Monday, April 15, 2013

The Anniversary of a Loss

Today marks the fortieth anniversary of the fire that destroyed St. Mary's Academy. The turn-of-the-century school building, which stood on the southwest corner of Third and Allen streets, was consumed in a spectacular conflagration on the evening of April 15, 1973.

Designed by Hudson architect Michael J. O'Connor, the building was completed in 1900. Originally all grades--kindergarten through 12th--were taught there. In 1956, when a new building--what is today known as St. Mary's Academy--was completed, high school students were moved to the new building, and this building continued to serve kindergarten through 8th grade. In 1971, when limited enrollment forced St. Mary's to stop serving high school students, kindergarten through 8th grades were moved across the street. In 1972, the 1900 building, abandoned, was boarded up.

On the evening of April 15, 1973, according to a report by Harvey McCagg which appeared the next day in the Register-Starthe fire was discovered at 8:26 p.m. by a police officer, Larry Walker, and Albert "Turk" Traver, who was then alderman for the First Ward and lived at 251 Allen Street, the house immediately adjacent to the school building. When the two men broke down a wooden door on the south side of the building, they "faced a wall a fire."

McCagg reported that "when the Hudson firemen arrived, the flames had spread through the south side of the building and to the second floor." A half hour after the fire was reported, the flames broke through the building's slate roof and "billowed 50 to 60 feet in the air." The flames were said to be visible from Catskill and Stottville. While firemen worked to contain the fire and prevent it from spreading to the Traver house (251 Allen Street), homeowners on Allen Street were on their roofs with garden hoses and brooms to extinguish embers that fell there.

There were problems with accessing hydrants and with water pressure. Firemen had to break the windows of a parked car to access a fire hydrant. The Greenport Fire Department was called in to use their four-inch feeder hoses to pump water from Union Street. The Stottville Fire Department pumped water from the Hudson River to douse the flames. 

The conflagration attracted hundreds of spectators, who had to be herded out of the way to clear a path for emergency vehicles and warned of the danger of falling overhead wires and collapsing walls. It was reported that "many spectators reminisced about their school days at St. Mary's and a number offered the opinion that the well-oiled hardwood floors were responsible for the speed with which the fire spread." Two of the spectators were arrested and charged with public drunkenness; the next day they were fined $15 each by the city judge.

The day-after report in the Register-Star gives no information about the cause of the fire. It simply says the fire was under investigation. Decades later, the usual explanation of its cause is similar to that given for the Candy Lane fire, which occurred six years later: kids had broken into the vacant building and were either smoking or playing with matches. Some popular accounts actually identify the culprits, but there is no way of proving their credibility.

The black-and-white photographs accompanying this post appeared in the Register-Star.

Many thanks to Paul Barrett, proprietor of the Country Squire Bed & Breakfast, at 251 Allen Street, for providing the photographs and the information for this post.


  1. The new school (as we called it) actually housed 8th grade through high school.

    I was in the first grade in September of 1956. If my memory serves me correctly, the new school was not ready to open on the first day of the school year. The parish had anticipated that it would and admitted many new students. For example, my first grade class was supposed to be 2 classes of about 30 students each. When the new school failed to open on time, all 60 or so of us were forced into one class room (as were all the other grades). The new school opened within a month or so and the classes went back to the 30 students in each class. This may have effected only the lower grades.

  2. A group of kids did break into the building to smoke pot and they set the fire that burned the building. The Hudson Police did know who they were but did the families a "favor" by letting them off without charging them with the crime.