Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2006 Issue

April 18, 1906

Ruins1

Courtesy of Sojourner Truth Library


By Bruce McKinney

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Many people remember and many more will remember, if only briefly, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. It occurred at 5:13 in the morning on April 18th, an 8.25 on the Richter scale, on an otherwise clear day. It was a catastrophic event that brought down buildings and killed people. The earthquake lasted 48 seconds and its psychological aftershocks continue today. The nineteenth century was a battleground where scientists and deists argued the primacy of science or God. It was a battle that science was winning. Religion, a thousand years before, provided an explanation for the inexplicable but in the ensuing centuries saw its role as judge of natural events subsumed to increasingly scientific explanation.

For those who would like to consider what can be described as freak bad luck, cosmic chance, or divine intervention another event occurred the day of the earthquake 2,548.11 miles away, a serious fire in New Paltz, New York, a town located midway between New York City and the state capital in Albany. It would, by the standards of local calculation, be a very important event but one that would be driven from the front pages of even the local dailies by the simultaneous devastation in San Francisco.

At 11:55 pm on April 17th a fire was reported in the attic of the New Paltz Normal School. The Normal School that in time would become SUNY or the State University of New York at New Paltz was even then a significant institution with an enrollment of more than 500. The school, closed for the Easter holidays, was to reopen in two days and a recently detected leak in a water tank required two men work late into the night to complete its repair. They never finished. At a few minutes to midnight their "Rochester Lamp," something close to today's kerosene lantern "exploded almost without warning." Melvin Weismiller, a plumber and Louis Ackert his assistant who were making the repair, quickly saw the wisdom of escape ahead of spreading flames, descending to street level to sound the alarm.

The community in Ulster County was rural and the village, such as it was, concentrated within a quarter mile of the Wallkill River. The school was sited on Huguenot Street near the railroad station and the river. The physical plant was impressive, "a massive four-story structure of brick and stone, steep-roofed and vaguely Romanesque in detail" according to Elizabeth and Robert Lang's history of the university, "In a Valley Fair" published in 1960.

The town in that era was bustling in a rural way, the village a nexus of sorts. The Wallkill Valley Railway Company's line ran north to Kingston and south to Campbell Hall, the village's station very near to the Normal School. A trolley line ran due east, connecting New Paltz to Highland [then known as New Paltz Landing], the Hudson River and Poughkeepsie. In New Paltz its tracks terminated a few feet from the Wallkill and a short walk from the railway station. The trolley would soon celebrate its 10th anniversary, one of its four cars the Mohonk, Minnewaska, Highland or New Paltz departing hourly for eastern civilization.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> A Rare 3-rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machine. $70,000 to $90,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Important collection of correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and Bruno Rossi. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Walt Whitman Autograph manuscript containing his thoughts on death. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> David Roberts. <i>Holy Land</i>. Six volumes. 1842-1849. First edition. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Extensive collection of Ray Bradbury's primary works, most signed or inscribed. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Peter Force. Declaration of Independence. $12,000 to $18,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Steinbeck. <i>Grapes of Wrath</i>. A fine copy of the first edition. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Lewis & Clark. <i>Travels to the Source of the Missouri River</i>... First English edition, extra-illustrated. 1814. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Manuscript document signed by Nuno de Guzman relating to Hernan Cortes, 1528. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> “Nos los inquisidores..." The first book in English printed West of the Mississippi. [1787]. $5,000 to $8,000.

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