Thursday, April 05, 2007

The night Broadway burned down

SARATOGA SPRINGS -It was 5 o'clock on a chilly Sunday morning and Sgt.
John Cummings was patrolling Broadway during the second half of his
overnight shift.

All was quiet along the city's main business district that January day
in 1957 when Sgt. Cummings was suddenly alerted by the smell of smoke
coming from the stretch of architecture that runs across the east side
of the avenue. He called for the fire department then went banging on
apartment doors on the upper floors of the Broadway buildings to alert
residents.

By the time the dawn broke over the city skyline a short while later,
the heart of the business district was engulfed in a blaze that
destroyed seven buildings, left 25 people homeless and resulted in six
firemen being injured and a police officer dead.

"That fire of '57 consumed a huge part of Broadway" recalled Saratoga
Springs City Historian Mary Anne Fitzgerald, who was in her early teens
at the time.

"That was one of the worst ones. Broadway was burning and there were so
many flames you couldn't even tell where the fire began," she remembered
of the Jan. 27 fire, a half-century ago. Fitzgerald, like many city
residents, congregated across the street that Sunday to watch the
inferno. "Those buildings were several stories high. When they came down
it was a very scary situation."

The property damage was estimated at $2 million, the worst in the city
at the time. It crippled businesses and affected many employed in the
area destroyed by fire, which stretched for nearly 100 yards along the
east side of Broadway, opposite Division Street.

The fire broke out at the Palace Recreation building, which stood at 398
Broadway and housed a bowling alley on the main floor. Several law
offices occupied the second and third stories.

As the wind picked up that morning, the flames were blown north up
Broadway, smashing store windows, blistering paint and taking out a
series of buildings that shared common walls.

The architectural casualties included the Saratoga Men's Shop, the
Endicott-Johnson shoe store and the Liggett Drug Co.

The fire then jumped across Gardiner Lane and ignited E.D. Starbucks &
Co. department store, F.W. Woolworth Co. and the Saratoga Appliance
store. The only thing that remains of the north-sweeping destruction
today is the narrow passage of Gardiner Lane, next to Lillian's
Restaurant. It was the in the area south of the fire's origin however,
where the human toll was heaviest.

The MacFinn Drug Co. sat on the ground floor of 396 Broadway, with a
beauty salon and residential apartments upstairs.

When the fire department responded to the initial call, they began
laying lines of hose across Broadway while Chief Robert Carroll,
assistant chief Edward Hodges and patrolman Frederick Pettit stood in
front of the MacFinn Drug store. Without warning, an explosion sent a
shower of bricks down upon the men. Carroll and Hodges were injured.
Pettit, a 14-year veteran of the Saratoga Springs Police Department, was
killed.

More than a dozen fire companies responded to the call. They came from
as far as Schenectady, from Corinth and Schuylerville, from Scotia and
Glens Falls. They saved the buildings on the Broadway corner bordering
Caroline Street. A firewall at J.J. Newberry - a wall that today lines
the left side of the Circus Cafe - prevented the inferno from raging
further south.

In the days that followed, onlookers congregated to watch the
demolition, shuffling along ashes that covered every foot of Broadway up
to City Hall.

"It was a very popular part of Broadway," Fitzgerald said. "The fire
took out Starbucks, which was where everyone went to shop. I remember
one of the last things I bought there was a dress for a school dance.
This was in those days before charge cards where you could go after
school, pick out a dress and put it on your parent's account,"
Fitzgerald said.

"The fire of '57 also took out Woolworth's, the drug store, the bowling
alley. The trucks were there for several days after the initial fire and
it smoldered for most of the week," she said. Both Starbucks and
Woolworth's department stores occupied their respective sites for more
than 50 years. Other structures leveled dated back to the 1860s.

"People would go down morning, noon and night," Fitzgerald recalled. "It
became part of your regular day to go down, visit the sight and see how
it was coming along."


by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian, 2007.

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