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Fires of 1891

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Headline from Caledonia "Advertiser" describes the fire of February 6, 1891. Courtesy of Tom Tryniski / Fulton History

Two weeks into January of 1891, a fire broke out at the barn of Stephen Reed’s farm on Daley Road. He was able to save his horses, but a bull and hog “had to be abandoned to their fate. The animals’ shrieks, above the roar of the fire, were terrible to hear.” Even after insurance, one of Caledonia’s “best known and most thorough and careful farmers” still was facing a loss of $2,000—in contemporary terms, some $50,000. Heavy boot tracks in the snow leading away from Reed’s farm proved inconclusive, but their stride measured out to 3½  feet and it was assumed that the arsonist had been running. It was the fourth such fire that had occurred in Caledonia within a year (CA 22 Jan 1891: 3; CA 29 Jan 1891: 3).

Events of the coming months would beleaguer this community of two thousand residents, a flash point occurring three weeks later with another suspected arson that destroyed most of Caledonia’s business district. Early in the morning of February 6, a fire began in Thomas Reed's saloon and strong winds quickly transformed Main Street into “a solid sheet of fire, the flames leaping high in air, sending up great clouds of smoke and burning embers.” Across the street rescued furnishings and merchandise of all kinds had been “piled up promiscuously, presenting a very remarkable spectacle.” By dawn it became clearer what had been lost: "The fire cleaned out two groceries, one with a stock of boots and shoes, one hardware and tin shop, a barber shop, pool room, two dressmaking establishments, one dentist, one law office, two drug stores, one saloon, two hotels, a shoeshop, three private dwelling places, two livery barns, one tailor shop, one boarding house, and one jewelry shop. What village of this size in western New York has suffered a like loss? It was all done in three hours’ time" (CA 12 Feb. 1891: 3). Surreal details emerged in the fire’s aftermath. It dawned on residents that “a fine row of maple trees” had perished, and that their “shapely trunks and ornamental foliage will be greatly missed in spring, summer, and fall.” A row of small shanties soon was built amidst the ruins to replace ice-houses, their ice still intact underground (D & C 25 Feb 1891: 3). And then on February 24, an incendiary fire was started in the boiler room of the Caledonia School, and another in April at the lumber yard of W. J. Williams (CA 26 Feb. 1891: 3; MMU 30 April 1891: 3).

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Postcard from ca. 1907 shows the portion of Main Street that had burned down in the 1891 fire. The Soldiers Monument, dedicated in 1900 by then-governor Theodore Roosevelt, stands in front of the new Hotel Keisler.

Renewed efforts to formally incorporate the village—and thus adequately fund a fire company that “exists only in name”—were successful, although a year later the Caledonia Advertiser was annoyed that a tax levy for the fire department had been voted down, and among the elected government “the east end of the village, which pays more than three-fourths of the tax, was not in it” (CA 17 Mar. 1892: 3). The newspaper’s sarcastic headline of “Victory for Cork” suggests anti-Irish sentiment in the village, and perhaps this prejudice was related to insinuations as to the cause of the fires at Stephen Reed’s barn and at the Caledonia saloon—purchased a month earlier by his son Thomas. “It is all very mysterious, to say the least,” wrote the newspaper (CA 12 Feb. 1891: 3). But the 1891 fires also reveal other fracture lines and even arson suspects: the Big Springs Temperance Society (which fought saloons of any kind); a pool of itinerant, underemployed men (one of whom had been a suspect in the Reed’s barn fire); frustrated area farmers who were “discouraged, but not hopelessly in debt, and with two unfavorable seasons in succession...barely able to meet the interest on their debt, to say nothing of the principal” (CA 5 Feb 1891: 2). 1891 wasn’t the good old days.

A sort of frenzy gripped Caledonia that summer. Merchants scrambled to find retail space, builders were in high demand, a charter for the village was hashed out—and all of this occurring while the new Lehigh Valley Railroad was undergoing construction. By year’s end the business district of Caledonia village had been reconstructed as the brick stuctures we see today. Against the background of these tumultuous events it is interesting to read a notice, on December 31, of orders being taken for a birds-eye view of Caledonia drawn two weeks earlier. The promised lithograph would have “have desirability not only as a work of art and ever increasing in interest and value as a historical keepsake, but as an ornament for your house or office” (CA 31 Dec. 1891: 3). Its tidy view of “every building in the village...accurately drawn and plainly represented in the picture” arrived at the perfect time for a community seeking to reconstitute itself.

Works Consulted

Accounts of the events described above come from the Caledonia Advertiser (CA), Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (D & C), and the Mount Morris Union (MMU). Dates are cited parenthetically. All are courtesy of Thomas Tryniski's digital archive of scanned newspapers at Old Fulton NY Postcards.

Fires of 1891