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THE BURNING OF ST. JAMES HALL, BUFFALO

Saturday, February 1, 1862

The Spirit of the Times -Batavia, Genesee Co., NY

One of the most destructive fires that has occurred in Buffalo for some years, took place on Monday night last, entirely consuming St. James Hall, owned by the brothers George and Albert BRISBANE of this village. We extract the following stirring description of the conflagration from the Buffalo Commercial of Tuesday evening:--

About two o'clock, as three members of Hose Company No. 2 were returning with their cart from the fire on Genesee street, they were met by a watchman near the bell tower, between St. James Hall and hotel. Hurrying to the spot with Mr. Albert BRISBANE, who had just come out of the Hotel, they discovered fires in three places in the back end of the alley. 1st, in the water closet at the corner of the basement; 2d, in the opposite corner of the alley, and 3d, in a pile of hay or shavings farther up the alley. Had they had a few buckets of water, they could then have extinguished the flames, but having no means of instantly procuring it, and no engine being immediately at hand, they were forced to let it burn, and assist in giving the alarm.

In January of 1864, Buffalo Diarist George Washington Jonson met the activist Frederick Douglass after Douglass gave a speech there in 1864. Click here to see what Jonson said about the encounter.

Very soon the big bell commenced to thunder from the tower, and within a few minutes the steamers and hose carts were rushing to the scene. The fire had by this time attained great headway, having ascended from the water-closet through a tube of waste pipe, up into the dressing room of the Hall. Here, getting more draft, it raged furiously. The flames clutched the curtains in their fiery grasp, making ashes of their folds as they swept upward; leaped to the drapery of the boxes and above the stage, and illuminated the Hall with a grander light than the red fire tableaux ever made within it before; and then they slimily twined around the pillars and galleries, and gnawed through the ceiling and sported from the corners, and rolled in thick, licking, hungry volumes from the windows, laughing horribly at the pigmy streams from the engines, which had by this time begun to play. No use; Fire had the game and water had to give up at last, dead beat. The best it could do--and this was noble work--was to fight back the lurid darts and cinders that kept plunging through the windows into the alley and threatening the hotel. The iron shutters of the latter were all closed at the beginning of the conflagration, but the heat was so intense as to warp them open and wrench their strong hinges almost out of their sockets. Half-past three: The water thrown from pipes held by strong and willing arms in the alley and on the roof of the little office that unites the Hall and Hotel on Eagle street, still continued to do glorious service. The building on Washington street, back of the burning pile, was saved by its agency, and the Hotel was likewise almost intact. But at last the iron shutters had become so terribly hot that they began to communicate fire to the woodwork inside and the little infant flames could be seen writhing through on the outside. This would not do; a steamer was despatched to Main street, and hose taken through the hotel to battle with the fire within. By this means the entire building was preserved--but at what sacrifice? As soon as the fire raging in the hall became generally known to the inmates of the Hotel, a scene of wild confusion ensued. Everybody leaped out of bed, dressed in haste, and prepared to evacuate the premises. Friends pressed into the rooms and assisted in packing up goods and carrying them away. Policemen, boys, stragglers and strangers made themselves free with everything, and the manner in which carpets were ripped up, furniture dragged out, and down the stairways, mirrors broken, chairs smashed, costly pianos and bookcases scratched, wrenched and generally marred, damask and lace curtains torn down, soiled and lost, and little delicate bits of bijouterie destroyed, was pitiful to see. Even sheets and garments of all sorts were taken, and their owners to-day are utterly ignorant of their whereabouts. Ladies' dresses suffered extensively, and we heard one poor girl tell a companion, with tears in her eyes, that "she hadn't a chemise to her back, not one!"

 

This text is Copyright 2001 all rights reserved by Stephen Powell and buffalonian.com. This electronic text may not be dupicated or used in any manner without written consent of Stephen R. Powell or buffalonian.com™

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St. James Hall
This image was taken from the burning of St. James Hall years later in 1887 after it had been rebuilt from the 1862 fire. -Image: Buffalo Express and Cornell.edu

Mingled with all this confusion were the shouts of firemen, the plash of water, and the dull distant roar of the steam engines. The water soon flooded the house, and dripping from floor to floor--drenched the flying women until they were chilled and limp. The sights and sounds were utterly desolate, but the consciousness that no lives were endangered or lost was an all-pervading balm.

The loss by this most unfortunate event is at present of course inestimable. Mr. FLINT, the lessee of the hall, presumes that it could not be rebuilt, even though two of the walls (all are yet standing) should prove perfectly sound, for less than $30,000. The cost of simply altering it from the old Eagle Street Theatre was $15,000. As regards the insurance, Mr. Albert BRISBANE, one of the owners, believes that all the policies expired ten days ago, and that consequently the hall is a total loss. He cannot ascertain the certainty of this until communicating with Mr. George BRISBANE, the remaining owner, who is absent from the city. The damage in the hotel, which is ensured for $20,600, is roughly estimated at between $5,000 and $7,000, the larger portion of which is upon personal property belonging to the boarders. Mr. FLINT's personal loss is over $500, and that of Mrs. Matt. PEEL's Minstrell Troupe $1,200. The latter lost their entire wardrobe and all their musical instruments, including a violin valued at $75.

We could not ascertain the amount of damage done to the stores beneath the hotel--occupied by Mr. LYON, jeweller, and Messrs. ANDREWS & GARDNER, agents--as it is not yet even remotely calculated. We do not believe that it was very great, as plenty of time was allowed the propritors to remove their goods. What destruction there was, produced by water. The total loss may be guessed as in the neighborhood of $48,000. The diabolical incendiary who was its author, we pray Heaven may get his desserts. We would cheerfully applaud the resurrection of the Spanish Inquisition, if one of its worst edicts could be issued for his punishment.

(article transcription submitted by L.C. Schmidt)


Note: Saint James Hall was subsequently rebuilt, and the body of President Lincoln
lay in state there Apr 26 1865, en route from Washington to his burial in
Springfield IL. The Hall would be destroyed again by fire Mar 18 1887; that
fire in the building, the neighboring new Hotel Richmond and Bunnell's
Museum at Main and Eagle Streets would kill more than 22 people.
---
Mark Wozniak, WBFO Buffalo
205 Allen Hall, Univ at Buffalo
mwozniak@wbfo.org

 

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