A Timeline of 199 Years of Conflagrations in Sag Harbor

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March 26, 1803 – The Sag Harbor Fire Department is chartered by an act of the New York State Legislature. It becomes central to the life and very survival of the village for the next 213 years, saving lives, protecting property and containing conflagrations just as speedily as humanly possible. It remains one of the state’s oldest volunteer fire brigades.

May 26, 1817 – A small barn filled with hay erupts in flames, and the fire, fanned by gale-force winds, quickly spreads, according to a definitive account by longtime village historian Dorothy Ingersoll Zaykowski, the best-known chronicler of local fires. It ignites a dozen waterfront warehouses, filled with flammable whale oil, and consumes the tinder-dry wooden structures at the north end of Main Street, leveling “20 of the best houses and most valuable stores,” she writes.

March 12, 1819 – State legislation is again enacted in Albany, as a direct result of what comes to be known as the Great Fire of 1817, establishing the Otter Hose Company within the Sag Harbor Fire Department. It is the first of what will later become five formally chartered village fire companies.

November 13, 1845 – A wind-whipped blaze erupts in a storage room for furniture in Oakley’s Hotel at the foot of Main Street, quickly spreading “from shop to shop, home to home, and barn to barn,” Ms. Zaykowski writes in “Sag Harbor: The Story of an American Beauty.” It devastates an area from the end of Long Wharf to both sides of Main Street, halfway up the business district, incinerating shops from Division Street to West Water Street, and leaving “45 families homeless, 57 businesses wiped out and nearly 100 buildings reduced to ashes,” she writes. There were “88 sufferers” — among them Halseys, Hildreths, Havens, Gardiners, Mulfords and L’Hommedieus — but no lives are lost, The Sag Harbor Corrector reports.

1846 – The Sag Harbor Fire Department is completely reorganized as a result of what is now being called the Great Fire of 1845, new firefighting equipment is purchased, the Gazelle Hose Company is established, and a rebuilding campaign is launched.

1847 – After two years of hardship and despair, “courage and determination prevail,” and Sag Harbor, “phoenix-like, rises again from the ashes,” Ms. Zaykowski writes.

1854 – More bad luck plaques the Oakley family, who had owned Oakley’s Hotel. Their other property, the Nassau Hotel, located near the present-day site of the Corner Bar, catches fire, and its attic and roof are destroyed. The hotel survives…until another fire 23 years later.

February 10, 1864 – The Sag Harbor Academy and Institute, an early school on Suffolk Street, is completely destroyed by fire.

August, 1869 – The Sag Harbor Gas Works on West Water Street is leveled by fire.

1873 – Six buildings on the west side of Main Street are burned out, including the Post Office, a paint shop and a shoe-and-boot store.

February 24, 1877 – The third of the so-called Great Fires of the 19th century breaks out in a storehouse on the north end of Long Wharf, and propelled by northwesterly winds, it ravages the pier and swaths of Main, Bay, Division and Cross streets. The casualties include the Nassau Hotel, Maidstone Mills and Chemical Works, blacksmith shops, boat shops, tenements, warehouses, stables, barns and a music hall. “Many of those who suffered losses in 1877 were the same property owners who had lost everything in 1845,” Ms. Zaykowski writes. And while some choose not to rebuild, most clear away the rubble and start from scratch.

October 25, 1879 – The Montauk Steam Cotton Mill, which was then the village’s largest industry, and unfortunately, something of a tinderbox, burns to the ground.

Summer of 1881 – Two separate fires break out: The first in July destroys a saloon, dry goods store, cigar store, dressmaker’s shop, millinery shop and confectionery store on Main Street, and the second in August incinerates the East End Pottery Works.

May 1905 – At least a dozen homes, apartments and businesses at the corner of Main and Washington streets are destroyed.

January 1908 – Another Main Street blaze takes down the Charles Fordham Blacksmith Shop, one of the last of its kind in the village, along with a then-popular gathering spot, Max Grossman’s Pool Room.

November 9, 1911 – The Round Pond Ice House, from which ice is harvested in blocks and shipped by rail spur all over Long Island, collapses after a flash fire races through the structure.

April 1913 – The Kiernan Powerhouse in the Electric Light and Power Company’s complex burns down in a fire deemed to be suspicious in origin. In dozens of past fires, miraculously, the village has been spared the loss of life. Now, that run of good luck comes to a tragic end, and the charred body of Thomas Collins, a powerhouse employee, is discovered in the wreckage.

1915 – The Bikeshop Fire on the east side of Main Street destroys a popular shop for early cyclists, dozens of bicycles and a handful of other stores.

April 30, 1924 – The century-old Atheneum at Union and Church streets, and its fiery destruction, is still the stuff of village legend. A Masonic hall that doubles as a dance hall, vaudeville theater and playhouse, it hosts a benefit one night with entertainment provided by Anita Miles Shelton Anderson. In a reminiscence published in “Voices of Sag Harbor: A Village Remembered,” she tells of performing an “Oriental dance” in a dress, gold-cloth bra and gold-cloth briefs that, because of the lighting, create a see-through effect: “The footlights practically took my skirt right off me,” she writes. “That night, the Atheneum burned down, and I never lived it down. They all said that I set the Atheneum on fire.”

January 1, 1925 – The Ballen Store Annex on Washington Street is engulfed in flames at 3 a.m. on New Year’s Day, and its live stock of ammunition, shells and cartridges explode, creating a scene straight out of a war zone. Plate-glass windows shatter, and the out-of-control fire spreads south to the sprawling, three-story, red-brick Alvin Silver Company factory building. The interior of the plant, where flatware and silverware is manufactured, is gutted, though the façade remains standing for 20-plus years. It is the present-day site of Conca D’oro.

August, 1965 – Heavy smoke pours from the steeple of St. Andrews Roman Catholic Church, which sustains extensive interior damage, but the fire is contained and doesn’t spread.

April 3, 1994 – A raging, six-hour Easter Sunday blaze devours the Emporium Hardware store at 72 Main Street, leaves 14 residents homeless, destroys a handful of businesses, and displaces Marty Trunzo, the barber who has cut hair from his ground-floor shop for half-a-century. Also impacted: Best-selling author Tom Harris, who wrote much of “Silence of the Lambs” from a writing studio upstairs. Emporium owners Frank and Dennis D’Angelo almost immediately vow they will rebuild, and one year later, they reopen their doors. Marty the Barber decamps to the American Legion, where he cuts hair for a year until his building is repaired and he, too, returns to Main Street.

December 16, 2016 – Leaping, wind-whipped flames and heavy billowing smoke again rise above Main Street as some 150 firefighters and volunteers from roughly 20 East End departments battle a fast-racing blaze that guts the front portion of the Sag Harbor Cinema and causes extensive damage to at least four adjoining buildings. Later that night, the cinema’s façade, one of the most iconic on Main Street, is demolished, but the theater’s famed sign is saved, and its auditorium appears structurally sound.

December 19, 2016 – The Meridian Building, adjacent to the cinema on Main Street, is also torn down. The cause of the fire remains under investigation, according to Sag Harbor Police Chief Austin McGuire.

Sources: “Sag Harbor: The Story of an American Beauty,” by Dorothy Ingersoll Zaykowski (1991, Sag Harbor Historical Society), The Sag Harbor Express and Sag Harbor Corrector archives, “Voices of Sag Harbor: A Village Remembered,” (2007, edited by Nina Tobier), and Sag Harbor Partnership research.

Comments

2 COMMENTS

  1. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could somehow make the Great Fire of 2016 the last of Sag Harbor’s many conflagrations? Clearly some lessons have not been learned. What would it take? Legal scholars? Fire safety engineers? Thoughts?

  2. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could somehow make the Great Fire of 2016 the last of Sag Harbor’s many conflagrations? Clearly some lessons have not been learned. What would it take? Legal scholars? Fire safety engineers? Thoughts?

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