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Fire… Gone in 5 minutes


Gone in 5 minutes… Every story I’ve heard about fire on the islands usually had the phrase…it was gone in 5 minutes.

Wooden structures surrounded by pine needles with lots of open flame from oil burning cook stoves and kerosene lamps, combined with a brisk wind was a recipe for disaster. 

1912 was not a good year for fire. That year, the Columbia Hotel on Thousand Island Park burned down. My husband’s grandmother, Mabelle Ogden, was twenty that year. From our point, she could see the smoke easily. The family jumped in the skiff and rowed over to the park and witnessed the horrifying scene from the water. A brisk west wind spread the fire eastward from the hotel. More than 100 cottages were lost that day.

In the six months before the Columbia Hotel fire, Grenell had two major fires. In the fall of 1911, two large cottages on the yacht basin were lost to fire. In the spring, 5 cottages burned on the east end of the island, including two boathouses. Our family lost our front skiff house in that fire, but luckily not the cottages.

There were two major fires in the 1940s, both at the west end of the island. First the Otis and Albert Pabst cottages burned. The Truex cottage on the point was saved, but barely. If you crawl under the cottage today, you can see the charred beams. The Truxes stuccoed the cottage after that hoping the stucco would serve as a fire retardant.

In 1949, the Wilson and Prescott cottages burned. That fire was particularly scary because it started at the west end of the island, it was feared with the predominate west wind pushing it east, the entire island might go up in flames. Ruth Hiller remembers her father telling her to go back to the cottage, gather up her belongings and get off the island as soon as possible. That fire had been in the days when many people didn’t have their own boats, but relied on boats like That’s Her to ferry them to the island. Many feared they might be trapped in a burning inferno.

 

My husband’s grandfather, J. W. Ogden, told the story of a night back in 1954 when the nearby Blanding cottage went up in flames. He showed up in the middle of the night with a garden hose spraying down the neighboring Thorne cottage (now the Roger Richards Cottage.) On the other side of the inferno, neighbors were working hard to save the Hine Cottage (now the Walsh Cottage.) Stu Clough was a boy then and remembers waking up in the middle of the night hearing a commotion outside. He and his brother Charlie slept in the room over the boathouse. The two watched the adults fight the fire from a safe distance, but Stu remembers feeling the heat from the fire from his safe vantage point. The next morning, the cottage was gone and the ground charred. The paint blistered on the sides of the neighboring cottages, but the men had been able to save the cottages using garden hoses. They thanked their lucky stars it had been a calm, windless night.

Decades ago, the Grenell Island Improvement Association owned fire pumps. A fire alarm was installed. Its switch still on the Community House porch. It’s still operational though most islanders are only aware of using the chapel bell to announce a fire. In 2002, I remember eating lunch and asking, “Why is the chapel bell ringing midday on a Wednesday?” Two seconds later, the phone rang. Two minutes later, my husband was in a boat with neighbors on his way to a fire on Murray Island.

 

Neighbor, Mike Kimber had noticed smoke rising from a cottage across the way on Murray Island. He had sent out the alarm, thrown his own fire pump in his boat and headed toward Murray. Within minutes, the water around Murray was filled with boats from Grenell. Others had brought their personal water pumps and hoses. Last Chance, the fireboat from Clayton, arrived next. Then the Wellesley Island Fireboat. Fisher’s Landing also has a fireboat, but I can’t remember if it responded.

There had been an electrical storm earlier in the day and a lightning strike had started a fire in an abandoned cottage high on the hill. The cottage was a total loss, but the group of responders had kept the fire from spreading to the trees and other cottages.

My father-in-law often told me, once a cottage catches fire you are not trying to save that cottage only the ones next to it. Past history certainly supports that statement, but perhaps times are changing. There certainly have been fewer fires in the last 50 years. Electric has replaced open flame for light, heating and cooking. The safety of electric wire is much better than it was in the 30s and 40s. Add to that rapid response of the fire boats and improvement of their equipment and the odds perhaps have definitely shifted for the better. Case in point, The Grassi cottage across from the chapel caught fire and due to efforts of neighbors and the Clayton fire department it was not a total loss.

Still prevention is our best hope. Islanders must be ever vigilant against the threat of fire.

By Lynn E. McElfresh

Lynn McElfresh came to Grenell Island for the first time to meet her fiancé’s family in 1975. Lynn became part of the family and the island became part of her life. She is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. We have learned a great deal over the past three years from Lynn McElfresh’s musings, from moving pianos to island weddings or from plumbing problems to meeting old friends, taking nature walks and the importance of trees.  Currently she is helping to compile the history of Grenell for its 100th Birthday coming up this summer.   Lynn and her husband, Gary, spend their summers in the Thousand Islands and their winters in Dunedin, Florida.

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Comments

Dale hull
Comment by: Dale hull ( )
Left at: 11:19 PM Monday, May 14, 2012
I remember the fire on basswood,watched it burn from thousand island park,could feel the heat from it,and the house was gone in five minutes,was in the grand house as a kid,what a great loss! I was friends with the family that owned it,and they were devastated ,but did rebuild with the house that is currently on the island,not quite as grand,but still a great house,later years many nights were spent in the pump house on the end of the island,where a custom water bed had been built where the pump once stood! Great memories made on that island,but the fire will always be etched in my mind,thanks for the stories and the step back in time
Jim Bernier
Comment by: Jim Bernier ( )
Left at: 3:01 PM Tuesday, May 15, 2012
During my research for my book about Big White Calf Island, I found the following story in the Gan Reporter. I got confirmation of it from Gretchen Gurney Bambrick and Jim Gurney as well as from our caretaker Jim Bevins who were all present at the event.
Late in the afternoon of Friday, September 2, 1960, a fire broke out in the attic of the main house. The Gananoque Reporter story of the event went as follows: “Mr. and Mrs. Gurney smelled smoke in the living room where a fire was burning in the fireplace. They investigated and noticed smoke coming from the attic area. Mr. Gurney attempted to get at the blaze with a garden hose on the roof.
They were almost trapped on the roof before coming down to call for help at 6:45 pm. Two of the three Gurney children were on the island when the fire was detected. Gretchen, 12, who was in the boathouse and Jimmy, 17, who was in the cabin nearby, helped their parents remove furniture and furnishings. The eldest son Christian was in North Bay.” The account goes on to state that thanks to a quick response from the Gananoque Fire Department and friends from neighboring islands, the fire was contained to the front portion of the roof. The building suffered smoke and water damage throughout. The exact extent of the damage to the roof can be ascertained by observing the roof rafters in the attic. The damaged replacement rafters are of slightly smaller dimensions than the original rafters.
Deane PArkhhurst
Comment by: Deane PArkhhurst ( )
Left at: 5:05 PM Monday, May 28, 2012
TI Life will probably get more fire stories than wanted but here’s my contribution: Can not remember the exact year but probably in the mid to late 1950’s we were on our way to Thousand Island Park for the summer. Fire trucks were heading to Clayton on Route 12 at a leisurely pace, obvious they were heading back to home base. We stopped for gas and when my father asked what was going on we heard: “Oh a couple of cottages burned on TI Park.” Anxious now we hurried across the bridge toward “Grandma’s House” on Ontario Ave. Turning West at the Main Dock people were walking toward us. Past Star, past Outlook and then the fire scene at Headland, around the corner from our place. Doc. Fulmer’s cottage had burned to the ground. Several young men, “Cookie” Osterhaut one of them, had saved the adjacent Martin (on Coast) and Jacobson (on Headland) cottages with garden hoses before the firemen arrived at no small risk to their own safety. The heat was so intense it blistered the paint on the trunk of John Foley’s Packard parked across the street. Grandma and her sister were safe as was the NYC cottage that stands to this day.
Susie Smith
Comment by: Susie Smith
Left at: 9:48 AM Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Dean Parkhurst send another memory:

Another one I remember was on Grenell. I slept out on the sleeping porch, had just gotten to bed and heard a woman's voice screaming fire. A cottage facing TI Park was indeed burning. I pulled some clothes on and drove up to the fire alarm as fast as possible and told the responding guys. They raced to the fireboat and got to the island as quickly as possible but, as usual, it was far too late to save anything. Took my boat over with some friends to see what we could do to help but obviously not much anyone could accomplish. This was probably sometime in the mid 60's.
Anne McDonald
Comment by: Anne McDonald ( )
Left at: 6:04 PM Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Interestingly I have put up a Website for Thousand Island Landmark Society and in my research , I found some interesting tidbits about fires in Thousand Island Park. The Columbian replaced the orginal hotel built on that site which also was destroyed by fire in 1892 the Thousand Island Park Hotel. So fire was a constant threat and enemy on the islands. The Columbian was built with the most current fire proof materials that were available at that time but alas it just took a spark on the awning to start another devastating fire. I also found the original article about the "Great Fire of 1912". If you would like to read it in its entirety "PARK FIRE THAT SWEPT AT THOUSAND ISLANDS" click here http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F5091FF7345517738DDDA90994DF405B828DF1D3 .

It was the beginning of the end of Thousand Island Park's Golden Era. If you care to learn many more facts about the history and architecture of Thousand Island Park go the Landmark's Website thousandislandparklandmarksociety.org.

Don't forget to join us on July 18, 2013 for our House and Garden Tour. Details are on the website.
Anne McDonald
Comment by: Anne McDonald ( )
Left at: 6:12 PM Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Interestingly I have put up a Website for Thousand Island Landmark Society and in my research , I found some interesting tidbits about fires in Thousand Island Park. The Columbian replaced the original hotel built on that site which also was destroyed by fire in 1892 the Thousand Island Park Hotel. So fire was a constant threat and enemy on the islands. The Columbian was built with the most current fire proof materials that were available at that time but alas it just took a spark on the awning to start another devastating fire. I also found the original article about the "Great Fire of 1912". If you would like to read it in its entirety you can google "PARK FIRE THAT SWEPT AT THOUSAND ISLANDS" published July 10, 1912

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