When the Alvord Hotel — and several guests — went up in smoke

PHOTOGRAPHER:
Elegant though it was, the Alvord House was also an accident waiting to happen. Its demise caused many cities to focus on hotel safety and establish new commercial building codes. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Lorey/Fulton County museum)

Some newspaper state they burned up, others say they burned down, but either way, most of those grand old 19th century hotels did burn. Locally, none burned either up or down more spectacularly than the pride of Gloversville’s hostelry, the four-story brick Alvord House, located at South Main and Cayaudutta Streets, on the early morning of February 1st, 1898, exactly one hundred twenty-two years and two days ago, taking with it the lives of six unfortunate victims, including one entire family.

In 1866, experienced hotel operator Calvin Alvord moved to Gloversville with his wife. Convinced the city would continue growing, he put his money where his confidence was, purchasing a large lot and erecting the most elegant hotel in town, immodestly calling it the Alvord House. The Alvords retired Feb. 1, 1890, thus had nothing to do with the fire exactly eight years later. With excellent dining facilities, a billiard parlor, smoking lounge, ladies lounge, bar, ball room, news stand and livery wagon to transport guests and their belongings to and from the FJ&G terminal, the Alvord, though under new management, continued being regarded as Gloversville’s finest hotel.

But by 1898, behind the brick facade, the Alvord’s internal structure was also an aging, thirty-two-year-old bundle of dried timbers, for which reason its demise was incredibly rapid.

As Dr. Palmer, Fulton County’s first Historian, observed in a July 23, 1972 Leader Herald article, “Before seven that morning, the Alvord was a magnificent four-story structure. Only one hour later, it was a mass of smoldering ruins.”

Witnesses all agreed the fire started at 7 a.m. with some sort of unexplainable explosion occurring in the coat room where traveling salesmen also stored their sample cases. The Alvord was fully occupied, and while some guests were already awake, many still slept. The cry of fire, of course, brought them instantly awake. Many tried exciting via the main stairway, but that was impossible because, just as at the Keystone Hotel fire, related several months ago, the wide central stairway became a natural wind tunnel, sucking flames and heat directly into the upper floors.

One saving grace was the Victorian design of the building which included a fairly wide, flat cornice running around the building just beneath the windows of the fourth floor, offering a wide enough ledge to be walked on without falling, if one was careful. The Leader Republican reported, “One group of four, including a woman, walked along the cornice to the Cayaudutta Street side, where they waited ten or fifteen minutes until rescued by the fire department ladder crew.”

They were lucky. As Doctor Palmer related it, “At 7:22, only twenty minutes after the fire began, the front wall fell in with a crash.”

The Alvord had no outside metal fire escapes: it was common in those old times for upper floor hotel rooms to have a metal ring screwed into a wall beam next to a window with a long coil of rope attached. If fire erupted, guests were expected to throw the rope out the window and climbed down with it, if one had the strength. What women, children, or the elderly were expected to do wasn’t addressed.

It was also one of those punishing, extremely cold weather blazes fire fighters hate the most, although no one had anything but praise for their efforts, and also praise for Kit, the department’s popular fire horse. To quote Ray Mower’s July 18, 1939 Morning Herald column, ‘Vignettes of Old Gloversville’ “Kit was in her prime the morning of February 1, 1898 when she rolled to her feet in her box stall at City Hall in response to the iron summons of the bell atop the hall’s tower.” With the willing Kit quickly harnessed, “The double doors swung open and the ladder truck swung southward. Two feet of snow had fallen overnight. As Kit and her driver neared the Cayaudutta corner, the Alvord house was already a mass of flames and scantily-clad guests stood shivering outside in the snow.”

Gloversville’s brave firemen did everything possible to keep the fire from spreading, but the Alvord’s complete destruction was a foregone conclusion. They remained all day in freezing temperatures, dousing hot spots and combing debris for bodies until exhausted, assisted by police and deputized volunteers.

Some guests had lucky escapes, like Dr. John Davis of Westfield, Chautauqua County, who jumped from a third-floor widow, hoping for a comfortable landing in the snow. Instead he came into contact with telephone wires, turned a complete summersault and landed in the snow on his feet, only slightly bruised. Others were less fortunate. One of the dead, Henry Day, a prominent Gloversville businessman who roomed at the Alvord, had often told friends he knew how to escape if the hotel ever caught fire. “He’d run along the hallway into a large room on the left side and leap out the window to the annex roof. But before he could, he was overcome by smoke.”

Dead beside Day were bell boy Charles Rupert, Gloversville contractor and hotel resident Benjamin Strickland, and one entire family, E.C. Campbell, his wife and young daughter. Others were injured, such as L.G. Lambert, a glove buyer, who broke his right arm, and Gloversville fireman Elwood DeLong, who was “seriously frozen”. Although rebuilding plans were publicized, nothing resulted. The fire’s exact cause remained unknown.

By Kerry Minor

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