Cities in the 1900’s were horrendous infernos waiting to happen. Wood was the building material of choice. You could find barns of hay in most backyards. Coal furnaces and kerosene lamps produced the population’s heat and light. What little electrical there was was precarious even by the times standards. It didn’t take much for a fire to devastate a whole city. Think the infamous cow that kicked over the lamp causing the Great Chicago Fire. Even the “normal” rate of fires back in 1900 would be a national crisis by today’s standards. So for a fire to go down in the history books it had to be monumental.
Rochester didn’t have just one memorable fire. It had five years of memorable fires that disrupted every facet of the city. From 1905 to 1909 Rochester was living in The Arson Years. These fires were not accidents or the result of poor city planning. Greed, corruption, and a chance to get rich quick almost reduced our city to ash.
In the 1850’s, Rochester was ‘on par’ with the rest of the nation as far as fire safety. Problem was ‘par for the course’ back then was complete fucking anarchy. Volunteer fire brigades served as the main line of defense. Firemen spent more time fighting each other than any fires.
When the fire alarm went off, it was a footrace to see which brigade got there first. Brigades would often try to barricade the opposition’s route. Blocking potential fire fighters from the fire instead of fighting the fire itself. There was a professional fire organization trained and equipped by the city. That force was still small and had not emerged into a significant solution yet. So chances were the people keeping your home from burning to the ground were at best “rowdy and ineffective”.
The city government was spinning its wheels trying to keep up with emerging safety laws. The city’s current law was rudimentary at best and enforced by a single fire marshal. The majority of the marshal’s day consisted of going door to door checking chimneys.
The true enforcers of fire code were insurance companies. Having something to lose, they enacted their own laws and sent their own inspectors. If a single building was not up to the insurance agency’s code the entire neighborhood would receive a pink slip. These pink slips signified a temporary 25-35% increases in insurance costs for the entire district. Every time there was a fire, the insurance company would issue a pink slip to the neighborhood. Forcing a neighborhood to deal with financial burdens along with fire damages.
Fear of financial lose and fear of the insurance companies motivated the city to take action. Pushing for renovation the city constructed six cisterns and installed two independent water systems. The official fire organization expanded out to six districts pushing out the volunteer forces. The City of Rochester equipped each district with the best gear available. (Which at the time was horse drawn steam hoses, but hey progress.) A bell tower was even constructed to alarm the city of potential fires. By 1900 the city was well on its way to being safe. That is until February 26th 1904, when the Sibley Building caught fire.
The fire started next door in Rochester’s Dry Goods warehouse. An electrical fuse in a elevator blew igniting drapery. This fire spread to the dry goods themselves. Both buildings had recently filled their stockrooms with the spring’s supply of goods. This allowed the fire to rage through the warehouse to the Sibley Building. In forty hours the fire managed to take out Main st. from Clinton to St. Paul and Division.
As usual the insurance companies issued a pink slip to the neighborhood. But this accident was a little different. Sibley had an insurance policy on the building and the spring supply of dry goods. The settlement amounted to roughly three million in today’s dollars. The amount was unheard of and publicized in local papers the following week.
The public now became aware that there was quick money in property fires. Whats better is that the money came from the exact companies who were screwing them in the first place. It was revenge and a get rich quick scheme wrapped into one matchbox. It was too perfect for Rochesterians not to try. So one insurance payout marked the beginning of Rochester’s journey through hell.
Buildings began going up in flames across Rochester overnight. In 1905 there was 560 fires across the city. It was impossible to call all the fires accidents. The Fee Brothers building managed to burn down next to the river, in a snow storm, ten degrees below zero. All the American Brewery’s barns happened to burn down at the same time across town. One furniture store had stacked it’s merchandise, 200 chairs, around the furnace. The pile was then dosed in alcohol and lit with a torch. Investigators found house wives setting fire to their homes attempting to claim furniture insurance. Some fires were obvious arson, gas soaked rags and alcohol barrels, but not for profit and random. It seemed like the citizens of Rochester just began to enjoy burning shit to the ground.
This trend of arson for fun and profit showed little sign of stopping. The total fires rose from 680 to 980 per year by 1907. In 1908 the city retired the bell tower that alerted the city to fire. The constant ringing had damaged the structure of the entire tower. With almost three major fires a day the city found itself in an everlasting hell fire.
The city government was shook from this epidemic. The shiny brand new fire department found itself stretched thin. Construction on more modern fire systems could was not fast enough to quell the flames. Police had no way of finding would-be arsonists. This was not an criminal organization or a lone arsonist but a trend of average property owners starting fires at random. People were getting away with it as well. If no solid evidence linking the culprit to the fire, there no charges. No charges meant that insurance companies had to play the settlement. Hundreds of fires went unsolved every year.
The constant pressure from insurance companies forced the city to take drastic measures. In 1908, A new police commissioner, backed by insurance companies, began a citywide crackdown. Officers began a dragnet across the city bringing in anyone suspected of committing arson. After the first night they brought in over a hundred suspects. A pack of matches or loitering was an excuse to arrest someone for arson. Critics of the dragnet claimed the police were using it as an excuse to round up ‘undesirables’. Local groups claimed the city was punishing all residents for ‘a few arsonists’. Still arrests continued as fires climbed from 918 to 964 a year.
On April 13th 1909, Rochester experienced it’s worst fire to date. A small fire that began in the Old Seden Building on Main became a half mile square inferno. 60 MPH winds swept the flames north east expanding into 64 heavy populated buildings. It took the help of Buffalo and Syracuse’s fire departments to put out the blaze. Train cars of firefighters and equipment flooded into the city. When the fire died thousands of onlookers cheered.
The disaster was the final straw for the insurance companies. In the last five years the insurance company had paid out over six million in today’s dollars to fire damage. The Seden Fire began at 11am by 5pm the company had passed a new insurance policy. The companies would no longer pay fire damage settlements and all insurance rates doubled overnight.
A lengthy legal battle over whether the insurance companies’ new policy was legal ensued. To spare some boring details the lawsuit failed and the policy remained intact. The insurance company showed that they were paying out as much money as they were taking in. If Rochester wanted to burn itself to the ground so be it. Higher insurance rates were just ‘cost of doing business’. Extinguished by police crack downs, financial burden, and lack of incentive the arson stopped.
Five years, four thousand fires, and eighteen million dollars in property damage. The Arson Years were over. The fire rates settled down to normal, even safe, levels. Five years of fighting countless infernos per day made our firefighters exceptional. It also helps that these fires were accidental, not constructed. Future years would see the numbers of fires in Rochester fall under the national average.
The Arson Years give us a snap shot of Rochester almost one hundred years ago. It shows a the local population becoming so sick of the system that it burnt itself to the ground for a quick buck. It portrays a government backing a monopolistic company and resorting to police violence to solve problems. It shows an time when countless lives, buildings, and history went up in smoke. After five years of fire, greed, corruption, and chaos the city had two things. Higher insurance rates and a pile of ashes.