Saturday, January 5, 2008

Ashes in an Hour: Springfield's City Hall Fire of January 6, 1905

City Hall, Springfield, Mass. Digital ID: G90F284_011F. New York Public Library

City Hall, Springfield, Mass. (created 1865?-1885?)
NYPL Digital Gallery, Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views

It's said that truth can be stranger than fiction. It's not difficult to subscribe to that view in the case of the fire that occurred on Friday, January 6, 1905, that quickly and decisively decimated Springfield's City Hall. Allegedly the result of a wayward monkey up to unnoticed mischief during the slack-time noon hour of an exhibition being held in the building, the inferno is said to have begun when the suspect simian overturned an unattended kerosene lamp. The rapidly spreading flames easily claimed the life of the structure and, very nearly, some of the folks who made their living inside. The building, located on Court Street just east of the current Municipal Group, had reached the half-century mark just four days before, originally dedicated on January 1, 1855.

The New York Times was quick to press with the story, publishing on the same day this brief account of the blaze, under the headline "$50,000 Fire in Springfield," with the sub-heading, "City Hall Completely Destroyed - Narrow Escapes From Death."

"Springfield, Mass, Jan. 6 - Springfield City Hall, valued at more than $50,000 was completely destroyed by fire in less than an hour to-day. The fire was discovered in the Assembly hall at 12:45 by employees of a food fair being held in the hall. There were probably fifty people in the building, and the flames spread so rapidly that there were many narrow escapes, but it is believed all got out.

It is believed that the fire was caused by the overturning of a kerosene lamp on the stage in the Assembly hall, where the fair was being held."

The photograph of the old City Hall below is scanned from the book 'Springfield Present and Prospective,' published in 1905. Authors, Judge Alfred Copeland and Edwin Dwight, had this to say about the City Hall, just recently burned at the time of the book's publication:

"The late city hall was built in 1854 and dedicated January 1, 1855, and it answered the purpose for which it was designed fairly well. It housed the several departments of the city government, including at one time the police court room, and it housed the police department with lock-up accommodations. The school committee also had rooms in the building. Its ample audience room proved defective in acoustic qualities; but after several years of experimenting it was greatly improved in that respect. Its destruction by fire revealed the fact that it was a fire trap."

A more intriguing account of the fire is contained in the book "The History of Springfield in Massachusetts for the Young," by Charles H. Barrows, published in 1911 by the Connecticut Valley Historical Society. Here is Barrow's account:

"Soon after the incorporation of the city there was built a City Hall, a large and towered building, holding all the city offices and also having a big audience room for public meetings. There was a bell in the tower that took up the work of the church bell, in announcing to the people, in the ancient fashion, that the hour of nine o'clock at night had come. It was also the bell of the clock, striking the hours. The nine o'clock bell was at last discontinued and in later years replaced by the so-called curfew or bell at half-past nine. For half a century City Hall was the favorite for large political meetings, fairs and concerts, but in 1905 it was destroyed by fire and the great bell fell to the ground.

An exhibition was being held in the large hall. At the noon hour this hall was nearly deserted. A kerosene lamp was burning and a monkey got loose. Whether the monkey overturned the lamp and caused the fire is not certainly known. The fire was the occasion of a fine example of devotion to duty by two assistants in the office of the city clerk. Their names were Edith M. Ware and Bertha B. Fuller. They had both been pupils in Springfield schools. For the protection of the priceless records of the city, there was a great fire-proof vault. It was necessary to take out the records during the day for use, but at its close they were replaced in the vault. At the beginning of the fire the city clerk was absent. When the knowledge of the fire reached his office it had made much headway and danger was near. The first impulse, of course, would be to flee, and, indeed, everyone was fleeing from the building; but there were the heavy books of priceless records lying about. The two clerks gathered them all up, placed them all in the vault, and then shut and locked the ponderous door. This took time and courage. Meanwhile the fire was upon them and they were but just able to escape; in fact, Miss Fuller, arriving at the door of the building, was so overcome by smoke that she had to be rescued by others.

Thus the lesson of duty, having been early learned, received its magnificent illustration in the face of danger and death, and becomes part of the history of the city. We recall the motto of John Pynchon, when, self-interest tempting him to remove from Springfield and leave the town to its fate, he wrote that he should 'Stick to It.'"

As always, thanks for stopping by and take care.

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James said...

Wonderful review of the history of Town Hall. When I give tours to school children, I have them stand on the corner in front of City Hall and have them read the inscription on the above mentioned bell that fell in the fire and then tell the story of the fire. This brings history to life, they can touch something that relates to history. The broken bell is now used for a planter but the casting still shows the date of manufacture. I was interested to see in the article that the town records were protected in the vault. How extensive were the records saved. It was my impression that all the building records, permits, assessors etc were destroyed at that time. As a result very often in the current assessors office, the cards on older properties say built in 1906 or 1910, even though they are much older. I had attributed this to the lose of the records in 1905. Any further information on this would be of interest. Thanks

Mark T. Alamed said...


I'm not sure how many records the clerks were able to save. Saturday was actually the first time I read Charles H. Barrows account of the women's heroism. It would be interesting to piece a more detailed story of the City Hall fire together. I imagine the City Library would have the old newspaper accounts of the blaze on microfilm.

Your tour sounds interesting. Is that something that the general public can participate in at all or is it limited to school kids?



Jim said...

These tours were done with 3rd graders from several different schools as part of a grant through Springfield College. The grant was only three years. This how they started, then I continued them through a local school where my wife worked and I did some volunteer work. Might be fun to do them for adults too, biggest issue is always the cost of the bus. Jim

pecousicvilla said...

The adult tours sound incredible,love to learn local history, let me know if you need help organizing tours.

Anonymous said...

"Stick to it" I'd love it if more current Springfielders would take this to heart and stay and help rebuild it.

Robert B. said...

Thank you the information. Our great-grandfather, Charles Baker a 22 year veteran of the Springfield Fire Department, helped fight the fire at City Hall on that cold day in 1905.

Rob Laughlin said...

My great grandfather, Charles Baker was a firefighter at that fire.