I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine.
— Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
There are things that rest deep in a community’s collective consciousness — none more so than fire. While fire has the power to destroy, it also has the power to transform. As New Paltz gears up for the 150th anniversary of its volunteer fire department, the New Paltz Times, with the help of Carol Johnson and the archives at the Haviland Heidgerd Historic Collection at the Elting Memorial Library, took a look back over the century-and-a-half of conflagration and tried to highlight ten of the most critical fires in our history, as well as the valiant volunteers who fought them.
Where it all started
In 1862 a group of New Paltz men, most of whom had businesses or residences in what is now the village, got together and purchased a fire engine from Poughkeepsie. “The downtown area was still very sparse,” recounted Johnson. “But there were some business and homeowners that felt a fire engine was necessary to help protect their property.” The engine, which had to be pulled by men and/or horses, was stored in a barn behind where Murphy’s Bar and Restaurant is located today. Holes were dug for reservoirs across from the Pine home, where Dino Toscani cleared and graded land behind 127 Main Street (formerly known as Rascals).
“The farmers wanted nothing to do with this, because by the time that engine could be pulled out to the farms, it would be too late,” said Johnson. The amount of energy required and lack of practicality of the fire engine led the men who had purchased it to sell it to the town of Walden, and by 1868 whatever ad hoc fire crew had been assembled was disbanded.
That said, fire is never on vacation, and New Paltz watched as the hamlet in Highland burned to the ground, as did the hamlet of Rosendale. Then, on a frigid March night in 1884, the New Paltz Academy burned to the ground. The sole educational institution serving the New Paltz population, the Academy was located where the Town and Country Condominiums are today. “This was a real wake-up call for New Paltz that they needed a fire department,” said Johnson. “But to create a fire department they needed to get water, fire hydrants, funding and had to incorporate as a village to do this. So really, this one fire led to the creation of the Village in 1887.”
Once the Village of New Paltz was incorporated, so were two volunteer fire departments known as Ulster Hook and Ladder and the Star Hose Company. Those two companies combined in 1918 and one single New Paltz Village Fire Department (NPFD) was formed.
In the meantime, the Academy was replaced at the same location by the Normal School, which expanded its educational opportunities to include primary and secondary education, providing the necessary training for many teachers throughout the region, as well as educating local children and providing high school-like courses such as Latin, Greek, advanced mathematics and chemistry.
In April of 1906, the Normal School caught fire when two workers, who were in the building late at night trying to repair a water tank in the attic before school resumed after Easter break, had a lamp that they were using explode, which led to the dry rafters and woodwork quickly catching fire. “The firemen were prompt in their action,” reported the Independent. “There was no delay and soon four streams of water were on the fire from the different hydrants. But the flames spread with great rapidity through the building.” The Independent went on to report that the size of the building and the “flammable materials” and “well-oiled floors,” in conjunction with several explosions of chemicals “in the school’s laboratory,” made it impossible for the “firemen to save the building.” The loss was estimated at $100,000, and the citizenry of New Paltz, along with their respective government officials, lobbied for New York State to help them fund the creation of another school.
“Had the state said ‘No,’ we wouldn’t have a State University here today,” mused Johnson. “But they said ‘Yes,’ and there was a big celebration by the residents when it was announced that the bill had gone through, and a large parade out to Frank LeFevre’s home, who was their state legislator at the time.”
The Normal School was rebuilt with the financial aid and backing of the state and its education system, on the site where the Old Main Building stands today on the SUNY New Paltz campus.
While those two fires, in their destruction, led to the creation of a village and a State University, two other fires changed or endangered the iconic nature of New Paltz. The first was the wooden fire tower constructed where the Skytop tower is located today, perched on the cliff face above Mohonk Mountain House and resort owned by the Smiley family. After the third wooden fire tower burned in June of 1909, the Smileys rejected the state’s recommendation to build a steel tower, and instead put together a committee to raise the necessary funds to design and construct the formidable stone tower that exists today. It was built as a memorial to Albert Smiley, who died in 1912. The cornerstone was placed on Skytop in August of 1921, and a reservoir was created just below it to combat fire.
Another iconic structure in New Paltz that was destroyed by fire but subsequently replaced was the clock tower atop the van den Berg Learning Center at SUNY New Paltz. According to reports in the New Paltz News, the clock tower caught fire in May of 1990 due to an electrical short in the wiring. According to the news report, more than 100 firefighters attacked the blaze and saved the rest of the historic building, but were unable to save the clock tower. Two of those firefighters were injured, including Charles Campbell, according to then-fire chief Ron Finnegan. Then-SUNY New Paltz president Alice Chandler praised the NPFD for its quick response and for “containing the fire.”
The clock tower dated back to 1932, when the van den Berg Learning Center was built to the tune of $300,000. Reports state that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was then governor of New York, spoke at the groundbreaking ceremonies. Because of its historical significance, as well as its iconic recognition to both the campus population and the residents of New Paltz, the clock tower was replaced in 2005 and lifted by crane atop the building. Almost an exact replica of its predecessor, the clock tower has a five-foot-diameter clock face on four sides, with Roman numerals. It also includes a spire and the decorative elements from the original clock tower including pilasters, columns, cornices and urns. The chimes were also restored to the clock tower, as former President Chandler had given the old clock bell to the Reformed Church on Huguenot Street. The cost of replacement was approximately $495,000: almost $200,000 more than the original construction of the entire building. When the clock tower was restored, then-SUNY New Paltz president Steve Poskanzer said, “We are excited by the long-awaited return of this campus and community landmark.”
In July of 1931, three fires broke out in the Village of New Paltz within hours of each other. At 11:15 a.m. a fire alarm was sounded for a fire in the old Jacob Wurts stone house residence, owned then by Emanuel De Rago, which “stood on the brickyard road near the railroad crossing.” As volunteer firefighters worked to put out the residential blaze, which all but destroyed the historic home, the fire alarm sounded again at 2:30 p.m. — this time at the nearby Millham Cooperage owned by Jay LeFevre (where the old box factory stands today, at the corner of Water Street and Plains Road). The Cooperage constructed, stored and sold wooden barrels used to store apples in the apple-growing region and state. According to the New Paltz Independent, “When the New Paltz firemen arrived [at the Cooperage], they found that the contents could not be saved, as the fire was too hot to approach the building. Fed by the highly flammable barrels, crates and lumber in the building, the structure was soon a roaring furnace.” According to the newspaper reports, the “burning embers” from that fire “were carried all over the Village as far as the Normal School.”
As firefighters responded to their second call, a third call came in — this time at a nearby blacksmith shop. What firefighters discovered at the blacksmith shop was a bundle of paper “such as was used at the Cooperage shop,” the newspaper reported. This evidence, coupled with a sighting of a young man near all three fires, in addition to a similar “devastating fire” in Kerhonkson, “ignited with a similar incendiary” material and intention led the police to believe that the fires were started by a singular individual. Eventually they brought into questioning a 14-year-old New Paltz boy, whose name was not published. In the meantime, NPFD firefighter Henry DuBois sustained severe burns to the arm as he worked to put out the blaze at the Cooperage. His son, Bill DuBois, also a firefighter, sustained burns while working to put out a fire at the Veterans of Foreign Wars building off Route 208 in February of 1972.
New Paltz is burning
The Village Volunteer Fire Department had a busy week, with three separate fires nearly destroying three businesses all in the span of a few days in 1967 when the New Paltz Theater caught fire, along with a sportswear shop across from the Theater in downtown New Paltz along Main Street and the Villa Lapani on South Ohioville Road.
“That was a busy week, and we had a snowstorm to get through,” said Peter Savago, who was then the NPFD chief. The first fire was called in on a Saturday at the Anne-Marie Shoppe, owned by Mrs. Gizi Alton, where the Lemongrass restaurant is located today in downtown New Paltz. The smoke was so thick that firefighters had to go in with gas masks to try to find the origin of the fire, cut holes in the roof and knock out windows to let the smoke and heat escape. “I always thought that it was arson,” noted Savago.
After that blaze was put out — which took considerable amounts of time and labor and incurred danger on the part of the NPFD — the department received another fire call the following Sunday at the Villa Lapani on South Ohioville Road. The blaze was believed to be caused by a grease fire on a stove in the kitchen of the Villa. NPFD firefighters arrived on the scene at 9:45 p.m. and stayed until Monday at 5 a.m. attempting to put out the blaze and save as much of the Villa as they could. In the New Paltz paper, Savago was quoted during that time as saying, “Our firemen did an excellent job of stopping the fire from spreading to the rest of the buildings on the premises.”
As if they weren’t tired enough, a third call came in Wednesday morning to the New Paltz Theater, located where the professional building exists today next to the China House. The exhausted volunteers had to battle through a snowstorm to get to downtown Main Street, where they found the theater ablaze. According to reports, the fire had started in the basement of the building, where there was an art store owned by David Gill, Jr. Certain combustible products had caught fire and quickly spread through the wood frame building on to the roof of the theater. Although the volunteer firemen turned the hoses on the building and got on the roof to cut holes and let the smoke escape and get closer to the raging blaze, eventually they realized that all they could do was to “put the fire out and save neighboring properties.” Ironically, the marquee of the New Paltz Theater, which was melting, advertised the movie that was currently playing: Is Paris Burning?
Just like the 1930s and 1960s, the late 1980s/early 1990s were one hot time for New Paltz, with devastating fires raging through the wood-framed downtown, all properties shoulder-to-shoulder and the blazes left to the volunteers to control and prevent the spreading of the fires and potential ruin of downtown New Paltz. One of the most notable fires in recent New Paltz history was that of Chez Joey Italian Restaurant and the Thesis Bar/Restaurant — both located next to each other on Main Street, near the corner of Main and South Chestnut Streets. Firefighters had been called to the scene twice for “a leaking propane tank” located behind the two establishments. Reports state that the firemen turned off the tanks, hosed them down with water and waited until the propane company arrived to assure them that the business-owners and the occupants of eight apartments above were in no danger.
Despite these precautions, the fire alarm sounded again at 4:20 a.m., with firefighters finding both Chez Joey’s and the Thesis “engulfed in flames.” More than 200 firefighters responded to the call, and then-NPFD chief David Butler led the operation not only to extinguish the flames, but also to “save the rest of downtown,” as they cut out trenches in rooftops to prevent further spread of the raging fire. Six NPFD volunteers were injured during this 24-hour blaze, including Chief Butler. Twenty-five people were left homeless from the upstairs apartments, where their lives were saved by firefighters, but all of their property was destroyed. Then-Village mayor Tom Nyquist praised the work of the volunteer firefighters, and said that it was imperative that the village step up its fire prevention/inspection endeavors.
While Chez Joey’s, a longtime New Paltz Italian deli and hot spot, rebuilt its business on-site and the Thesis relocated across the street for many years (where Neko Sushi restaurant is today), the memory of that downtown blaze is burned into the minds of many Paltzonians, several of whom have the photos of the destroyed Thesis building with only the bar left standing and the melted liquor bottles behind it.
As if that weren’t enough of a scare for the historic, mostly wood-framed downtown New Paltz, in February of 1990 another fire threatened to destroy the village. The fire erupted and was called in at approximately 10 a.m. at the Village Cobbler shop located at the corner of South Chestnut and Main Streets. According to reports, there was heating tape connected to an extension cord in the bathroom area of the shoe-repair shop, which “shorted out” and stared a fire “in the cardboard boxes on top of the heat tape.”
With strong winds blowing and subzero temperatures, the fire quickly spread its flames through the 100-year-old wood-framed building, as well as neighboring buildings that housed the well-known climbing, hiking and outdoor equipment shop Rock & Snow, as well as David’s Cookies and the newly renovated restaurant on the site of the former North Light, Loup Garou.
Mike Quinn, then the State Farm Insurance agent for Dick Williams, former owner of Rock & Snow, recalled the blaze. “It was unbelievable, and I remember calling Dick, who was away in California, to alert him to the fire; and sadly, all he returned to was a parking lot. The New Paltz Fire Department was extraordinary. They put out the blaze at Rock & Snow and the shoe-repair shop, and literally stopped downtown from burning. Their efforts were above and beyond, and they can be attributed with saving so many properties in the Village.”
Rock & Snow was rebuilt and David’s Cookies was renovated, as was the restaurant formerly known as Loup Garou. Tenants above these buildings were homeless, but there was no loss of life, nor serious injuries to report.
As if the NPFD did not have enough conflagrations to deal with over a century-and-a-half, it also had to contend with an electrical fire that set off alarms at the SUNY New Paltz campus, which led to the spread of PCBs and severe health and safety risks for students, firefighters, faculty and New Paltz residents.
This article does not include the thousands of house fires, forest fires, car and vehicular accidents and fires to which our NPFD responds. Nor did we report on the history of the NPFD’s minstrel shows, which raised a ton of money!
Hats off to the NPFD! Stop, tuck, duck and roll. We’re so fortunate to have a century-and-a-half of trained, professional volunteers to help protect and defend our lives and property.
Happy 150th, NPFD. ++