Press-Republican

March 10, 2013

Ferocious fires in Malone history

By SUSAN TOBIAS
Press-Republican

---- — Fire burning out of control in any situation most probably means heartache and pain for someone.

When fire destroys whole blocks of buildings, especially in small communities, it can be crippling.

Many North Country towns have experienced the pain of fire threatening their places of commerce, socialization and stability. Malone is no different.

While absent landlords and lack of building upkeep have certainly altered Malone’s downtown, the village has also seen more than its share of destructive fires.

The town now known as Malone was carved out of the Town of Chateaugay on March 2, 1805. Its first name was Harison, then Ezraville, and finally, in 1812, Malone.

In the mid to late 1800s and again in the 1900s, fire destroyed a number of hotels and businesses in the community.

Frederick Seaver, author of “Historical Sketches of Franklin County” (1918), includes five pages of notable fires that destroyed homes, churches and businesses in Malone.

Franklin Academy, the community’s first state-chartered school, partly burned in 1835, grieving a village that held great pride for this place of education.

A brick building replaced the first school, but on Christmas Eve 1880, the academy was destroyed by fire again, mostly due to lack of water.

WEATHER PROBLEMS

Many beautiful Victorian homes have disappeared from Malone’s landscape, falling victim to fire.

According to Seaver, on March 27 1847, William King’s home, at the corner of Main and Pearl streets, ended up being a total loss due to “the greatest snowstorm ever known in Malone … snow lay four feet deep … so that the engine could not be brought to the grounds, no water hauled from the river.”

The Elmwood Hotel then replaced King’s home, eventually being sold and renamed the Olympic Hotel. A fire started there Feb. 11, 1899, when most of the help was serving a banquet at the armory, just up the street.

The frigid weather, 15 below zero, made fighting the fire a challenge. Henry A. Gray, who had opened the inn only six months before, had made many improvements, but all was lost.

A three-story brick building that faces Main Street and extends down Pearl Street replaced the Olympic Hotel and has housed Hyde’s Drug Store, Kinney’s Rexall Drugs and now Geez Louise, a consignment shop.

DOWNTOWN DEATH

Seaver tells of the old Hosford Hotel, which stood adjacent to the Rutland Railroad and about 20 feet north of the brick Franklin House, which included Wantastiquet Hall, a famous dance room.

The hotel caught fire on Jan. 20, 1866, and both structures were destroyed.

At the same location, the Ferguson House rose up. The building was so large that it wrapped around the corner and onto Main Street. Fire destroyed the hotel and shops in January 1888, devastating that corner of town.

The building was doomed due to extremely cold weather that froze the fire hydrants and the nearby Salmon River, making it impossible to douse the flames, according to Seaver.

Damages were estimated at $150,000, a large sum for 1888.

Isaac Chesley, one of the storekeepers, was killed in the fire when an explosion blew the front wall outward, trapping him underneath.

BLOCKS BURN

The Flanagan brothers built a hotel and business section on the Ferguson lot, also known as the Howard Block, that wrapped the corner and spread along Main Street.

In future years, it became known as the WICY block, so named for Malone’s radio station, housed in the rotunda on the corner, and topped with an eagle.

That block burned in December 1970.

The very next month, January 1971, an adjoining section of brick business buildings just around the corner burned, destroying King-Clark Insurance Agency, Three Baers Bootery, the Sherwin-Williams paint store, the law office of Donald Holland and the office of Dr. David Gorman.

Most of these businesses had relocated there when the WICY block burned a month before. In each of these cases, one-story buildings today replace the grandeur of Main Street’s brick Victorian beauties.

Another block of businesses was destroyed on Jan. 9, 1966, at the intersection of Main and Harison Place. Lost on that date were the Bridge Street Book Store, Prevost’s Barber Shop and Martin’s Pool Room, plus apartments.

FRUSTRATION

It was a dire Valentine’s Day in 1979, when the community woke up to the devastation of an entire block being wiped out on East Main Street.

Ten businesses and many apartments were ravaged the day before, leaving people without homes and incomes. They included the Brass Rail Restaurant, Mr. T’s, Mill Art Gallery, North Country Arts and Crafts Store, Paul Marlow’s Barber and Beauty Shops, Petrolane’s business office, Thomas McMahon’s accounting office and the law offices of Carey, LaRocque, Piasecki and Clark.

In between these catastrophic blazes, numerous smaller fires destroyed or ravaged homes and businesses, but the very fabric of downtown is altered permanently when an entire city block disappears.

Malone’s fire disaster’s made page 9 of the Daily News of New York City on Jan. 20, 1971, when Mayor Ken Tulloch was quoted as saying: “Albany thinks this is where elephants come to die,” obviously expressing frustration over “sympathy and no action” from the state capital in view of 14 major fires in five years.

The article states that these losses represented 50 percent of Franklin County’s retail-sales outlets.

Tulloch summed up his opinion of the state’s help with, “It was 35 degrees below zero in Malone today but somewhat warmer than the aid from Albany.”

CHURCHES LOST

Malone’s churches have not escaped the clutch of devastation brought about by fires.

On Sept. 4, 1870, shortly after morning service, fire destroyed St. Joseph’s Church on the corner of Main and Rockland streets.

The congregation eventually built a large brick church that stood for 86 years — until July 2, 1968. On that day, a fire started at the Malone Novelty Co. on nearby Finney Boulevard that could only be described as unbelievable.

The hyper-explosions set off by a warehouse full of fireworks sent sparks far and wide, igniting the roof of St. Joseph’s Church. Accounts of the fire state it took only an hour and a half before the fire reached the sanctuary of the church.

The third building, a modern-style church, stands today on the same lot.

MOVING ON

As dire as fire and destruction can be, this community has risen up out of the ashes and taken another stab at life. In each of these fire locations, new buildings have risen, and businesses and people have stepped up to the plate.

While Malone’s downtown isn’t bustling like it was in the old days, it is showing signs of new life with doctor’s offices, banks, thrift shops and other businesses.

One can only hope that today’s improvements in materials, fire protection and communication will not allow the events of the past to happen on Main Street, Malone in the future.

Email Susan Tobias: stobias@pressrepublican.com