FROM PAGES PAST: 1872: The Great Penn Yan Fire

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

A stereopticon view of the fire that destroyed a portion of downtown Penn Yan 150 years ago.

150 Years Ago

May 2, 1872

The Great Penn Yan Fire -- Penn Yan had a terrible conflagration and by far the worst in the history on Tuesday afternoon. The fire broke out in the Commercial Iron works of Whitaker & Bryan, about half past four o'clock. The Firemen were promptly on the ground, but their efforts were entirely ineffectual to prevent not only the destruction of that building, but the extension of the fire to the Benham Block and the buildings on the opposite side of the street in a very few moments. All these being of the most combustible character there was at once a terrific conflagration in progress. There was a strong south wind, and the cinders and burning fragments of shingles filled the air for a long distance in the course of the wind. In a very short time the fire extended to the Carriage Shop of T. Brigden & Son and sped along Jacob Street (East Elm St.) consuming everything on the south side as far as the house of Charles B. Shaw, when by dint of hard work it was stayed, some barns belonging to lots on Canal Street (Seneca St.) were burned and all the houses were greatly imperiled but none of them burned.

On the north side of Jacob Street all was burned as far as Benham Street. The fine residence of James Burns was only saved by very hard exertion, and vigilant care, which was also true of the houses eastward, belonging to William H. Gage.

The firemen were able, with the aid of brick, to keep the fire from reaching Main Street. Tunnicliff's block on one side and Morgan's on the other at the entrance of Jacob Street, serving as good defenses. The Central House (current site of the Once Again Shoppe) was burned together with its barn, the former property of Albert Tuell, which was speedily burned, also the barns and outhouses of F.E. Smith and those of Mr. Thompson, proprietor of the Benham House. How the fire was kept off the buildings in front of these structures seems almost a miracle, considering the awful rapidity and heat of the fire. The Benham House (current site of Community Bank) was only saved by dint of the most gigantic efforts, and the same can be said of F.E. Smith's residence and other buildings fronting on Main Street.

Soon after the fire began to rage like a volcano, the shop of Robert N. Coons, on Benham Street was set fire by flying sparks, and the barn of Charles N. Burrill, soon after; this fire spread rapidly, taking in its sweep of the residence of Robert N. Coons, that of James Tims, as well as that of Mrs. B. Joy, and that of Mrs. Ellis, occupied by Harrison Brown. The barn of Mrs. Joy, that of Mrs. S.F. Curtis, and that of William Stark were also consumed. Dozens of other buildings were set on fire, but by the care of their owners and others they were saved from destruction. In this way Jacob Messerole saved his barn and residence, and the same can be said of many more.

Our firemen did noble service, aided by the mill, and no doubt succeeded in saving Main Street, for which all should be profoundly grateful. As soon as the fire began to loom up in its threatening proportions, a telegram was sent to Canandaigua, and the gallant firemen of that village responded with astonishing alacrity. In about sixty minutes after the dispatch reached that village, they had sounded the alarm, shipped their Steam Fire Engine and reached Penn Yan by a special train furnished by the Northern Central Railroad. Their running time from Canandaigua was 41 minutes. The company remained till four o'clock the following morning, and the steamer poured a large amount of water over the burned district, extinguishing the fire.

The entire sum of losses amounts to about $130,000; and the insurance to about $70,000.

100 Years Ago

May 3, 1922

Holdup in Penn Yan -- Bernard Rose, of Clinton Street, says he was held up Wednesday night near the corner of Clinton and Benham streets and relieved of his pocketbook. Young Rose, aged 21, was returning to his home by way of Benham Street, so he says, when a tall, broad-shouldered man crossed the street and asked to see his pocketbook. Rose complied with the request, but when the hold-up found it empty, returned it. The stranger followed him to his house.

Young Man on Bail Returns to Burglary -- On Wednesday, state troopers came to Rushville and took M.W. before Justice Haviland, where he confessed to breaking into the office of the Belden coal yard during the noon hour Monday and stealing $24 in money. He also confessed to being the one who broke into the office of the Belden bean elevator on the night of April 11th, and also to breaking into the Wilson J. Jones residence during his absence in Florida. The young man was already in trouble with the authorities because of similar escapades and was only enjoying his liberty because of bail furnished by his father, and the reluctance on the part of his victims to prosecute one so young, and also because of the regard in which his parents are held in this community.

Barn and Horses Lost in Conflagration -- Fire of an unknown origin totally destroyed the large gambrel-roofed barn on the Emory Potter farm on the county house road (sic) in Jerusalem, Sunday. Five horses in the barn were burned, along with a large quantity of hay, lumber wagons, harness, and farming implements. The farm house was occupied by William Walrath, who was at an adjoining farm. Mrs. Walrath was in the cellar attending an incubator and the flames had practically destroyed the barn before being discovered. The loss is estimated at $6,000, partly covered by insurance.

75 Years Ago

May 1, 1947

Middlebrook Constructing Cargo Plane Bound for Honduras -- Harold Middlebrook, well known Penn Yan flyer who has been serving as flight instructor for the clubs at Penn Yan, Dundee, Middlesex, and Hall, is in North Carolina. He and his friend, John Ackerman, known in Penn Yan from his frequent visits to the Middlebrook home, are converting one of the big army planes, a DC3, to a cargo ship. When the conversion job is done, the men will fly the plane to Honduras carrying a steam shovel and other heavy earthmoving equipment. The load is consigned to a gold mine deep in the interior of Honduras where Henry Daft, the mine owner, wishes to build a landing strip so that the gold may be flown out from the mine and save many days of travel by mule back.

Seventy-five years ago, Harold Middlebrook - active in local flying clubs - helped turn an a DC3 Army plane into a cargo ship to transport equipment to a gold mine in Honduras.

Smallpox, Diphtheria, Tetanus Immunization Clinic -- Dr. Bernard Strait, health officer of Penn Yan, plans to hold a smallpox and diphtheria-tetanus immunization clinic at the courthouse, Penn Yan from 9 to 10:45 a.m. on Tuesday, May 6, and a second clinic for second doses of diphtheria-tetanus toxoid, Thursday, June 5. These clinics will be open to children from six months to 12 years of age. With the recent outbreak of smallpox in New York, Dr. Strait reminds that vaccination is an essential of disease protection for all over six months who have never been vaccinated, and for individuals who had their last vaccination with a reaction of protection more than five years ago.

Charles Bell killed by train -- Charles S. Bell, 92, who has lived at his Seneca Street home in Dundee his entire life, was struck by a northbound freight train on the New York Central tracks that run along the edge of his garden, and instantly killed about 12:15 Friday morning, April 25, 1947. Mr. Bell was one of the oldest residents in the Dundee area, one of the most well known and best liked. He was the son of Joseph and Frances Gano Bell and was born in the house in which he died, his father having hurried the work on the house to get it completed for the occasion of his birth. At that time, Mrs. Bell's grandfather, Hiram Bell, owned a 200-acre farm which is now the site of Dundee village, the present four-corners being situated approximately where the farm home was then.

50 Years Ago

May 4, 1972

Air Force Band & Singing Sergeants perform -- What was considered to be the largest crowd ever assembled in Penn Yan heard the United States Air Force Band and Singing Sergeants of Washington, D.C. present a musical extravaganza of a lifetime last Saturday night at Penn Yan Academy. More than 2,000 persons were in the gym, and the auditorium was used in addition for several hundreds. Following intermission, Nora Arquit, Academy band director, as guest conductor of the USAF Band, directed the band in the majestic "National Emblem March" by Bagley.

Farmer's Action Saves Herd and Barns -- A disaster was prevented when Leon Button Jr., owner of a large dairy farm, drove 120 head of cattle from a burning barn on his property along North Valley Road Sunday at 11 p.m. The Yates County dairyman discovered the blaze. He told Sheriff's Deputy Herbert Thayer he smelled smoke and saw a glow in the upper part of the large barn and immediately began moving his 120 diary cows to safety as Mrs. Button summoned firemen. The 35 by 100 ft. and 40 by 60 ft. L-shaped barn suffered only slight damage and a small quantity of straw was destroyed.

Big Week in Baseball -- Yates County area baseball teams played a heavy schedule last week with the Dundee Scots taking the spotlight thanks to three wins, two of them shutouts by ace twirler Bill Lobdell. The Mustangs of Penn Yan split a pair of games defeating Marcus Whitman 3-1 and then losing to the Newark Reds 7-2. The Wildcats of Marcus Whitman, in addition to their loss to PYA, also came out on the short end of a couple of squeakers by losing to Geneva 3-2 and to Lyons 2-1, but did defeat Midlakes 8-3 on Thursday.