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, June 22, 2017

The Massive Fire in 1919 that Burned Down the Knickerbocker Ice Company Ice House and Damaged North Pelham Homes

The massive wooden Ice House adjacent to Pelham Reservoir was about 200 feet long and 100 feet wide.  It was three stories high and had been erected in the 1890s by the Hollder Ice Company.  By 1919, however, it was nearly abandoned.  It had stood unused for two years.  Worse yet, it was an absolute tinderbox.  It was the Ice House that stood next to the Hutchinson River where the river swelled into Pelham Reservoir not far from the tracks of the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway.  In 1919, the Ice House was owned by the Knickerbocker Ice Company.


In a time when electric refrigerators were a rare commodity, enterprising entrepreneurs secured rights to "harvest" ice during the winter from frozen bodies of water such as the Pelham Reservoir.  Harvested ice would then be stored in ice houses, often packed amidst hay and sawdust to serve as insulation to slow the melting of the ice during the remainder of the year.  Ice wagons and, later, ice trucks delivered the ice throughout the year to nearby homes and businesses for use in their "ice boxes."  

In 1919, The Knickerbocker Ice Company held the rights to harvest winter ice on Pelham Reservoir.  The company, however, had not harvested ice on the Pelham Reservoir for two winters.  Thus, tons of dry sawdust and hay lay inside the company's Ice House next to Pelham Reservoir waiting for future use as insulation when ice was stored inside. 

There was a long tradition of harvesting ice on Pelham Reservoir.  However, in 1919, times were changing.  Manufactured "pure" ice free of the impurities inherent in harvesting ice from bodies of water was becoming more widely available.  Indeed, the Westchester County Brewing Company in North Pelham had begun manufacturing and selling "pure" ice made from Artesian Well water nearly a decade before.  The brewing facility once stood near the Hutchinson River where today's large back office facility now stands at the parking lot behind Village Hall on Sparks Avenue.  The company marketed its "pure" ice as "Hygeia Ice" which it sold and delivered throughout the region.  

At the same time, however, smaller businesses still harvested ice locally.  In 1914, for example, the "American Ice Company" owned the Ice House that stood on the west side of First Avenue in North Pelham between 3rd and 4th Streets.  The company harvested winter ice from Pelham Reservoir and stored it in the massive 200 x 100 feet wooden structure.

In late 1918 and early 1919, with Prohibition looming, the Knickerbocker Ice Company purchased the ice manufacturing facility of the Westchester County Brewing Company.  It also purchased the massive Ice House nearby, though the date it purchased that facility is less clear.  To read more about the Westchester County Brewing Company and ice manufacturing in North Pelham, see Wed., Jan. 07, 2015:  Westchester County Brewing Company Operated in Pelham Before Prohibition.

The Fire on January 16, 1919

At about 6:45 p.m. on the evening of Thursday, January 16, 1919, children playing near the Ice House accidentally started a grass fire that began crawling toward the massive wooden structure.  Patrolman Keller of the North Pelham Police Department was patrolling nearby and notice the smoke and flames.  

Patrolman Keller raced to a telephone and called Police Headquarters to report the grass fire.  Officer Martin Lowery received the call.  When he heard the fire was a grass fire, he turned in an "alarm 13" to the Fire Department, signifying a small fire.  Within moments, however, the fire no longer was small.  It had reached the tinder box known as the Ice House on First Avenue.

Soon, others in the neighborhood began pulling fire alarms at local pull-boxes as it became apparent it would be a major fire.  Moreover, a police officer patrolling in the City of Mount Vernon observed the fire from a distance and, thinking it was in Mount Vernon, sounded an alarm to call out the Mount Vernon Fire Department.  Within a short time, a mass of fire companies was on the scene including Liberty Engine and Hose Company of North Pelham, the Relief Hook and Ladder Company of North Pelham, Hose Company No. 2 of Pelham Heights, the Pelham Manor Fire Department, and Truck 3, Chemical 3, Chemical 4, Engine 1, and Engine 2 of the City of Mount Vernon.  

An east wind fanned the flames.  They swept from the southern end of the building to its north.  The flames grew so high and the heat became so intense that a column of fire and smoke swirled into the cold air carrying burning debris and sparks that fell on homes and structures nearby.  Charles Russell's garage at the corner of First Avenue and Fourth Street caught fire.  He was able to get his automobiles out of the garage before they burned, however, and firemen quickly extinguished the flames.  Similarly, the roof of the home of James Caffrey at Fourth Avenue and Fourth Street caught fire.  Again firefighters quickly extinguished the blaze.  

Soon, other nearby homes caught fire.  Charles Russell's home on First Avenue directly across the street from the Ice House suffered most.  Although firemen saved the home, it was badly damaged.  Another nearby home owned by P. O'Malley caught fire on its roof and the fire burned into the attic of the home before firefighters could extinguish it.  Another nearby home was that of Joseph Lyon and his family.  The intense heat of the fire was so devastating that the family, who was sheltering inside their home, was forced by heat to retreat to the rear of the home.  The intense heat shattered the windows of the Lyon home and blistered the facade of the house.  Another home owned by J. Meade on Fourth Street also caught fire on its roof, though that fire was extinguished as well.  Burning debris rained down on the nearby Hutchinson School although the school building did not burn.

The heat of the fire was so intense that the hands and faces of many firemen were blistered while fighting the conflagration.  Moreover, only 15 minutes after the first alarm was called in, electric utility lines that passed near the structure to supply the Village of North Pelham with electricity melted and fell to the ground, plunging the entire Village of Pelham into darkness.

To make the chaos worse, the tall plume of fire and smoke could be seen for miles.  It attracted hundreds of "autoists" who drove into North Pelham and parked along Village streets so the occupants could scramble to the scene and watch the fire.  

It took the firefighters more than three hours to extinguish the massive blaze.  A little after 10 p.m. firefighters finished the task and returned to their firehouses, leaving the smoldering ruins of the building -- a total loss.

The next day, Fire Chief Godfrey of North Pelham visited the site to inspect the ruins.  When he arrived, the remaining timbers were burning once again, requiring a minor alarm.  The Liberty Engine Company responded and extinguished the fire.  

The Ice House fire of 1919 was not the worst fire experienced by Pelham.  It was, however, a terrible fire that, thankfully, caused no deaths or significant injuries.  Repairs to local homes and structures began immediately.  Even the roof of the Hutchinson School had to be cleared of the debris that rained down on the building from the fire.  The fire caused more than $800 damage to nearby homes and structures (about $12,000 in today's dollars).  

Residents of North Pelham were not sorry to see the Ice House burn.  Indeed, for years it had been considered a monumental eyesore and blight upon the Village.  

Maps Showing Location of the Ice House

Below are details from maps published in 1899 and 1914 showing the location of the Ice House that burned on January 16, 1919. 

Detail from 1899 Map Showing Location of Ice House
(In Upper Center of Image) that Burned on January 16,
1919.  Source:  Fairchild, John F., Atlas of the City of
Vernon, NY:  John F. Fairchild, 1899).  NOTE:  Click
on Image to Enlarge.


Detail from 1914 Map Showing Location of Ice House
(In Upper Right Corner) that Burned on January 16, 1919.
Source:  G. W. Bromley & Co., Atlas of Westchester County,
(NY, NY:  G. W. Bromley & Co., 1914).  NOTE:  Click on
Image to Enlarge.

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Below is the text of a pair of articles that address the Ice House fire of 1919.  Each is followed by a citation and link to its source.
Several Houses Also Damaged -- Severe Blaze for a Time -- Origin Ascribed to Grass Fire Started by Children.

North Pelham, Jan. 17. -- The large frame ice house building on First avenue, between Third and Fourth street, was destroyed by fire last evening.

The building, which was valued at about $2,000, was the property of the Knickerbocker Ice company and had not been used this year.  The building was erected many years ago at the north end of the New York Inter-Urban Water company reservoir at that time by the Hollder Ice company.  It was about three stories high and the dimensions were about 200 x 100 feet.
(Continued on Page Four.)

(Continued From Page One.)

From what can be learned some children started a grass fire last evening in the lot near the southern end of the building and the flames spread to the ice house, which was dry with so much sawdust packed between the boards.  Inside the ice house was about a foot of hay used for keeping ice and this made good fuel.

Patrolman Keller of the North Pelham department discovered the fire at 6:45 o'clock and called fire headquarters on the telephone.  Martin Lowery, who happened to be at the headquarters, relieving Frank Kennedy, who had taken the place of Charles Oake, the regular man for the day received the call and sounded minor alarm 13, supposing the fire was a small one.  But at this time the fire had made great progress.  John Gruber, seeing that the fire threatened to be a dangerous one, sounded an alarm from box 23, which called out the Liberty Engine and Hose, the Relief Hook and Ladder and Hose Company No. 2 from Pelham Heights.  The Pelham Manor apparatus also answered.  Truck 3, Chemical 3 and 4, Engines 1 and 2 of the Mount Vernon department came on the scene in answer to a box alarm in the city.

John Gruber deserves credit for his work in connection with the fire, as he took charge of the pumps during the fire.  Chief Chester Godfrey and Assistant Chief Michael Murphy were in charge and they handled the situation well considering the fire had gained a headway.  The local fire companies and also Hose Company No. 2 in Pelham Heights did good work.

It was seen from the start, as the flames swept from the southern end of the building to the north, fanned by a light east wind, that the structure could not be saved.  The village between Third and Fourth streets, from First to Sixth avenues, was showered with burning sparks, and all during the fire houses in this area were threatened and several of them became ignited from the sparks.  Charles Russell's garage at the corner of First avenue and Fourth street caught fire and the autos had to be removed.  The small apparatus of the department quickly extinguished the flames with chemicals.  The roof of James Caffrey residence, corner of Fourth avenue and Fourth street, also caught fire but was soon extinguished.

The houses to suffer most from the fire were the two owned by Charles Russell, located on First avenue directly opposite the ice house.  One of these, occupied by P. O'Malley, caught fire on the roof and the fire worked through the roof to the attic.  The other house nearby is occupied by Joseph Lyon.  The latter building was blistered by the heat and panes of glass were broken by the heat.  The heat was so intense that the occupants were compelled to retire to the rear of the house.  The damage to these houses is estimated at $800.  The house owned by J. Meade on Fourth street also caught fire on the roof.  Every residence in the affected area had its roof covered with burned cinders this morning.  Even the Hutchinson school did not escape.  Residents were engaged this morning in sweeping the debris from the roofs.

Shortly after 7 o'clock the electric light supply wires which passed close to the ice house fell to the ground, having been melted by the heat.  This put the entire village in darkness and in all sections oil lamps and candles were pressed into service, where gas was not installed.  After about two hours the Westchester Lighting company restored the lights.

The fire was one of the hottest ever fought by the local department.  The flames shot high into the air and attracted hundreds of autoists who stored their cars in the streets of this village while they viewed the fire at a closer range.  Although none of the firemen were injured, several of them are suffering from blisters on the face and hands, due to the heat.

The recall was sounded last night at 10:11 o'clock and the firemen returned to headquarters.  This morning at 8:58 o'clock Chief Godfrey inspected the site and found the timbers burning.  A minor alarm sounded and the Liberty Engine responded and a line of hose was put upon the ruins and at 11 o'clock they were smouldering.

There appears a difference of opinion this morning as to who and how the Mount Vernon fire department was asked for help.  The local firemen deny that they made a request for help from the Mount Vernon department but stated that they believed that a Mount Vernon policeman saw the fire and believing that it was in Mount Vernon sounded the alarm from 282 on Lorraine avenue and East Lincoln avenue.  Chief Godfrey this morning stated that the Mount Vernon firemen were at the fire and did good work but that he did not send for them to come to Pelham."

Source:  BIG ICE HOUSE IN PELHAM NEAR CITY LINE, BURNS -- Several Houses Also Damaged -- Severe Blaze for a Time -- Origin Ascribed to Grass Fire Started by Children, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Jan. 17, 1919, No. 8880, p. 1, col. 5 & p. 4, col. 5.  

"Say Burned Ice House Was Always An 'Eye Sore'

North Pelham, Jan. 18. -- The fire which destroyed the ice house on First avenue, between Third and Fourth streets, this village, removed what many residents of this village have frequently called an eyesore.  From what can be learned, the house will not be rebuilt, as the Knickerbocker Ice company, the owners had no use for it this year and little use last year.  The fire left a few hundred feet of timber of the large building; all of the rest was reduced to ashes.  The firemen completed the work of extinguishing the smouldering debris yesterday afternoon.  Altho the land upon which the ice house was located drains into the reservoir of the Inter-Urban Water company, the fire will in no way affect the quality of the water.  Work has been started on repairing the damage done by the fire to nearby dwellings."

Source:  Say Burned Ice House Was Always An "Eye Sore", The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Jan. 18, 1919, No. 8881, p. 4, col. 6.  

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Below is a list of prior Historic Pelham Blog postings that touch on firefighting and the history of firefighting units within the Town of Pelham.

Fri., Jun. 23, 2017:  A Little of the Early History of Hose Company No. 2, the Pelham Heights Volunteer Fire Fighting Unit.

Fri., Jan. 20, 2017:  A Proud Pelham Fire Department Took Possession of a New American La France Fire Engine in 1914.

Thu., Jan. 19, 2017:  Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold:  Don't Mess With a Pelham Fireman.

Thu., Jan. 12, 2017:  Six of Pelham's Earliest Firefighters Marched in the 36th Annual Fire Inspection Parade in 1930.

Tue., Dec. 06, 2016:  An Account of the Tragic Vaughan Livery Stable Fire in Pelhamville in 1907.

Wed., Nov. 16, 2016:  More on the 1889 Fire that Destroyed the Hunter House on Travers Island.

Tue., Oct. 04, 2016:  Harry R. King, Fire Chief of the First Fire District From 1911 to 1913.

Wed., Jun. 15, 2016:  Organized Volunteer Fire Fighting in Pelhamville Began as Early as 1885.

Tue., Jun. 14, 2016:  The First Annual Inspection of Pelhamville Fire Fighting Units in 1894.

Tue., Jun. 07, 2016:  When Did Pelham's Minneford Engine Company Acquire its First Fire-Fighting Steam Engine?

Mon., May 16, 2016:  Fatal Fire in 1902 at One Fifth Avenue Burned Down the Post Office and Pharmacy.

Fri., Apr. 29, 2016:  Famous Meyers Mansion in Pelham Manor Burned Down in 1897.

Thu., Apr. 28, 2016:  Pelham Manor Dutifully Extinguished a Fire That Nearly Burned Down its Hated Wooden Train Station in 1896.

Mon., Jan. 04, 2016:  Pelham Manor Voters Voted to Disband the Pelham Manor Fire Department in 1928.  

Mon., Dec. 14, 2015:  Early History of the Village of Pelham Manor Fire Department.

Fri., Dec. 11, 2015:  Evidence of An Early Independent Firefighting Unit in Pelham Named "Indians."

Thu., Dec. 10, 2015:  Grand Fire-Fighting Competition and Parade Held in the Town of Pelham in 1891.

Wed., Dec. 09, 2015:  Pelham's Minneford Engine Company Built a New Fire House on City Island in 1894.

Mon., Dec. 07, 2015:  The Code Used on the City Island Fire Bell in the Late 19th Century Used for Fire Alarms.

Mon., Nov. 30, 2015:  Another Detailed Account of the 1901 Fire that Destroyed the Clubhouse of the New York Athletic Club on Travers Island.

Fri., Nov. 20, 2015:  Account of 1894 Fire in One of Pelham's Earliest Newspapers.

Wed., Sep. 30, 2015:  Was it Arson that Destroyed the Prospect Hill School at Jackson and Plymouth Avenues in 1917?

Thu., Sep. 17, 2015:  An Account of the February 28, 1925 Fire at Pelhamdale, A Home on the National Register of Historic Places.

Fri., Jun. 12, 2015:  The Tumultuous Reign of Pelham Manor Fire Chief J. Louis Cunningham in the Early 1900s.

Tue., Jun. 09, 2015:  Reminiscences of Firemen Who Served From 1893 Until 1923 in North Pelham.

Wed., Jun. 03, 2015:  The Bell in Firemen's Memorial Park at First Street and Wolfs Lane.

Tue., Jun. 02, 2015:  Important Early Images of the Pelham Fire Department.

Fri., May 22, 2015:  History of Pelham's Beloved "Nott Steamer" Known as "Jim Reilly's Boiler."

Thu., Mar. 26, 2015:  Fire Destroyed the Old Pelham Manor Post Office in 1945.

Fri., Mar. 20, 2015:  Fire in 1932 Devastated the Bolton Priory in Pelham Manor.

Tue., Feb. 17, 2015:  More on the Early History of Organized Firefighting in the Settlement of Pelhamville.

Mon., Feb. 16, 2015: The Great Furniture Fight of 1896: Company of Pelhamville Firemen Resigned En Masse.

Thu., Feb. 12, 2015: Rare 19th Century Image of Pelhamville Firemen Who Served in Relief Hook and Ladder Company No. 1.

Fri., Dec. 12, 2014: Parade and Housewarming Hosted by Pelhamville Fire Department in 1894.

Thu., Dec. 11, 2014:  Pelhamville's First Attempt to Create a Fire Department in 1893 Failed Due to a Legal Technicality.

Thu., Jul. 24, 2014: Dedication of the New Fire Headquarters in the Village of Pelham on December 29, 1927.

Wed., Jul. 02, 2014: Election Shenanigans Involving Fire Commissioner Election in 1898.

Thu., Apr. 24, 2014: Information About the History of Fire Departments in the Town of Pelham Published in 1927.

Thu., Jan. 30, 2014:  The Night Pelham's Town Hall Burned.

Fri., Jan. 24, 2014: Early Days of Organized Fire Fighting in Today's Village of Pelham.

Thu., Jan. 23, 2014:  Another Account of the Devastating Fire that Destroyed the Travers Island Clubhouse of New York Athletic Club in 1901.

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

Fri., Jan. 15, 2010: Photograph of Augustine C. McGuire, President of the Board of Fire Commissioners of the First District Fire Department in 1913.

Thu., Jan. 14, 2010: 1913 Report of the Firemen's Benevolent Association in Pelham.

Thu., Dec. 10, 2009: More 19th Century Baseball and Firefighting References.

Tue., Dec. 08, 2009: The Darling Triplets: Three Brothers Among Pelham's Earliest Firefighters.

Thu., Oct. 08, 2009: Firefighting Units on City Island in Pelham During the Early 1890's.

Fri., Sep. 04, 2009:  1901 Newspaper Article About Fire that Burned New York Athletic Club Clubhouse on Travers Island.

Mon., Aug. 31, 2009: Contest in 1891 To Determine Which Steam Fire Engine Company Could Throw a Stream the Greater Distance.

Fri., Aug. 28, 2009: Reorganization of the Minneford Engine Company on City Island in February, 1891.

Thu., Aug. 06, 2009: Brief History of the Fire Department in the Village of North Pelham Published in 1913.

Wed., Aug. 05, 2009: Pelham Manor Fire Chief Pleads for Taxpayers to Authorize Purchase of Village's First Fire Engine.

Wed., July 15, 2009: Liberty Hose Company Election in 1898.

Thu., Feb. 19, 2009:  The Old Hunter House Burns to the Ground in an Arson Incident on Travers Island on April 4, 1889.

Thu., Jan. 19, 2006: Pelham Manor's Earliest Fire Fighting Equipment.

Wed., Jan. 18, 2006:  Newspaper Report of the Infamous Vaughan's Livery Stable Fire in North Pelham in 1907.

Mon., Oct. 17, 2005:  The Firemen's Memorial of the Pelham Fire Department.

Mon., Aug. 01, 2005: An 1896 Inspection and Drill of the Fire Department in Pelham.

Tue., May 31, 2005:  The June 6, 1940 Fire That Destroyed the George M. Reynolds Mansion (Part I of II).

Wed., Jun. 01, 2005:  The June 6, 1940 Fire That Destroyed the George M. Reynolds Mansion (Part II of II).

Fri., May 06, 2005:  The Great Furniture Battle at Pelhamville's Relief Hook and Ladder Company in 1896.

Archive of the Historic Pelham Web Site.

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