Watertown, NY Fire, May 1849

Watertown, in the first half century of its existence, was plagued by fires which, because of the lack of a village water system, took a heavy toll. The most disastrous fire in the history of Watertown was the famous fire of 1849 which virtually wiped out the village's business section and resulted in the greatest building boom this community has ever known.

The fire started early in the morning of Sunday, May 13th, in the stage coach sheds the rear of the American House. Within a few minutes the hotel was enveloped in flames and the guests made their way to safety with considerable difficulty. The flames leaped across Court street and set afire the building that housed Wooster Sherman's bank. That redoubtable citizen succeeded in escaping with the bank's assets in a wheel barrow but lost his hat and singed his whiskers in the process.

The flames swept down Court street, burning down the old Safford block and the Peck block. They leaped across the street to Jason Fairbanks' stone block and then started eating their way down that side of Court street. The fire burned its way up Arsenal street about to the present Avon theater, destroying everything in its path, including the old Columbia hotel. It burned out the whole area where Arcade street is now located, destroyed everything between the American House and the Present Paddock Arcade on the west side of Public Square, burned Mr. Woodruff's new Iron Block virtually to the ground and destroyed everything on the north side of the Square from Court street to the present Archway.

The volunteer firemen were virtually helpless. Their only source of water was the old cistern on Public Square fed by a living spring. Norris Woodruff was the fire chief and galloped up and down Court street, which was literally arched with flames, on horseback directing the firemen. But the water supply gave out and when the steeple of old Trinity church, near the present City Hall, collapsed just as the town clock in the steeple was striking four, it was feared that the entire village might be destroyed. Fortunately, the old stone county clerk's office, standing near the present Jackman street, was fireproof save for its wooden roof. This roof was literally lifted off the building and the spread of the flames down Court street was stopped at that point. To the south, the flames did not make much headway being against the wind.

Soon after daybreak, it started to rain and the steam rose high above the still smoldering embers. Merchandise was -oiled high in Public Square, Arsenal and Court streets and guards were set to protect the goods from thieves.

It seemed for the moment that Watertown had suffered an irreparable loss. Only five business blocks were still standing in the village. Four banks, nearly every drygoods store and all the printing offices but one had been burned out.

By an odd twist of fate, fires within the next three years destroyed nearly all that was left. The block which housed Orville Hungerford's store, which had escaped in the 1849 fire, was soon after burned to the ground. This stood roughly where Smith & Percy's building now stands. Then another fire destroyed the old Perkins House, on the site of the present Y. M. C. A. building and the block adjoining to the south where Knowlton & Rice's printery and bindery was located. The Universalist church was burned in another fire. This just about cleaned out Public Square, Court street, Arsenal street and lower Washington street.

150 years of Watertown; Watertown, N.Y.: Watertown Daily Times, pages 24, 25-26