Fire on River Street, 1903: “Fascinating, magnificent and wicked”
It was Election Day, November 3, 1903. As winners were announced, their supporters celebrated in the streets of Troy. About 10 o’clock at night, some boys celebrated a bit too exuberantly, setting fire to a case of crockery on the dock of the Citizens’ Line Steamship Company on the Hudson River near the end of Broadway. The fire was noticed too late, and it spread rapidly to a nearby steamship company warehouse, then a mattress factory, which provided great fuel, and on to the big commercial buildings on River Street.
This dramatic photo is a new addition to the collection. It appears to have been taken from the corner of Broadway and Second Street the morning after the fire. In the foreground is the Rensselaer County Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which was less than ten years old. In the background is the skeleton of the still smoldering McCarthy Building, which was the home of Rollin C. Reynolds’ furniture store. Next door, his store occupied half of the first floor and all of the second of the Burdett Building, which was also destroyed. The Troy City Directory for 1903 lists Reynolds at 251-259 River Street, all destroyed.
The scene of the fire today……taken from the corner of Broadway and Second Street
The Troy “Daily Times” newspaper described the fire for a couple of columns in the November 4 edition: the crowd of thousands were “held spellbound” watching the fire, which began while “shouts of revelry from the election were still resounding.” Spectators watched from the large windows of the Mansion House Hotel (now the site of the Hendrick Hudson Hotel building) across the street until it too caught fire. Fortunately that fire was quickly doused. People watched from boats in the Hudson River. Building owners kept watch all night as burning embers floated all over downtown. Except for the flames, all downtown was dark since the electricity had to be cut for the firemen to effectively fight the fire. Miles of hose covered the streets. There was concern that the new war monument would be damaged by the heat, but it emerged unscathed. The paper made note that even some women were watching the blaze, and that a few fainted from excitement, quite a commentary on expected female behavior at the time. The cornice at the top of the five-story McCarthy building fell about midnight.
The article went on to say that Reynolds had $90,000 insurance, but had probably lost $120,000 worth of goods. Amazingly Reynolds had purchased new stock and re-opened in a temporary location within a few days. Peter McCarthy, a wealthy Trojan, had his building insured for $40,000 but reckoned it was worth $50,000. He went right to work and the new McCarthy building, the one on the site today, opened in September 1904 to great fanfare.
Rollin C. Reynolds had been in the furniture business in Troy for sixteen years at the time of the fire, succeeding his father Nathaniel. At age 88, Nathaniel reveled in his son’s new store and his success, visiting every day. Rollin continued in business until his death, at age 91, in 1954. The photo is from his passport in 1921. He was headed to Cuba on vacation.