Broadalbin recalls 1879 fire that leveled 16 businesses

BROADALBIN – In 1879, over the course of several hours, a business district was destroyed in the little village of Broadalbin.

Fire crews at the time could do nothing to stop the fire because of heavy winds and a lack of water.

Gordon Cornell, Broadalbin historian and a member of the Broadalbin Kennyetto Historical Society, said the fire put several shops out of business and affected the town’s economy.

Now, 134 years later, the village is making a point to remember the conflagration.

The Broadalbin Kennyetto Historical Society recently placed a historical marker on North Main Street detailing the fire.

The marker, installed in a ceremony attended by members of the society and local residents Oct. 19, states, “1879 fire. This side of the street leveled on January 21. Sixteen businesses were destroyed. It was an economic tragedy, with no loss of life.”

Cornell said much of the information available on the fire comes from old newspaper articles. Some details have been lost.

“Some of it we know, and most of it we can only imagine,” Cornell said.

According to Cornell, shortly after midnight on Jan. 21, 1879, a fire began on the ground floor of one of the North Main Street businesses.

Cornell said Louis Lee, who lived on the second floor of the building, saw smoke entering his room. Unable to leave the building through the stairway, Cornell said, Lee slid down the front of the building on an icy plank and ran to the village’s Baptist Church, ringing the bell for help.

Cornell said he does not know the cause of the fire.

“If it was ever determined, I never read it in any papers,” Cornell said.

As the fire roared, crews did their best to put it out. Cornell said temperatures dropped to minus 26 degrees, with the wind exacerbating the flames.

Cornell said while the wind spread the fire to other North Main Street businesses, it also prevented the fire from heading toward West Main Street.

In total, 16 buildings were destroyed in the blaze. No one was killed, but the fire caused economic problems for the village.

According to Cornell, many families at the time were forced to ride to Gloversville to shop as village businesses were rebuilt. Some businesses returned, but others didn’t. Cornell said many businesses lost their ledgers in the fire and lost track of their finances.

George Pifko Jr., president of the historical society, said the fire was significant to the history of the village.

“We [have] tried to highlight the things that have been of a historical significance [to the area],” Pifko said. “… To lose an entire commercial block in a small village is something we thought was significant.”

Pifko and Cornell said the marker was paid for by donations and the sales of calendars.

According to Cornell, the group tries to place a marker every two years. They cost roughly $1,100.