Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Lessons of the Catastrophe in the New York State Capitol at Albany on March 29, 1911.

Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1911, in Two Volumes. Vol. I.
Washington, D.C., 1913

A paper read at the Third Conference of Archivists, held December 28, 1911, at the Hotel Statler in Buffalo, N. Y.,

(The first paper on the program, by Mr. Arnold J. F. van Laer, archivist of the State Library at Albany, was, in his absence, read by Mr. W. G. Leland. The full text of the paper follows.)

Page 331.


by Arnold J. F. van Laer,

The fire which on March 29, 1911, swept the western section of the New York State capitol at Albany and in the space of a few hours destroyed not only the vast collection of printed books but a large part of the important archives which were deposited in the State library demonstrates more clearly than anything else that has happened to American archives within recent years the folly of our practice of trusting to administrative buildings for the safe keeping of public records.

The circumstances of the catastrophe have been so fully reported by the press that they may be assumed to be familiar to every one present and that it is sufficient to state here that the fire was discovered at 2 a. m., less than an hour after the adjournment of a polite ical caucus, in the assembly library on the third floor of the capitol; that from there it swept through an adjoining room and a glass partition into the law section at the north end of the State library, and thence spread with surprising rapidity over the entire library, ultimately reaching the manuscripts room, which was located on the south side of the building.

The conditions which made such wholesale destruction possible were such as are likely to prevail to-day in almost every capitol in the United States, and may be traced directly to the three main sources of danger to the contents of nearly all our administrative buildings, namely, (a) carelessness and neglect, due to partisan control, which puts the buildings in charge of inefficient persons who have no regard for the priceless treasures intrusted to their care; (b) overcrowding, due to the demands on space made by the everincreasing public business; and (c) the difficulty of making an absolutely fireproof structure out of a building which from the nature of its destination must have many connecting rooms of large dimension and which must be provided with elevator shafts, heating and ventilating ducts, and all other modern conveniences which render it impossible to segregate a fire the moment it gets started.

That the State library was exposed to all these evils has long been known to those who were familiar with the building. Assigned to quarters which were never intended for its use and which from the first were wholly inadequate to its needs, the State library was soon compelled to resort to various schemes to provide additional room for its fast growing collections. First, corridors were converted into rooms by means of partitions, then storage room was sought in the basement and the attic, and finally, when no more space was available, recourse was had to the dangerous expedient of crowding the aisles and every nook and corner with temporary shelving made of cheap and inflammable pine. In 1897, less than eight years after the library was moved into the new capitol, conditions had become so intolerable that the librarian was forced to recommend the erection of a separate and fireproof building, and year after year, until the legislature finally took action, the plea was repeated and the danger and false economy of the situation pointed out. Most glaring of all was the danger from fire which threatened the important body of archives which, for supposed greater security and convenience of consultation, had at different times been transferred from the offices of the secretary of state, the legislature, the comptroller, and other State departments, and which for lack of better facilities were crowded into a narrow room on a mezzanine floor in what was originally the end of a corridor, immediately over and next to rooms which during legislative sessions were occupied by senate committees and in which smoking was allowed. In regard to the danger to which these archives were exposed, the director of the State library wrote in the annual report for 1899 as follows:

The capitol walls are so massive that we have no fear of fire except as it might burn out individual rooms finished in wood. Hundreds of thousands of feet of oak have been used in shelving and interior finish, and in spite of careful installation of electric wires, we can not avoid the fear that some day this woodwork in some room will be accidentally set on fire and priceless material destroyed. The scientific explanation of how the fire occurred may be perfect, but the fact that rats or mice gnawed off insulation or that workmen accidentally broke it with their saws (as has happened a score of times in the past dozen years) might tell how it happened but would not replace our lost treasures. Till we have a fireproof building, free from this danger, we must take the chances with ordinary books; but we have various treasures so costly that their destruction would cause serious criticism of the regents as trustees for not insisting on better protection than is now available. ... In our manuscript room are collections which have cost the State vast sums and which money could not replace, yet there is no place to keep them except in a room honeycombed with oak and interlaced with electric wires.

There are two solutions for adequate protection till the new building is ready: We may buy a large iron safe for the smallest and moBt costly collections, or, better, take some small room, possibly in the basement if dampness can be thoroughly protected against (as it can by making double walls with ventilation), and make a room strictly fireproof, without electric wires, and large enough to hold all the rarities. A basement room would practically shut them off from public inspection, though they could be reached for occasional use. In the northwest pavilion it would be possible to make at comparatively small cost a fireproof room with ample daylight, open to visitors and yet safe from fire. From year to year other pressing needs have led us to defer this request, but we ought not to go longer without a large fireproof safe or a fireproof room. For lack of it we are liable to lose valuable gifts that would be put in our custody except for fear of fire.

Without stopping to consider what would have happened to those rarities if the director's suggestion had been carried out and, as actually occurred during the fire in another corner of the building, the entire pavilion had fallen down, it is interesting to note that the difficulty of finding suitable accommodation for even a small part of the manuscripts incidentally illustrates the danger of the present tendency to secure legislation for the transfer of administrative papers to State libraries without making ample provision for their safe-keeping. Libraries, at best, are not very satisfactory places in which to keep public records, for the reason that they are generally too much in need of space for their own growing collections to afford suitable room for the vast mass of material which would come to them under a proper system of concentration of archives, and for the further reason that the needs of readers and the facility of library administration require an arrangement of rooms and form of construction which are hardly compatible with absolute safety from destruction. European countries have long since recognized this fact and undertaken the erection of special archive depositories on the plan of the familiar safety-deposit building, composed of small stack compartments with solid decks and iron doors and equipped with all modern appliances for fire protection. It is in such buildings alone, and not in large, monumental structures, whether libraries or administrative buildings, that the future safety of our records lies.

Coining now to the discussion of the more specific lessons which may be drawn from the effects of the fire, we must note in the first place the absolute fallacy of fireproof construction in connection with buildings that are filled with combustible material. The exterior of such buildings may be fireproof, but the contents will burn like fuel in a furnace and nothing can prevent the flames from sweeping from one end of the building to the other if once the fire gets under way. The only safeguard in such cases lies in constant supervision. The State library relied for its safety on a night watchman who made his rounds at every hour of the night, and but for the fact that fire swept into the library from an adjoining room when it was beyond the control of a single man, it is not likely that any serious damage could have been done. The weak point lay in the incomplete isolation of the library from administrative offices over which it had no control, and now that the fire has occurred it seems incomprehensible that no one ever had sufficient wisdom to realize that the glass partitions between the library and legislative quarters were the most dangerous feature of the whole arrangement.

Another lesson taught by the fire is that elevator shafts, book lifts, heating and ventilating flues, and all other passages leading from one floor or room to another play a serious part in spreading the conflagration and should, as much as possible, be avoided. The effect of such flues was particularly noticeable in the manuscripts room, where everything in their immediate vicinity was totally destroyed and where more than 48 hours after the outbreak of the fire the draft from a hot-air register so fanned the flames in a smoldering pile of c!6bris that it was repeatedly necessary to apply the hose. Except for such flues and a wooden partition with glass door the construction of the manuscripts room proved to be as good as that of a vault; as it was, it would have availed nothing to replace the wooden partition by a brick wall, for the flames would have entered through the flues.

As to the relative advantages of steel and wooden shelving, it may be stated that while wood undoubtedly helps to feed the flames and to spread the fire, it is in the case of a very serious fire, such as occurred in the State library, preferable to steel for the reason that it burns away and allows the books to fall in a heap, where the upper ones protect those underneath, whereas, in the case of steel, everything burns on the shelves. In the manuscripts room thousands upon thousands of legislative papers fell from a wooden gallery which burned away and helped to save many early records which were kept below. In general it may be said that, since the flames have a tendency to go up, the lower shelves are safer than those above and that therefore the most valuable manuscripts should be placed on the bottom shelf, unless the greater exposure to dust or other circumstances make a different arrangement desirable.

As to the different methods of preserving manuscripts, whether in bound volumes, in file cases, or in packages, the fire has shown that bound volumes with large mounts, extending two inches or more beyond the edges of the manuscripts, afford by far the best protection. Indeed, it was due to the fact that most of our colonial manuscripts were mounted and bound in that way, that thousands of valuable documents were saved in almost perfect condition, whereas in the case of papers that were folded and tied up in packages every document was seriously injured by being burned along the folds. In mounting manuscripts, care should be taken to put not more than three or four documents on the same mount, since a larger number of papers has a tendency to make the volume spread open and to let in the flames. For the same reason volumes should be packed closely on the shelves and be as much as possible of the same height; a single tall volume standing between two volumes of smaller size is liable to be seriously damaged at the top. Filing boxes, which are apt to be but partly filled, offer no particular protection except against smoke, and in fact are rather dangerous on account of the many open spaces which they provide.

As regards the effects of the fire on different qualities of paper and ink, it may be said that the superior hand-made paper of colonial days shows great advantages over the poorer stock of modern times, in that it hangs together even after being badly burned and in the subsequent process of restoration can be soaked and washed and made to appear almost as fresh as new. Modern pulp paper will stand no such treatment, and by exposure to heat becomes so brittle that it falls apart the moment it is touched. Similar differences may be noticed in the qualities of ink; whereas the old ink suffers very little from water, the modern ink is apt to blur and to fade away. Parchment was found to have shrunk in some cases to almost half its original size, and under the action of water to become gluey and slimy and subject to rapid decay. Just what is the best method of treating such skins has not yet been determined.

In regard to the question of salvage, it should be impressed upon all who may ever be called upon to assist in such work that the most important thing is to begin the rescuing at the earliest possible moment. Paper burns slowly, and much may be saved in the first hours after the fire that if left to smolder and to be exposed to the action of water is liable to be damaged beyond repair. The drying of thousands of sheets of paper is no small problem, and if manuscripts can be taken out before they have had a chance to become wet much labor will be saved. Many people have a notion that this drying must be done at once and that the best plan would be to send the manuscripts to the drying room of a steam laundry or some other place where they could be dried quickly by means of artificial heat. As a matter of fact this would in most cases spell their complete ruination, since they would shrivel and curl and become so brittle as to make further handling almost impossible. Experience has shown that manuscripts can stay wet for days and even for weeks without being injured, as long as they are kept compactly together and not exposed to the light and air. Under these circumstances it is far better to keep the manuscripts flat and in convenient shape for future restoration by drying them between blotting paper. On the advice of Mr. Berwick, of the Library of Congress, the State library bought thousands of sheets of blotting paper and for weeks kept a large force at work taking the manuscript volumes apart and pressing the individual documents or sheets of writing, first between newspapers and then between blotting paper, till they were thoroughly dry. The results have been excellent; hardly a single manuscript has suffered from mold and all the documents are flat and ready to be mended.

As to the process of restoration, it is at present not practicable to go into details. It is a large and complicated subject which requires treatment by itself. Suffice it to say here that in the main we have followed the methods which Mr. Berwick employs in the Library of Congress, that we hinge our manuscripts on separate sheets of paper of sufficient size to obviate the necessity of folding, and that we carefully preserve all burned edges by covering the manuscripts on both sides with crepeline.

As a final warning, suggested by the experience of the fire, I would urge all libraries and archive depots to prepare for emergencies by holding regular fire drills and devising a scheme whereby the night watchman or other person in charge may immediately put himself in touch with the persons who are most familiar with the location of valuable material and responsible for its keeping, with a view of obviating the necessity of an improvised organization which may entail fatal delay. In the case of the Albany catastrophe neither the director of the State library nor the archivist were notified of the fire until several hours after its discovery, and while it is possible that the fire department would not have allowed either one to enter the building, it is probable that by timely action and proper direction much valuable material could have been saved.

Mr. van Laer's paper was followed by one by Prof. Jonas Vilee, of the University of Missouri.

page 337.


By Jonas Viles.

Let me hasten to admit at the outset that the fire at the State capitol at Jefferson City did not compare with the recent conflagration at Albany in respect to damage to the archives or in striking lessons for the future. But the conditions which prevailed in Missouri are unhappily not uncommon, and the lessons if somewhat elementary apply quite generally in the South and Southwest.

We have just listened with interest and regret to an illuminating account of the lessons to be drawn from a conflagration in a modern capitol building, in a city with an apparently adequate fire department. I invite your attention to a building of composite construction in a small town with very insufficient fire protection. As the details of the fire at Jefferson City were not given a wide publicity in the press, and as the points I wish to make depend somewhat on local conditions, I ask your indulgence for a brief description of the building and of the fire.

The original capitol building of the State of Missouri was burned in 1837, with the records of the secretary of state and, presumably, the territorial papers. The second building, erected immediately afterwards, was the core of the building destroyed last February. This older portion in ground plan consisted of three circular sections, placed on one axis, and short wings on either side. One circular section formed an impressive portico with lofty pillars, the next or central circle, a rotunda, topped with a low dome, while the third and the wings were given over to the halls of the legislature and to offices. The outside of the old building was faced with cut stone, but much of the interior construction was a curious conglomerate of small stones, a sort of rubble work. The roofs of the wings were of wood, framed with a wilderness of great beams and joists. The floors were of wood also. Almost from the first the space in the old building was inadequate. Conditions finally became so unbearable that in 1887 the innate conservatism of the Missourian was forced to yield and the capitol was enlarged. Two new wings were added, doubling the available space, and the dome was carried up and topped with a wooden lantern, sheathed with metal. The new wings were somewhat higher than the old, so there the roofs were carried clear to the central dome, completely covering the wooden roofs of the older wings. While the floors of the newer portion were fireproof and the construction in general good, the corridors were continuous throughout the building and the second stories of the newer wings were open halls for the legislature. With the rotunda to act as a great chimney, with such a composite construction, and so much kiln-dried timber, it is evident that the capitol was a very poor risk.

Jefferson City is served by a direct-pressure water system, with a small water tower as a reserve. The fire department is of the type common to the town of 10,000 inhabitants in the middle west; the members assemble after the alarm is given; the equipment consists of hose. The Jefferson City firemen acquitted themselves with credit during the fire, making a determined and intelligent fight against overwhelming odds.

The fire had several unusual and interesting features. In its origin it would have appealed to our New England forebears as a striking example of the special Providence. A thunderstorm in February and a bolt of lightning striking the building in the one inaccessible spot formed a somewhat unusual combination. The fire was discovered soon after 7 o'clock on the evening of Sunday, February 5, an apparently insignificant flame at the very top of the dome. When the firemen reached the building they found that the ladder reaching to the top of the dome was too weak to carry a fireman with the heavy hose, and that the water pressure was insufficient for an attack on the fire from outside. For some time, perhaps more than an hour, the fire gained very slowly and the hope arose that it might confine itself to the dome and be extinguished when it worked down in range of the water. But the outside casings of the dome peeled off and crashed through the new roofs on the original wings, setting fire to the older inaccessible wooden roofs; the wooden floors in the central section were carried away by debris falling from above; the rotunda became a great chimney and soon all the older portion of the capitol and the second floors of the newer portion were in flames. The fireproof second floor in the new wings held well, however; the great volume of water thrown on the burning building was beginning to make an impression, and the fire was almost under control, when the water main burst under the tremendous pressure. At this time, about 4 o'clock Monday morning, the first floor of the new wings and the larger part of the basement were intact. For 24 hours the firemen were helpless. All day Monday and Monday night the fire ate its way along the basement into the wings, although at any time it might have been easily checked with a little water. I do not remember any more exasperating experience than watching at short range this little fire eating its way leisurely from room to room and destroying records and printed material. The walls of the old capitol were so unsafe that salvage work except in the wings was impossible. When the repairs on the water main were completed on Tuesday morning the fire was drowned out very quickly. The damage to the building was therefore rather curious. The original building was gutted; the contents of basement rooms were destroyed; but the first floor of the newer wings was almost uninjured except by water.

It will be impossible to give a complete statement of the loss to the State archives until the collections are reassembled. At present the series not required for the routine work of the various departments are scattered in temporary quarters. It may safely be said, however, that the loss of really valuable material was surprisingly small. The more important State offices were located on the first floor of the new wings, and suffered very little. The auditor had one room in the old capitol and lost its contents, a small portion of the collection of warrants and vouchers. This series was one of the longest and most complete among the State archives, but its historical valuo was relatively slight. The secretary of state also occupied one room in the older building, filled with exceedingly valuable and interesting land records. These were all removed from the capitol or placed in the vault. The loss in this series, if any, resulted from the haste and confusion in moving. But the secretary of state had long since been forced by lack of working space to store most of his dead records, those seldom or never referred to in current business, in the basement. Here occurred the really serious loss. One large room near the center of the building was crowded with the papers of the legislature and the conventions since 1838. When I reached Jefferson City at noon on Monday the fire was just reaching this room, the d6bris from above starting a fire in the original journals of the legislature piled up in the center. The walls above were in such a dangerous condition that it was impossible to remove the papers. With a very scanty stream from the water tower for some hours we kept the fire from the shelves along the walls. But even this tantalizing trickle of water soon failed, and by Tuesday morning a large part of the documents was gone. Then several trusties from the penitentiary, at grave personal risk, rescued what was left. Before we could remove them from the ground outside, the walls began to fall, and it was several days before we finally put them in a place of safety. These papers, water soaked, frozen, and covered with dirt, the secretary of state permitted me to transfer to the State Historical Society at Columbia to be dried, cleaned, and sorted. They have turned out to be perhaps the most valuable in the series, including most of the convention records and a mass of legislative documents of the forties and sixties. The society already had a very complete file of such papers as were printed. With all these alleviations the loss remains a most serious one. To the historian these legislative documents were rivaled in importance only by the land series. In the basement also there was destroyed a number of large boxes of unclassified papers, including the accounts, contracts, etc., of the United States land survey, a number of very interesting assessment fists of an early date, and some correspondence of the earlier governors. Several of the minor offices of the State were burned out completely, but they were of recent creation and contained very little beyond current files of correspondence. The loss of printed material, early laws, legislative journals, and the like, was very great.


The first lesson perhaps is that nothing but a grinding necessity will wring a new capitol building from a reluctant people. The unsatisfactory and dangerous character of the old capitol was well known to the leaders in the State; several attempts have been made to secure a new one, culminating last year in a State-wide campaign for a constitutional amendment authorizing the necessary loan. It failed, although it met no open organized opposition. The same situation prevails in more than one State, where there is little hope for a modern fireproof structure until the older building is destroyed. No doubt the losses at Albany and Jefferson City will be somewhat compensated for by the stimulus they give to new construction. But in any case for several years to come the archives of more than one State will be housed in buildings no better than Missouri's old capitol. So I am going to emphasize this point, that much of a, practical nature can be done without great expense or radical change, to render more secure the state archives in capitol buildings of poor fire-resisting construction in towns with inadequate fire departments. I am well aware that this may seem to carry with it some danger of obscuring the ideal of fireproof construction and furnishings, of lulling the local authorities into a false sense of security, but it is a situation and not a theory that confronts us. Moreover, a recognition by the State authorities that existing conditions demand unusual precautions is a confession that existing conditions are unsatisfactory—which is half the battle.

Of these practical lessons—not scientific, but strictly practical— the first is the need that the official in general charge of the capitol building should be a permanent appointee chosen with some regard for his qualifications for the post. In Missouri, and I believe it is generally true, the commissioner of the permanent seat of government is appointed entirely for political reasons and changes with each administration. It should be the duty of such a permanent official to familiarize himself thoroughly with the details of construction of the building and with the location and general character of the records. He would then be in a position to judge quickly and accurately of the chances of checking any fire that might start, and to take charge of the removal of the records with intelligence and authority. At Jefferson City the peculiar construction of the roofs that made the destruction inevitable was unknown to the State officials, or was, at any rate, six years ago, when I explored the lofts searching for papers. Apparently no attempt was made to remove any papers from the building for at least two hours after the fire was discovered, because no one realized the danger. The legislative documents were overlooked in the confusion; they were almost never referred to in current business, so were naturally forgotten. An official of sound common sense and thorough knowledge of the building would have ordered the removal of documents long before.

These considerations might be used with equal force as arguments for the creation of a department of archives, or at least of a scientifically-trained superintendent of records, but I am assuming that public opinion is not sufficiently educated for so great an advance.

In the second place, under the conditions assumed, the State should cooperate with the town in the matter of fire protection. This may take the form of a contribution toward the cost of maintaining a permanent, well-trained department and the purchase of apparatus, or the installation of a supplementary high-pressure system for the State buildings, to be connected with the town system as a reserve. Something may be said for both; perhaps the second would be easier to procure from the legislature; either would be of great advantage. Either would have saved the basement rooms at Jefferson City.

It is with considerable personal diffidence that I present such unscientific and commonplace suggestions before you; it is distinctly humiliating that conditions exist in this country that permit the presentation of a paper such as this to the archives commission of the American Historical Association. Yet it was recognized at Indianapolis last year that the time for trained archivists and really scientific work in the archives in this country was not yet. At present, perhaps, we can do no better service for the future than in considering and solving these very elementary problems.
In discussion of the paper on the fires at Albany and Jefferson City, Mr. Bernard K. Green, the Superintendent of the Library of Congress, pointed out that instead of being surprised at the fires which have taken place in the past, we may properly wonder that there have not been more of them, with a far greater destruction of records. Not only, he said, must archives be placed in buildings that are actually fireproof, but they must, furthermore, receive such an arrangement within the building that they can not readily take fire even though they are exposed to the flames. The great and continuous heat developed during a large fire will, however, destroy anything subjected to it, and it is more important to prevent the fire from starting than it is to be able to extinguish it after it has run its course. Persons of intelligence should always be in charge of buildings where valuable collections are stored, and careful supervision is always necessary to supplement even the best work of the architect and constructor.

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