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.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Account of 1894 Fire in One of Pelham's Earliest Newspapers

In early January, 1894, Orrin F. Fordham established a weekly community newspaper "devoted to the interests of the Town of Pelham and City Island."  The newspaper, The City Island Drift, was published on City Island every Saturday morning.  The cost of a subscription was "$1.00 per Year in Advance."  When the newspaper first began, the earliest issues were offered for one cent per copy, although the newspaper quickly raised its price to two cents per copy.  

By February 24, 1894, The City Island Drift had reached a weekly circulation of nearly 200.  Consequently, the following week the little newspaper raised its newstand price to two cents a copy.  At the time, in addition to a one-year subscription for a $1.00, it was offering subscriptions of six months for fifty cents, and three months for twenty-five cents.  

The quick success of The City Island Drift is somewhat surprising and strongly suggests that the growing Town of Pelham was becomingly increasing hungry for local news and a local newspaper devoted solely to Pelham news.  The United States suffered the "Panic of 1893" that led to a severe economic depression.  During that depression, by some accounts, unemployment in New York State reached an astounded level of 35%.  More than 500 banks across the nation failed and were closed.  More than 15,000 business failed and countless farms ceased operations.  In the midst of all this, Orrin F. Fordham was able successfully to establish a tiny little community newspaper in the Town of Pelham even while recognizing the extent of the economic devastation caused by the depression.  In the March 3, 1894 issue of The City Island Drift, he wrote:

"The depressing times through which we have been passing will be felt for a long time to come.  Even though more prosperous times should be at hand, the effect of the depression will offset, to a degree, the prosperity."  (See page 2).  

Extant copies of the newspaper have been digitized and, via optical character recognition technologies, are now available online in full text searchable format via the New York State Historic Newspapers Web site, a project being administered by the Northern New York Library Network in partnership with the NY 3Rs Association, Inc.  The entire database is available via http://dev.nyshistoricnewspapers.org.  

The database includes 37 issues of The City Island Drift, all published while City Island was still part of the Town of Pelham, before its annexation by New York City was completed in 1895.  (Actually, the database includes 38 issues -- a January 22, 1894 "EXTRA" issue is erroneously combined with a February 17, 1894 issue as a single issue.)

Shortly after The City Island Drift first appeared, City Island suffered a significant fire. The newspaper put out an "EXTRA" edition on January 22, 1894 describing the fire, efforts to fight the fire by the local "Minnefor Engine Co.," and including a hand-drawn sketch of the remnants of the building after the fire.  The entire EXTRA issue of the newspaper was prepared in long-hand writing (as were a number of the earliest issues of the newspaper).

The fire virtually destroyed Jacob Gruse's Boat House, Saloon and Restaurant on main street, City Island.  For some time before the fire, Pelham residents had been engaged in a debate over funding for the volunteer fire fighting units established on City Island and whether such units would really make a difference in stopping significant fires and saving lives and property.  

The fire at the Jacob Gruse Boat House, Saloon and Restaurant demonstrated that quick response by local volunteer fire fighters using state-of-the-art equipment (crude by today's standards) could halt such a fire and preserve some of the property involved.  

The fire seems to have occurred on or about the evening of January 21, 1894.  City Islander Samuel Bell was on his way home and noticed smoke wafting across main street near the structure.  Smoke from the restaurant was not unusual, so Bell continued home assuming that a fire was being kindled.  Soon after he settled in, he heard another resident shouting "Fire!" and realized what he had seen.  He raced to the fire house as others took up his cries of "Fire!"  By the time he arrived, however, the horse cart had already departed the fire house on its way to the fire.  

Members of the Minneford Hose Company arrived early on the scene, but had trouble removing the rusted cap from a nearby hydrant.  After getting the cap off, they were able to begin a stream of water through a window of the burning structure.  Soon members of the Minneford Engine Company arrived with their steam pumper which had a good head of steam going.  After attaching a siamese connector to permit the use of two hoses, the firefighters disconnected the original hose and began using the steam pumper to inundate the fire with water.  Soon, the fire was under control.

The little two-room restaurant and saloon, however, was a wreck.  The firemen were able to recover the pocketbook of the wife of the owner within a bureau inside.  When they asked the wife of the owner if she wanted the liquor and beer, she said no.  The firemen retrieved beer and liquor from the structure and spectators enjoyed the contents.  When the firemen emerged with an entire keg of beer, however, the owner's wife demurred and told them to replace the keg as she would prefer to keep it.

The entire contents of the "EXTRA!" edition of The City Island Drift reporting on the fire appear below.  The transcription of the entire text of the issue appears immediately below.  Following the text, images of each of the four pages of the issue are included.

"[Page 1]

The City Island DRIFT EXTRA!  FIRE

Trifold Pub. Co. Publishers  City Island, N.Y.  Jan. 22nd, 1894  ONE CENT.

Great Fire!!!
Minnefor Engine Co. on hand.

Everybody knows about the fire.

It was J. Gruse's boat house, saloon and restaurant on main street on the 'Meadows Lots.'  It did not burn down but it is a complete wreck.  It is only fit for firewood now.

As near as we can get to the actual time the fire started is seven o'clock.  A number of persons saw the smoke drifting across the road, but no one dreamed of a fire as it is quite a common experience to see smoke persisting in the air about that place.

Mr. Saml. Bell, going home from the Post office and passing there about five minutes past seven, smelled smoke, but thought it was a fire being kindled.  He got home & was comfortably seated when he heard Mrs. Lane shouting Fire!

Mr. Bell blowed out the light, locked the door and ran down the street shouting Fire! and a voice, presumably Mr. A. S. Wilson, took up the cry and passed it allong.  When Mr. Bell reached the engine house the horse cart was on its way to the fire.

We saw the hose attached to the [illegible] and by the time the engine arrived, a stream had been playing on the fire for some time, and another line of hose was being laid from the hydrant.  Thje engine had on a good head of steam by the time the pipes were made fast to the hydrant, the first stream was cast off, and the engine began her noble work.  The firemen worked noisily before the first the first streams soon quenched the blaze, as the engines two streams put an end to it.

[Page 2]

The City Island Drift
Published on
City Island, New York.

The Fire!

Our reporter was informed by Mrs. Gruse that Mr. Gruse was away to the city, and no business was being done in the house at the time.  The lights were out and no signs of business were visible about the place before the fire broke out.  What there was in there to start a fire was not known except the stoves.  Some said the stove had upset, but when the fire was out sufficient enough to enter, the stove stood in its place ready to do duty again, if another pipe were furnished it.

The interior of the building on the south side is entirely burned out -- showing the rafters and the sheathing very plainly.

The furniture is more or less charred, some of it being useless, while some of it may be utilized again.

This building is divided into two rooms, the southern room being used for a restaurant and the northern room as a saloon.  It was in the southern room that the fire seems to have started, and it is where the most damage is done, confining itself to that room entirely but for a place over the front door of the saloon.

In the restaurant was 

[Page 3]

The City Island Drift, Jan. 22, 1894, EXTRA, p. 1.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

a bureau in which was Mrs. Gruse's pocketbook.  The firemen carried this out and she got her pocket-book.  Constable Anderson took her into the saloon and opened the till in which the money was kept, but only one cent was found.  She was asked by the constable if she wanted the liquor.  She told them no, they could drink it.

Upon receipt of this news another of our constables proceeded to carry out the beer by the box, and many bystanders freely indulged.

A keg of beer was carried out, but it was ordered back again by the owner.

Very few firemen indulged and those not to excess.

More about the Fire in our next issue.

[Page 4]


When our reporter arrived at the fire, the blaze was leaping forth with tremendous fury, making the air around, red with its furious glare.  The smoke was curling up in great volumes, and it seemed the whole place would be consumed before the hose could be brought to bear on the fire.  The Hose Company were there, but the sticky rusted hydrant refused to work as it should.  With considerable difficulty the noble boys succeeded in unscrewing the caps to the hydrant, then soon had the hose attached to it and before another minute had [illegible] stream was pouring on the blaze, which felt the effect immediately.  

The men at the nozzle had their eyes open, and as soon as they could reasonably leave the worst part, they turned the hose on the window, smashing that and getting at the real seat of the fire.

Soon the engine came up, fired their suction pipe with the 'Saimese,' [sic] attached one side, then cut off the supply from the hose already at work, and started in on its noble work. 

The engineer was wide awake and was ready with stream before the pipe was attached to the hydrant.

The firemen, after the first excitement was over, were quite systematic in their work and were quite prompt in obeying the foremans instructions.

The consequence is, the house did not burn down as has been predicted by many of our people.

We are compelled to get our EXTRA out in this shape on account of our force being at the Fire!"

Source:  FIRE! -- Great Fire!!! -- Minnefor Engine Co. on hand, The City Island Drift, Jan. 22, 1894, EXTRA, pages 1, 2, 3, 4.  

The City Island Drift, EXTRA!, Jan. 22, 1894, Page 1.
The City Island Drift, Jan. 22, 1894, EXTRA, p. 1.

The City Island Drift, EXTRA!, Jan. 22, 1894, Page 2.
The City Island Drift, Jan. 22, 1894, EXTRA, p. 2.

The City Island Drift, EXTRA!, Jan. 22, 1894, Page 3.
The City Island Drift, Jan. 22, 1894, EXTRA, p. 3.

The City Island Drift, EXTRA!, Jan. 22, 1894, Page 4.
The City Island Drift, Jan. 22, 1894, EXTRA, p. 4.

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