Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2006 Issue

April 18, 1906

Sf.1906

San Francisco survived the earthquake, only to be destroyed by fire.


To the west the stony Shawangunks discouraged development beyond the first ridge line. There Mohonk Mountain House, already a famous hotel, towered six stories over its private lake, lost to view from New Paltz that faced the granite outcropping of Paltz Point atop the eastern slope. South six or so miles another hotel, Minnewaska Mountain House, commanded an even more imperial setting on the same ridge line, its lake larger and deeper and at ten thousand acres, a larger wilderness preserve.

In the New Paltz village of 1906, sidewalks, a sign of civilization and progress, were a local campaign issue championed by Ralph LeFevre who was both editor of the New Paltz Independent and President of the Board of Academy Trustees that held rights of rescission on the Normal School property should the state abandon its commitment. Bicycles were a recent mania and the first movie to be seen in town had flickered on a local screen only eight years earlier. Brodhead Driving Park, a local attraction, was home to horse races in the summer. Theodore Roosevelt was president, having succeeded to office upon the death of William McKinley in 1901, and had gone on to win a second term in 1904 defeating Alton B. Parker, a Democrat and New Paltz Normal School Board member, who maintained a home in nearby Esopus. The place was alive and for a few may have seemed the center of the world.

The town was also prepared for fires with the firehouse located on Front Street just a few steps from Main. The equipment had names if not substantial size: Star Hose Company and Ulster Hook and Ladder. Pulling the fire apparatus to the Normal School took just a few men a few minutes. The scale of the equipment however did not on that Tuesday morning match the ambitions of the gathering fire which found the building's oiled floors the fuel it craved. Even as first the village fire bell and then the Electric Light Plant alarms were sounding the fire was assuming control and within an hour the battle was lost. For the second time in 22 years the community's investment in education was destroyed by fire. The Normal School's predecessor, the New Paltz Academy, burned to the ground in 1884.

By 8:13 am EST on the morning of the 18th as the ashes in New Paltz smoldered, in San Francisco it was 5:13 am PST and its tectonic plates were beginning a 48 second shift into history. In moments the population was jolted into awareness of the now ongoing monumental earthquake. On that day San Francisco would mostly come through the quake but succumb to fire in the days that followed.

News of the New Paltz disaster traveled fast if not far. The Kingston Freeman, then an afternoon paper, headlined "Fire Destroys The New Paltz Normal School - Explosion of a lamp the cause of the flames." In Newburgh the Daily News lead off with "The New Paltz Normal is Destroyed by Fire." In these cases and others the San Francisco earthquake made it into the same editions and in some cases pushed the Normal School fire story off the front page. The Poughkeepsie Eagle, which didn't cover the earthquake until the 19th, had the fire as its lead on the 18th. The timing was essentially identical but the scale of disaster not. In the New Paltz fire the loss was put at $100,000, in San Francisco forty million. In New Paltz no lives were lost, in San Francisco 400 were known dead and another 600 would later be identified.

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