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.