FROM PAGES PAST: Editor recalls Penn Yan Fire of 1872

Yates County History Center

The Chronicle-Express -- Consolidation, January 1, 1926, of the Yates County Chronicle (1824) and the Penn Yan Express (1866); the Rushville Chronicle (1905) and the Gorham New Age (1902)

The Yates County History Center’s volunteers have gleaned these entries for your enjoyment from their digitized newspapers. You can access them at the free site For more information about the YCHC, visit

150 Years Ago

April 4, 1872

Hither -- My Dear Friend Cleveland; I have been wondering whether the numerous readers of the Chronicle would be interested in a narrative of personal adventure experienced by the undersigned lately, in endeavors to travel by rail. Presuming, however, upon their good nature and patience, indulge me in space for an account which I have not time to make shorter.

Monday, March 18th, we left Penn Yan on the morning train for Canandaigua, where we arrived about half an hour after the departure of the eastward bound train whither we were going. This compelled staying over night (sic) at Canandaigua, leaving us to take an early morning train for Utica, on the N. Y. Central railroad, the farthest eastward point toward our destination. We sped along over this iron pathway through the heart of the great Empire State, changing cars at Syracuse, and encountering nothing worthy of special notice till our arrival at Utica, where we were landed by the great black, filthy, unvarnished and unpolished locomotive, and the dingy, smoky, and illy-ventilated (sic) cars for which the Central is notorious. Arriving at Utica about noon, we were obliged to wait there until 5 o’clock in the afternoon before we could take the Delaware, Lackawanna & W. Railway for West Winfield, our final destination.

~ MILES A. DAVIS - WEST WINFIELD, Herkimer Co. N. Y., March 22, 1872.

New York and Chicago Railroad -- We observe that something of a stir is made in regard to a new railroad said to be in actual process of organization if not of construction, to extend from New York to Chicago. Surveys are now being made through this State. The shortest lines and easiest grades are sought, with a view to the construction of a profitable freight road. Maximum grades are not to exceed thirty feet to the mile. The road is to run on the west side of the Hudson to Catskill, then northwesterly to the Mohawk Valley, and then as nearly as possible in a straight line by way of Utica and Syracuse to Niagara Falls. The object of this road is through traffic with very little regard to way business. The capital stock of the company is $32,000,000 of which it is stated that $24,000,000 is furnished by British capitalists.

The Christian Union — Mrs. Chadwick very much regrets that some of her subscribers for this excellent paper, edited by that marvelous genius, H. W. Beecher, had to wait so long for their first numbers. The orders were promptly sent, with drafts for payment. But a list mailed at Penn Yan, Feb. 5th, with a good draft from friend Stark’s good bank, was lost enroute. As soon as the loss was known, Mrs. C. sent a duplicate list and draft, and trusts that all her subscribers at Penn Yan and Himrods are now regularly served with the paper. If any fail, she desires them to inform her. Chromos in due time to all. Mr. Beecher’s ten lectures at Yale College on ‘Preaching’ are worth a year’s subscription.

Main Street Jammed -- The inconvenience of our “narrow-gauge” Main Street was made manifest last Saturday. An unusual number of teams were on the street, and it was literally crowded, and sometimes blockaded. It is a pity that the enterprising pioneers who originally laid out the street could not have foreseen the great amount of busy traffic which would be carried on in this part of lively and vigorous Penn Yan.

100 Years Ago

April 5, 1922

The Penn Yan Fire of 1872, as recalled by Editor Walter Wolcott 50 years later, began on what is now East Elm Street.

50th Anniversary of Penn Yan's Big Fire of 1872 -- Many Stores and Some Forty Houses Were Destroyed. The Fire Swept the East Side of Jacob Street to C. B. Shaw’s Residence, All the East Side to Benham and the West Side of Benham, Nearly to Clinton. Main Street, As Far As the Benham House, Also Suffered.

The 30th of April will be the 50th anniversary of the great fire of 1872, of which conflagration I have a distinct remembrance. Some incidents in regard to the same are further brought to my mind by perusing a contemporary report as given in an old copy of the Yates County Chronicle. This copy, which is before me as I write, bears date of Thursday, May 2, 1872. Thursday was then the regular publication day. The report, which is on the second page, was written by Stafford C. Cleveland, who was then editor of this newspaper. I purpose, in order to make my article more interesting, to reproduce this report, and also give in addition certain details, as near as I can remember, after a lapse of half a century of time.

The building in which the fire started stood on the site of the present Masonic Temple. It was of quite old construction, dating back almost to the time when the village was incorporated. It was in fact built in or about the year 1835 by Ebenezer B. Jones.

The Penn Yan Fire Department then consisted of the fire companies known as the Keuka No. 1, the Excelsior No. 2 and the Hydraulic. The first two fire companies were supplied with two brake engines, one being called “the Wright machine” and other, “the Button engine.” There was likewise a watermain or pipe with hydrants along the business section of Main St. which was supplied by a force pump worked by the water wheel at the mill then owned by Castner & Scheetz.

Although the population of Penn Yan fifty years ago was nearly if not quite as large as at the present day, yet the village at that period had a decided rustic appearance and was very much lacking in those modern improvements which the present generation consider as almost indispensable. Our village lighting consisted of gas and of kerosene lamps on lamp posts along some of the streets and only Main St. was paved, and that with hard round cobble stones, which were very rough to ride over. Our business blocks were mostly of wood, generally with wooden awnings in front, some of which were of the cowshed variety.

On the day of the fire, I had been attending school at the school house then on Maiden Lane. The teachers in charge of this school were Miss Eliza M. Casey and Miss Mary E. Bennett. School had just been dismissed for the day and I had stepped into Cornwell’s store on my homeward way when the fire alarm sounded. Going out into the street, I went down to the lower corner of Main street, and turning the corner into Canal St. (now called Seneca St.), I perceived an immense column of flame and smoke extending up from the roof of “the old furnace building” as it was commonly called. I saw the firemen assembling and I also perceived a number of persons engaged in removing material from an adjoining building then occupied by John Cornwall and George W. Waddell as a carpenter’s shop. After watching the fire for some time, I went on home and there soon learned from a passer-by that the fire was rapidly spreading and that the whole of Jacob Street was threatened.

The fire soon approached the place where I then lived and soon the nearby houses on Jacob Street were in a blaze. Three barns on Canal St. then caught fire and were speedily burned. Each was owned respectively by John Hyland, Nicholas J. Van Tuyl and John D. Wolcott. When the fire started, the last person mentioned (who was the father of the writer of this article) was unfortunately outside of the village but by rapidly running his horse he reached his home just as his barn caught fire. Although his barn was consumed, his house was saved after considerable exertion by himself and some others who assisted. In this same copy of the Chronicle appears a notice signed by his name in which he offers “to Alva Updike, John Ayres, Alva Moore, and others, many thanks for their very kind, efficient and timely aid in saving his dwelling house and some of his other property from destruction by the devastating fire of Tuesday, April 30, 1872.”

I remember that shortly after my father’s barn burned down, I stood in the back garden of the old homestead on Canal St. and looked over towards Jacob St. The scene that was presented to my vision could indeed be called heart-rending. Immense billows of flames were rolling up from several burning houses, and over all hung a great cloud of smoke through which the sun appeared no bigger than the moon. I observed that very strenuous work was being done to save the house of Frederick Poyneer, but in spite of the efforts of Mr. Poyneer and his sons, helped also by other men, his house caught fire.

75 Years Ago

April 3, 1947

Twin Sisters Become Mothers Same Evening -- Identical twin sisters became mothers within four hours of each other Sunday, March 30, 1947. Both babies were born in Elmira, one at the Arnot-Ogden and the other at St. Joseph’s hospital. Dr. R. Scott Howland, whose father officiated at the birth of the mothers, was in charge of both deliveries Sunday. The mothers are Marjorie Carpenter Fowler of Glenora and Marion Carpenter Brewer of Starkey. The baby born to Mr. and Mrs. Ashby Fowler was a boy while Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Brewer, Jr, are the parents of a daughter. 

A 1922 Chevrolet touring car like those sold by Harry S. Hart in Middlesex. He sold his business there in 1947.

Middlesex Garage Owner Sells Out After 27 Years -- On Saturday, Mr. and Mrs. W. Kennedy and family moved from Glens Falls to their home newly purchased from Mr. and Mrs. Harry S. Hart on Main Street. Mr. Kennedy has acquired the garage, and the car sales and service agency of Mr. Hart, possession to be given on May 1. Mr. Kennedy donned his garage attire Monday and is learning some “new” ideas about car servicing, and the many other details connected with the business. During April they will work together. Mr. and Mrs. Harry S. Hart have conducted a successful and modern garage and car agency for over 27 years. They plan to remain in Middlesex, residing on Maple Avenue.

Cars' styling and advertising had progressed a lot by 1947 when the Kennedys took over the dealership in Middlesex.

50 Years Ago

April 6, 1972

Keuka College To Present 1915 Film -- A 1915 movie filmed at Keuka College and in Penn Yan will be shown at the college April 7. It is open to the public at no charge. The film was produced by the Ramsay brothers of Penn Yan, with local residents and college students as the cast. Curtain time is 8 p.m. in Hegeman Auditorium. Intended as a money-raiser for the Baptist Church and the college, “Wheat and Tares” was shown at the local theatre until it was found to be on highly inflammable material. Keuka history professor, Philip Africa noted accounts of the film in the library of the Chronicle Express while doing research for a history of the college and was introduced to the owners of the only existing original. The film was saved from destruction when the Ramsay homestead was closed and is now owned by Mr. and Mrs. David Blauvelt of Penn Yan. The Blauvelts agreed to have the movie copied on non-flammable film, which was done through the generosity of the Eastman Kodak Company. Dr. Africa will give an introduction to the silent movie. The film is incomplete, missing the first reel, and no other prints of the film have been located.

Students Seek Action -- Talk is cheap — It’s actions that count. -- Academy students in the Ecology Club are a bit weary of talk and are setting out “hopefully” to make the village and county “fathers” into doing something more than just talking — or even listening. What they want is Action. They are taking one day of their Easter vacation to explore the possibilities of a park along the channel from Keuka to Seneca Lakes. The section in the village, the students point out, must be made into a park under the terms of the urban renewal program. To date, they argue nothing has been done. Why?

Another project dear to their hearts is the re-cycling of paper, glass, and tin cans; and in vain, they say, they have tried to interest village officials for a building in which they can store items for re-cycling. They plan to appeal again to the village but perhaps, some private individual having an unused building, will come to their rescue?

In this day and age when so many teenagers are involved in so many illegal enterprises, we salute these Penn Yan Academy students, whom we understand, are joined by junior high and elementary pupils in their ecology programs. What they need most of all — right now — is tangible help — not just pats on the heads or indulgent smiles by adults, private citizens or elected officials. Think about it — talk to them and give them Help Now.