As had been his custom over the years, Dr. Charles H. Walker, Hudson dentist, left his apartment on the third floor of the Columbia County Court House and walked over to Warren Street to get his Sunday newspaper.
The time was shortly before 11 a.m. on January 27, 1907 and a winter sun reflected on the great glass dome of the court house which had been completed only five years before in 1902.
There had been ominous rumblings at the time of its construction that the building was a "fire trap" because large air spaces had been left between the walls and ceilings. It was predicted that if a fire ever did start, these air wells would serve as flues and allow flames to surge through the structure.
These dire warnings had been forgotten when the building with its fine marble block walls and Italian tile floors has been opened to public inspection. All of the desks and chairs in the building had been custom-made of oak and portraits of former County Judges, Surrogates and District Attorneys graced the walls of the first and second floors. The structure was the pride of Columbia County and it could be rightfully said that no other county of Columbia's size could boast a structure of such outward beauty and handsome appointments.
On the third floor, the Board of Supervisors had provided living quarters for the court house janitor, Barnabas Miller, and his daughter and son-in-law. Dr. and Mrs. Charles Walker and infant daughter, Hilda, occupied an additional three-and-a-half room apartment.
IT WAS 11:15 A.M. when Deputy Sheriffs Jessup, Harmes and Race had completed their morning inspection of the jail which extended to the rear of the building. They noted that seven prisoners had been fed in their daily written report and then Deputy Jessup left to make his check of the cellar.
As he opened a door to the basement, he was driven back by a dense cloud of acrid smoke and a billow of flame. At the same moment, he thought of the seven prisoners in their cells and with the other sheriffs prepared to release and guard them if necessary.
Janitor Miller, who had also noted the flames, turned in an alarm and then sought to reach his daughter and granddaughter on the third floor. Within three minutes after the first hint of fire was discovered, great flames were spiralling up through the great staircase. Entry to the third floor was blocked.
DR. WALKER HAD JUST picked up his paper when the alarm signalled a fire in the vicinity of the court house. As he turned the corner off Warren he could see the flames belching up through the East wing and he raced in the direction of the burning building.
Glancing up through the smoke, Dr. Walker saw his wife holding in her arms their daughter, Hilda, age 1½. The HUDSON REPUBLICAN of the next day graphically describes the next few tortuous moments.
"Janitor Miller and Dr. Walker along with John Wolfe, J. Frank Chace and Eugene Howard ran up the marble steps of the stricken structure. Each held out his arms to receive the tiny infant the desperate mother was about to hurl from the third floor window.
"Then, down through the smoke came the infant Hilda like a shot from a gun. All were eager to catch her but she fell into the arms of Mr. Miller but struck with such force that she plummeted to the stone steps. She gave a piercing shriek and all believed she was mortally wounded. A quick examination of the child showed she was suffering only from bruises and shock.
"Big clouds of smoke now all but obscured the third floor window where Mrs. Walker stood. One brave fellow in the crowd pulled off his overcoat and told others to help him provide a makeshift net into which the poor woman could jump.
"While spectators were thus engaged, firemen from the Evans truck came up and a ladder went up against the building in a jiffy. The woman in the window had a moment of hope for rescue but when she saw the ladder was too short to reach her, it made her frantic and her screams caused the blood to tingle in the veins of the great multitude who had gathered at the scene.
"Up went another ladder and this reached the sill. A pillar of flame shot from the window and a cry went up. 'Hold half a minute, we'll save you!' Mrs. Walker regained her composure, climbed out on the sill and then got her footing. Slowly she eased her body around, and made her way into the arms of a brave fire lad who guided her down to terra firma.
"A great shout went up from a thousand throats as the remarkable courage of this woman won the admiration of all who saw her face an almost certain death."
COUNTY CLERK Robert Stone had closed his office for the weekend on Saturday but entered the smoking West wing in an effort to save some valuable records. He was driven out by flames, and moments later the ceiling in the clerk's office collapsed. The County Treasurer's office and the chamber of the Board of Supervisors were completely involved in fire and the firemen, realizing that saving the building was a hopeless task turned their efforts to wetting down nearby homes of East Court and Allen Streets to keep them from burning.
By 12 noon, the entire East wing was afire as flames shot from the windows of the District Attorney's office, the Surrogate's chambers and the County Court rooms. A HUDSON REPUBLICAN reporter at the scene wrote, "Giant fireballs billowed 150 feet into the air through the great gap left in the center of the building after the magnificent glass dome crashed into the flaming abyss, with a ground-shaking roar."
During the height of the fire, several shots were heard. The reports came from a loaded pistol held in the district attorney's office as evidence against John Peluso of Albany, who had shot and mortally wounded George Reynolds in a Kinderhook hotel just a few weeks prior to the fire.
Another explosion occurred when the outer door on the safe in the treasurer's office, warped by the intense heat, blew off with a loud report.
No damage was done to the jail section but Peluso, the accused murderer, was taken from his cell and moved to an Albany prison as a precautionary measure.
As the flames subsided, District Attorney Chace was one of the first to enter the ruins. He reported that all his records had been lost when a safe in his office had plunged through a burning floor into the basement and the impact caused the door to open. A prized collection of portraits of former district attorneys, gathered from all parts of the world by Mr. Chace were consumed by the flames.
THE WORK OF re-establishing county government began within a matter of days. The county treasurer opened a temporary office at the National Hudson River Bank. What could be salvaged from the fire was moved to the Hudson National Guard Armory where county officers combed through the charred debris. The armory also became a temporary court house.
Several corrective measures were taken as a result of the catastrophe. Hudson firemen sent a blistering letter to the mayor and city council condemning the amount of snow which had been left in the streets to impede fire apparatus.
Chairman Mallery convened the Board of Supervisors on January 28 and Supervisor Ostrom of Stockport, chairman of the Building Committee which had directed construction of the court house, refuted charges that the structure had been a fire trap.
"Considerable odium has been cast on this committee," the Stockport supervisor said, "but I would remind my colleagues that W. H. Traver and Son offered a bid of $1,000 to fill the air spaces between the walls with mineral wool. This was voted down in an effort to curtail expenses. So for this we have lost a $100,000 building."
After some deliberation, the board agreed to designate committees to build a new court house. A plan to take the construction out of the supervisors' hands and place it in control of nine freeholders became a sore issue. The proposal was finally withdrawn and in the summer of 1907 plans moved forward for building of the present court house on the same site.
|Photo courtesy Historic Hudson|