New York State Capitol Fire
April, 1911, No. 8, page 358, American education, Volumes 14-15
The western section of the State Capitol at Albany was almost entirely destroyed by fire on the morning on March 29th. About 2:30 a. m., two newspaper reporters and one of the guards noticed a small fire about one of the desks in the Assembly library. Unavailing efforts were made to locate buckets of water and fire extinguishers, but none were on hand, and the flames made rapid headway. The fire alarms were given and the Albany city firemen quickly responded, but before effective work could be done in checking the flames, the fire had spread from the assembly library through the corridors to the main room of the public library. It was only a short time before the inflammable contents of the New York State Library was a roaring furnace.
The fire spread rapidly to adjacent rooms, and within a few hours practically all of the offices and rooms on the third, fourth and fifth floors of the western end of the capital were fire swept. The whole State Education Department and State Library occupying offices on the third and fourth floors of the capitol were almost wiped out of existence by the flames, and library records, historical documents and original manuscripts of inestimable value were destroyed. The attorney-general's, adjutant-general's, National Guard headquarters, State Tax Commission, State Board of Charities, State Lunacy Commission apartments were badly damaged. The Senate and Assembly chambers were saved after a brave battle, although the Lieutenant Governor's room and several of the adjacent offices were gutted. Priceless documents, books and records stored in the Assembly library were destroyed.
The New York State Education department, which occupied rooms on the third and fourth floors of the southwest wing of the capitol, has met with a very heavy loss. The offices of Mr. Wheelock and Mr. Finegan, second and third commissioners of education, with all of their correspondence and office furniture, were entirely destroyed. The principal divisions of the Education Department, namely that of attendance, inspections, law, school-libraries, statistics, trade schools and visual instruction, with all of their correspondence, reports and other valuable data were practically wiped out of existence. The splendid collection of slides in the visual instruction department with the entire office furnishings and other equipment was a total loss. This room was located in the very part of the building where the fire was most severe and did its most damaging work. Fortunately the division of examinations, with all its records and reports for years back regarding the ratings and scholarship of all who have tried Regents' examinations located in the northeast part of the building, was untouched by the flames. Statistics, attendance- reports and records of apportionments of State moneys can be much more readily replaced than could have been the ratings and records of the results of the Regents examinations. Some 30,000 papers, however, chiefly from the New York City high schools, were destroyed and the ratings given by the teachers will be accepted and allowed to stand according to the statement of Mr. Horner, chief of the examination division.
The New York State Library, with its splendid general, law and medical libraries and its invaluable collection of historical books and documents and original manuscripts, was well nigh obliterated. The library contained 600,000 volumes. 400,000 pamphlets and 300,000 original manuscripts. Most of the manuscripts that have been lost were original documents and cannot be replaced. The early Dutch records were lost in the fire. Of the books of the State Library which can be duplicated in the open market today, such duplication would cost, according to Commissioner Draper's statement, $1,300,000, but the value of the other books and manuscripts lost because of their being rarities is priceless. The estimated loss of the documents and books of the State Library, which can be replaced is given as about $2,000,000.
The destruction of the medical library will prove a most serious, although not an irreparable loss. It was one of themost complete of medical libraries and compared favorably with the great collections of the continental universities. The whole of the Albany Medical College's collections of professional books was presented to the State as the nucleus of this library when it was founded a few years ago, and to this had been added not only nearly all the books extant on medicine and surgery, but the files of the American and foreign journals and proceedings of professional societies were here on file, and these latter will be very hard to replace.
The magnificent law library, which was reputed to be one of the two or three best law libraries in the United States, is a total loss. By many jurists the law library was considered the most complete in the country. The number of volumes in the library of Congress is greater, but a large proportion of that number is in duplicates. The collection of Colonial Laws, including legislative broadsides, can never be replaced. One single volume, Bradford's Laws, was purchased a few years since at a cost of nearly $2,000. There was a complete collection of legislative documents, including reports of colonial committees and commissions which probably have no extant duplicates. These included the warrants and orders of the Governor and council, before the establishment of the legislative system prior to the Revolution. All these last were in manuscript.
The State Library had one of the best collections of genealogical works extant and this too fell a prey to the fire demon. The history section of the library was particularly strong in American, State and local history. Of the comparatively small percentage of books that may be recovered from the debris, rebound and thus made usable, a large part pertains to the history of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The work of salvage and reclamation is now going on and every volume and manuscript that can possibly be saved and restored is being laid aside and carefully preserved, and a special appropriation of $100,000 has been made by the State Legislature with which to carry on this work. It is a matter of great regret that the new educational building which is in progress of erection and which was to house the New York State Library and the various offices of the New York Education Department was not ready at an earlier date.
The burned portions of the capitol building will probably be replaced without delay and the restored portion will be planned and erected so as to meet the future needs of the various State departments which shall be located in them.
The students of the Albany Law School and Albany Medical College and other local schools will be handicapped in their future work and will have to make use of the other local reference libraries in their study and research work. The city and State have suffered an irreparable loss. The libraries of other cities and states will be called upon to assist the New York State Library officials in the work of replacing and duplicating copies of many of the volumes and documents which were lost in the fire. Fortunately some 250,000 volumes, among which many duplicates, escaped the flames as they were placed in storage in other parts of the city. These volumes with the limited number of those that can be recovered from the ruins will form a nucleus for a new State Library which will be housed in the new educational building when completed.