Thousand Island Park is no stranger to fire. On the night of August 13th, 2014, shortly before midnight, a fire was discovered at Thousand Island Park in the commercial block in the grocery store next to the fire station. Islanders at the foot of Grenell would have been able to see the flames, shooting up above the tree-line, if they had been awake. Most didn’t learn about the fire until the next morning.
Grenell Islander Robin Lucus however, has two teenage daughters who after receiving texts from their friends from Thousand Island Park, rushed into their parents’ bedroom, woke them and announced, “The Guzzle is on fire.” Reportedly, the first words out of Robin’s mouth were, “Save the sign!” Every year the family poses for a picture beneath the Guzzle sign. The family dressed, got into a boat and headed toward T. I. Park. Robin thought it was important for her daughters to see firsthand what fire can do. I’m sure it’s a sight they will never forget.
Hearing the story, I was instantly reminded of the first time I heard about the Great 1912 Thousand Island Park Fire. I read about it in my husband Gary’s Great-Aunt’s book, The Story of Grenell. Gary’s grandmother was on Grenell that day. Like Robin, our ancestors jumped in their neighbor’s naphtha launch and headed toward T. I. Park to witness the fire. To witness history.
The August 2014 fire piqued my interest in the 1912 fire and I began pouring through the mountain of newspaper articles about the event, unearthing interesting details as I read.
THE SEASON OF FIRE
The Great Fire of 1912 was only one of a series of fires up and down the river. The fires started the summer of 1911 with three separate fires: Hotel Frontenac on Round Island, a huge barn on the Boldt Estate on Wellesley Island and two large cottages located above Grenell Island’s yacht basin. The fires continued in Spring, 1912. At the foot of Grenell, five cottages and several boathouses, including our skiffhouse, were lost to a fire.
The first of the T. I. Park fires was on May 30th 1912. Eleven boathouses and three launches were destroyed in a riverfront fire, technically just east of Thousand Island Park. Luckily 15 linesmen were in the Park, installing a new telephone system and saved about a dozen valuable boats. The next fire occurred on June 13th, 26 days before and only a block west of the starting place of the Great Fire. An entire block of new cottages burned down. The cottages were being rebuilt to replace cottages lost in a fire eight years prior.
The Syracuse Journal reported that Rev. Thompson gave warning in a sermon, the Sunday before the fire. He asked members of the congregation to guard against “a possible conflagration especially during the dry spell.” Dr. Thompson lost his cottage to the 1912 fire, but managed to save a portion of his belongings.
THE FIRE STARTS AND SPREADS QUICKLY
On Tuesday, July 9th, 1912, shortly before 1 p.m., a fire was discovered in the H. H. Haller store, which stood in about the same location as the current Guzzle. The store was closed that day, as the owner and his employees were attending a funeral. Most reports only say H. H. Haller store, several newspapers like The Ogdensburg Journal were more specific, “The fire broke out in the Wellesley Annex in a room occupied by servants of the Wellesley, directly over H. H. Haller’s store.” According to The Syracuse Journal, “The whole block back of the Columbian was a roaring furnace in less than 16 minutes after the fire started.”
T. I. Park residents and hotel guests sprung to action. Men wrapped themselves in wet tablecloths ripped from the hotel restaurant tables as they battled the flames. Even women and girls joined the bucket brigade; despite their heroic efforts, the fire spread.
“The gables of the rear of the structure caught first and the big frame structure of 220 rooms was soon a seething caldron of flame and smoke. Soon after the Columbian caught, a wind started to blow from the west at the rate of 15 miles an hour. By 2:30 pm all that remained of the Columbian was the brick abutments and a mass of intensely hot twisted ironwork.” (The Syracuse Journal)
As the fire burned its way east, people emptied their cottages, piling their valuables in the street. Then those piles had to be moved again and again and again as the fire spread. The Ogdensburg Journal described wagon brigades that loaded up goods and moved them to safety. But many didn’t have time to save anything but themselves.
The Ogdensburg Journal reported: By 3 o’clock all that section of the Park, between the Columbian and Mrs. Goodrich’s handsome cottage, was a seething mass of flames, something like seventy cottages burning fiercely at one time. The fire burned to the edge of the village, stopping there only because there wasn’t anything left to burn. Somewhere between 97 and 102 cottages were lost. It was then that help arrived.
The call went out for help as soon as the fire was discovered. Remember, there was no bridge back then. In Clayton and Alexandria Bay, ferry boats, tugs, scows and chartered steamers were pressed into service to rush firemen and equipment to the fire. The Clayton Fire Department arrived via barge, about an hour after the fire broke out, towed by the steamer Newsboy (although the Watertown Reunion reported they arrived on the steamer Calumet.) Ten minutes after they arrived they had hoses spraying on the fire. Clayton Fire Department positioned itself at the upper-end of the fire zone, to protect the Hotel Wellesley. When the Alexandria Bay Fire Department arrived on a scow an hour and a half later, they were stationed at the lower end of the fire zone. The Lowville Times reported that, “the Gananoque department arrived on yachts and boats that had been pressed into service and driven at top speed to the scene. With the additional assistance a four-inch stream was soon playing on the fire. A steam fire engine was put in action at the park dock and another short distance down the river.” The Tabernacle and other structures were saved by the arrival of the firemen.
Shortly after 5 o’clock the fire was declared under control, although scores of buildings within the burned area were still flaming. The firemen stayed through the night putting out flare-ups. Considering the destruction, it’s a miracle that no one was killed or seriously injured. There were many heroes on July 9th, 1912, but three stood out: Grandma Tousey, William Tousey and Paul Crouch
Grandma Tousey, as described by the New York Times, July 10, 1912:
Mrs. Tousey, who is deeply loved by the residents of the park. Is known by all as Grandma Tousey. In spite of the fact that she is over 92 years of age she stood calmly by and directed the efforts of the volunteers, begging them to save everybody from harm before they made any effort to save the property. Mrs. Tousey saved the lives of at least two persons. In searching an adjoining cottage she found Mrs. Anna Nunn and Mrs. Eager, both unconscious, on the floor, which was beginning to blaze. She called loudly for help and both women were dragged from their room to open air, where they were revived with no other injury than that occasioned by inhaling a large amount of smoke.
William Tousey as described by The Ogdensburg Journal, July 11, 1912:
One of the most brilliant rescues took place when William Tousey, Robert Van Lingen and Frank Sweeny worked their way to the top floor of the burning Columbian, where they rushed from room to room, asking if everybody was out of the building. On the top floor in one of the furthest rooms in the southeast corner of the hotel, they found Miss Mary Buster of Watertown, who had fainted away. Mr. Tousey picked her up and throwing her over his shoulder, soon carried her to safety to the ground below.
The Ogdensburg Journal reported that, “Paul Crouch of Cortland stood on the peak of the Wellesley with a blanket thrown around him and ripped the burning shingles from the roof. Crouch remained in his perilous position for two hours.” Crouches’ efforts on the roof coupled with the efforts of volunteers on the ground saved the Wellesley Hotel from utter destruction. Though badly scorched, it re-opened the next day.
Despite the heroic efforts of the people of Thousand Island Park, they were hampered by lack of water pressure. In those days, water was stored in a stone reservoir, which was built in 1885 up behind the Tabernacle to provide water for the Park. You can still see the foundations of the old reservoir on the Rock Ridges Trail. Shortly before the fire, the reservoir had been partially drained for repairs resulting in reduced pressure. To complicate issues, what little fire equipment the Park did have was trapped inside burning buildings.
AS DARKNESS FALLS
The Northern Tribune reported, “With the exception of the 120 guests at the Columbian Hotel who were taken to the Murray Hill and other hotels, 500 persons were homeless last night.” Neither the Murray Hill Hotel, nor the Frontenac Annex had been opened that yea,r so were made ready immediately to accommodate the refugees. Some residents who had lost their cottages found lodging at other resorts. Some were welcomed into the unburned cottages. Many people spent the night in hammocks and still others choose to sleep on the lawn, next to their pile of belongings.
The fire spurred acts of kindness. The Watertown Reunion reported:
Joseph Wittman [of Isle of Pines] and T. A. Gillespie [of Basswood Island], two of the wealthy residents of the islands, foresaw that many would go hungry unless something was done, so they sent their private yachts to Clayton to purchase all the baked goods available and anything else useful for the fire sufferers. These goods were placed in the pavilion on the dock and divided among those who needed them.
SMOLDERING FOR DAYS
Scenes of desolation now mark what was formerly one of the beautiful spots of the famed Thousand islands. From St. Lawrence Avenue, the beautiful way lending from the dock up to the entrance to the hotel, northeast toward Fine View, smoking ashes and bare bleak limbs of charred trees stand as mute evidence of one of the worst conflagrations which has swept the islands in years. (Syracuse Herald July 10, 1912)
Remember our hero, William Tousey and his mother, Grandma Tousey? They had yet another brush with fire the next day.
The home of William Tousey of Syracuse, which escaped with but light damage Tuesday, again caught fire about 9 o’clock. Although not completely destroyed, the whole Tousey family slept in the building Tuesday night not knowing that the fire was still slumbering in the gables of the very house in which they were quietly resting, ready to break out at any moment. A watchman had been placed on the grounds to prevent the outbreak of any other fires and several times during the night he extinguished fires, which broke out among the smoldering mass of charred ruins. At 9 o’clock the roof burst out in flames. A call for help was sent to the Alexandria Bay fire department at the Thousand Island Park dock. The men quickly responded and several streams were soon playing on the blaze. The flames had gone down between the rafters and were hard to reach. Much of the roof had to be torn off and the building was otherwise damaged by water. The furnishing are a complete loss. (The Ogdensburg Journal., July 11, 1912)
CLEANING UP, REBUILDING AND GETTING BACK ON TRACK
The fire happened at the height of the season, when the Park population was somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 people. Everything at the Park stopped while the basic needs of food and shelter were addressed. The Syracuse Herald reported: “During the last week the milk business has been conducted from the Park bandstand, the barber shop has been running in the printing office and the post office has occupied the front rooms of the John cottage opposite the former site of the office.”
Norwood News described the mood at the Park eloquently: Hardly had the last of the murky cloud of smoke been dissipated and the last glowing ember turned black when there began to be heard on all sides talk of a new and greater Park.
By July 11th, the T. I. Park Association (as it was called then) had decided to rebuild. The rebuilding of the hotel would be put on hold until next year with the hopes of having it ready to open for the 1914 season. The priorities were the chapel, school and stores. Each building was to be constructed of concrete blocks so the building would be “fire-proof.” Clean-up and debris removal began immediately. Junk dealers were on hand to collect the iron, sprinkled throughout the burned-out area.
On July 25, only 16 days after the fire, construction began on the first building. It was a store building, to accommodate the Armenian Oriental Bazaar. It was a temporary structure to be used only until a more permanent structure was constructed, but the rebuilding process had begun. By the end of August, other small temporary structures were completed as well as four cottages.
By the end of August, a new company had been formed to aid in the rebuilding of the Park.
The St. Lawrence River Concrete Co. has been formed at Thousand Island Park. The equipment consists of the largest stone-crushing machine in Northern New York, with a capacity of 300 tons per day. A large sale of sand, crushed stone, cement blocks and brick is expected. All the manufacturing will be done at Thousand Island Park. The demand for fire-proof buildings, since the recent fire that swept over Thousand Island Park has led to the formation of this company. (Sandy Creek News, August 15, 1912)
By Mid-September, the rebuilding effort was in full swing.
The sound of the hammer and saw has replaced that of the baseball rooters and sports enthusiasts at Thousand Island Park. Rebuilding work now forms the great source of activity throughout the resort. Altogether much work will be done before the weather compels builders to cease their activities. Throughout the burned area new buildings are being rapidly built and altogether nearly a dozen structures at least will be completed this season. Many of the park people whose cottages were burned are planning for buildings to be erected next spring and by the opening of the 1913 season. It is probable that much of the burned district will be rebuilt. (The Journal and Republican and Lowville Times, September 12, 1912)
Part of the rebuilding process included raising funds. At a September T. I. Park Association meeting, officials announced that $12,000 had been raised from the members of the association and the cottage owners on the park. On top of this, there were several benefactors who made large donations. One of the more interesting fundraisers was reported in The Malone Farmer November 4, 1912: For the purpose of contributing to the fund that is being raised to finance the rebuilding of the parsonage which was destroyed in the recent fire at Thousand Island Park, a unique game of baseball was arranged between a team composed of the champion women players of the community and the regular team. The men players were handicapped by being made to wear skirts over their uniforms
There were surprises in the clean-up. The Cape Vincent Eagle reported that workman cleaning up the ruins of the Columbian found a rough diamond in the rubble. Even more amazing, they were able to find the rightful owner, who had given up all hope of ever seeing it again.
Work slowed in the winter, then started up strong in the spring.
The work of rebuilding the burned area has recommenced this spring and at the present time a force of about 300 men is employed on the park grounds. Nearly all of the association buildings have been rebuilt and with one or two exceptions, have been leased for the coming year. The store has not been leased yet. The work upon the new waterworks system will be gotten under way at once, the standpipe will be erected and the mains laid. (Black River Democrat March 27, 1913)
The new post office—which stood at the end of the commercial building and next to the chapel—opened on August 3, 1913.
NEW WATER & FIRE SYSTEM
The T. I. Park Association was determined to provide a better water and fire system, which cost about $11,000.
A large standpipe is being erected near the water tank on the top of the hill back of the Tabernacle. From this pipe, pipes will run to all parts of the village and there is ample protection. A gang of about 60 men is now at work in the park. The store, the chapel, the school house and a barn are being rebuilt and a plumbing shop and store house, made of concrete blocks, is practically completed. In this will be stored the two chemical wagons and the hose and hand apparatus for fire protection. (The Journal and Republican and Lowville times October 24, 1912)
The store house made of concrete blocks in the above article is of course the commercial building that caught fire and burned August 9th, 2014.
In addition, the New York Legislature had enacted more safety standards and the existing boarding houses and hotels worked feverishly to modify their buildings before the start of the 1913 season.
The directors of the Thousand Island Park Fire Protection Association report that the fire protection system has been installed and is now ready for service. The system comprises a standpipe 75 feet high and holds 180,000 gallons capacity on the hill near the reservoir and about 8000 feet of mains with 24 two-way hydrants, covering all parts of the Park except the extreme eastern section below Wegman’s Point. There are 2500 feet of new hose and four hose carts with the necessary equipment. The pressure on the mains is from 80 to 90 pounds per square inch. (Courier and Freeman July 2, 1913)
With the new water system and equipment came a newly trained volunteer fire department.
Friday morning, [August 1] the department was called out for its first drill and inspection under the direction of the engineer. A variety of tests were made with lengths of hose varying from one hundred to six hundred feet, from different points of the system. The tests were very gratifying. The streams carried large quantities of water over the highest buildings. (Syracuse Herald August 3, 1913)
The department didn’t have to wait to long to put their equipment to the test. The September 11, 1913 Black River Democrat headline says it call: More than 40 boat houses Destroyed in Blaze Which Consumed 30 Launches and 60 Rowboats. The fire burned furiously four two hours, but eventually was brought under control. More importantly, the fire didn’t spread to other structures on the Park.
REBUILDING OF THE HOTEL
From the very beginning, the T. I. Park Association was adamantly intent on re-building the Columbian Hotel, with the plan of starting in 1913 and having the hotel ready to open for the 1914 season. From July, 1912 through 1914, there are scores of newspaper accounts describing the proposed rebuilding of the Columbian.
The architect is to draw up plans of a large fire proof hotel and they will be submitted to the interested parties. The indications are that any hotel built will be either of cement blocks or natural stone and the ground area will be greater than the former hotel, but the new structure will not have a great height. This would be the only large fire-proof hotel on the river and on account of this would have attraction for the summer tourists. The cost of the new hotel will be in the neighborhood of $300,000 and possibly more.(Black River Democrat., July 31, 1913)
Different firms were mentioned. It was announced that a stock company would be formed to finance the project. Then without fanfare, there were no reports. All mention of rebuilding the Columbia Hotel in the newspapers ceased. The idea floated away like so much flotsam on the river and no reason was ever given for why the Association abandoned the project.
FLASH FOREWORD 102 YEARS
The Tabernacle at the end of St. Lawrence Avenue may be the soul of Thousand Island Park, but the commercial building on the corner of St. Lawrence and Rainbow Avenue was the heart. During the season, that corner was a hub of activity as residents came to get their mail or kids bicycled to the Guzzle for candy or ice cream. Thomas Mitchell, Sr. was the contractor for most of that project back in 1912 and also became the first fire chief of the Wellesley Island Community.
There are eerie similarities between 1912 and 2014. Like the 1912 fire, the 2014 fire started in a store on the same block. Local efforts to extinguish the flames were hampered because the building housing the fire equipment was on fire. Luckily, because of the Thousand Island Bridge, the response was much quicker. I don’t think I ever saw a complete list of the responding fire departments I know there were many, including: Alexandria Bay, Clayton, Lafargeville, Depaulville, Theresa, 3 Mile Bay, Chaumont, Hammond, Redwood and Plessis. Thankfully, like the 1912 there were no serious injuries or loss of life. But, just like the 1912 fire, there were problems.
…the fire departments’ fire trucks were equipped with hoses too large to be connected to the hydrants. As a result, trucks were sent about 1,000 feet away from the site to the St. Lawrence River to draw water with hoses. (Watertown Daily Times, August 16, 2014)
Like the 1912 fire, fire departments had to be called back days later when the roof of the post office began to start smoking. Apparently, there were still embers in it.
Like the 1912 fire the resilience of the T. I. Park family has shone through. Talk of rebuilding began almost immediately. Fund –raising events are being organized as well as a “giving” campaign toward re-building the Commercial Block/Guzzle & Post Office.
“We’re looking to bring the building back exactly the way it was,” Mr. Burns said Saturday afternoon. “I’m hoping we could have the building up by next June. The post office will likely be here in some shape or form, but the fire department may not be interested in building its firehouse on leased land.” The structure of the building isn’t recoverable, he said, but some of its historic features will be salvaged for its reconstruction. They include old cabinetry from the post office, decorative windows, carved exterior bricks, and white steel pillars in the Guzzle. “The pillars were from the Columbian Hotel that burnt down during the summer of 1912,” Mr. Burns said. (Watertown Daily Times, August 17, 2014)
Thousand Island Park is no stranger to fire, but that doesn’t make the loss of the Commercial Building any less traumatic. But Thousand Island Park spirit is strong and it will recover from this loss as it recovered from a far greater loss 102 years ago.
By Lynn McElfresh, Grenell Island
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. You can see Lynn’s 70 + articles here – as she helps us move pianos, fix the plumbing and walk with nature… As Editor, I have the pleasure of seeing “what’s next,” first!