at police headquarters.  The houses at 22 Union avenue, 13 Washington place and 114 Elan avenue were forced open by the police and the inmates warned of the existing danger."

Source:  NIGHT OF TERROR FOR MOUNT VERNON PEOPLE, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Apr. 18, 1904, Last Edition, p. 1, cols. 6-7.

Firemen and Police Arouse Citizens to Peril of Gas.
Accident to Main Threatens People with Asphyxiation, but Strenuous Measures Drive People Out of Doors.

Special to The New York Times.

MOUNT VERNON, April 18.--After its night of wild alarms Mount Vernon arose this morning to cold breakfast and a census-taking.  It didn't wake up, for it hadn't been asleep.  Its fire engines, which had spent the hours of darkness charging about the streets, whistles blowing and gongs clanging, and its police, whose clubs had known no rest, had seen to that.  It didn't boil coffee nor did it cook eggs.  Its gas wasn't turned on.  It counted noses, found nobody had been asphyxiated, ate what it could, and rendered thanks.

'I guess noboday has any kick coming, even if there wasn't any gas to get breakfast with,' said Gilbert Angevine, Chief of the Fire Department and head deputy of the Street Commissioner's office.  'Mount Vernon is a neighborly place.  Everybody in town had rather be kept awake all night than to know that a human life had been lost to guarantee their rest.

'It was about 10 o'clock last night when I heard that the gas had gone out all over town as the result of an accident to the main on Eighth Avenue, and I knew right away that something ought to be done.  I saw Mayor Brush and he agreed with me.

'Vice President Stratton of the gas company rang up the police station, which is next door to Police Headquarters, just as soon as he learned of the accident, and said that he had roused all his employes [sic] and had told them to go from house to house and wake up everybody so that they could protect themselves.  Mayor Brush had a talk with Sergt. Grant, who was in charge at the police station, and the Sergeant put all his men at work along the same line.

'Mount Vernon has 25,000 inhabitants, and there are nearly 5,000 houses in the city limits.  Of course, the gas company's employes [sic] and the policemen couldn't wake up the whole town.  It seemed to me that the best thing to do was to call out the Fire Department.  Every company was given a district, and the men were instructed to see to it that the inmates of every house in the territory assigned were all wakened and made to understand just what danger they were in.  The department has a siren whistle, which works by compressed air and can be heard for miles.  I had the whistle turned loose.

'Then I put every engine on the street, with instructions to keep the gongs going and the whistles blowing, and not to pass a single house until somebody came out to see what the trouble was.  By 10:45 o'clock the town was seemingly awake, but we kept the noise up until 2 o'clock.

'There were some families which were waked up two or three times.  Naturally they felt pretty sore.  First a policeman would come along and rap on the front door with his night stick until he got an answer.  The head of the house would thank the policeman, chase around and see that the gas was off, and just about the time he was getting back to sleep, a volunteer would dash up to his front door.  A fire engine, with its steam whistle going and its gong clanging, would happen along and supply a concert until he appeared for a third time.  We were not taking any chances.'

Sergt. Grant's policemen had a lively time.  Their orders were, when they reached a house which was dark, and could not arouse the people within, to force an entrance.  Patrolman Lynch, a fearless officer, broke in through a rear window of a dark house on Elm Street.  Up stairs, sleeping peacefully, was a three-year-old baby boy.  There was not another soul in the house.  Lynch is a bachelor.  When the baby commenced to cry he was frantic.  At last he solved his predicament by taking the youngster to the family next door, who tended it until its parents returned.

Half a dozen houses in all were forcibly entered by the police.  In most cases it was found, Chief of Police Foley said, that there was no trouble from gas fumes, but that the inmates were simply sound sleepers.  Only two families, those of J. H. Martnes, and Charles Buckley, both on Westchester Avenue, suffered any ill-effects.  There were narrow escapes from asphyxiation in these households, but yesterday morning all ill-effects had disappeared.

The gas was not turned on until noon to-day.  The Westchester Lighting Company, which supplies Mount Vernon, also furnishes light for Pelham and Pelham Manor.  In these towns scenes similar to those enacted in Mount Vernon were witnesses.  The Fire Departments and police forces were called out and every family aroused and warned.  

Vice President Stratton said this afternoon that the trouble with the main had been repaired, and that the gas supply was all right once more.  The company could have turned on the gas within a few hours after the accident last night, but it preferred to wait until daylight rather than run the risk of causing the loss of a single life."

Source:  NOISE AT MT. VERNON SAVES ITS CITIZENS, N.Y. Times, Apr. 19, 1904, p. 9, col. 1.  

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