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A Christmas miracle

John Conway
Posted 12/15/23

It was December 14, 1917, and a Christmas miracle-- and the diligent work of local firemen-- prevented a good portion of the hamlet of Narrowsburg’s business district from being incinerated. …

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A Christmas miracle


It was December 14, 1917, and a Christmas miracle-- and the diligent work of local firemen-- prevented a good portion of the hamlet of Narrowsburg’s business district from being incinerated.  

“The old and historic passenger depot of the Erie railroad at this place is a smoking mass of debris, as the result of a conflagration which swept the old structure Friday evening at 6:45 o ’clock, when an acetylene gas machine in the waiting room of the building exploded, and ignited the wooden structure,” The Sullivan County Record newspaper reported in its December 20 edition. “The entire build­ing was consumed, together with the pay checks, left as the pay car passed over the lines, and all passenger tickets and money in the cash drawer were consumed in the flames.”

The destruction of the train station— one of the oldest on the Erie line— was a major blow to the community, but the situation could have been much worse if the volunteer fire department had not been on the scene and alert to the dangers of blowing embers.

“A serious conflagration was narrowly averted, when the Annex Hotel, located a short distance away from the burning station, caught fire several times,” the Liberty Register reported on December 21. “But owing to the vigi­lance of the volunteer firefighters, the building was saved from burning. Had this structure been consumed, the entire business section of the little village on the Delaware might have been destroyed.”

The Narrowsburg Volunteer Fire Department had been organized in the spring of 1902, with an original charter of 48 members being signed on May 13 of that year at a meeting at the Sons of Liberty Hall, which had been secured especially for that purpose. One additional charter member was added the following month, and the first piece of firefighting equipment secured shortly thereafter. There were three original companies, the Cataract Engine Company, the Alert Hose Company, and the Tusten Hook & Ladder Company. By 1917, the department had a number of experienced members.

For some residents of Narrowsburg, the December 14, 1917 fire— and what might have occurred as a result, but did not-- recalled an event in the distant past when a blaze that started with an Erie Railroad train accident had tragic consequences for the community, at least in part because there was no fire department.

“On the last Sunday of August, 1866, eight cars loaded with oil were standing on the main track of the railroad at Narrowsburgh [sic], when a freight-train, moving on the same rails, collided with the oil-cars, and crushed them, causing the oil to run over the adjacent grounds and mill-pond. The oil instantly took fire, and every inflammable thing within its reach was enveloped in flames, as well as the pond of water, which covered several acres,” James Eldridge Quinlan writes in his “History of Sullivan County,” published in 1873.

“Several buildings were destroyed. The second story of one of these was occupied by Charles Williams, with his wife and two children. Williams seized the children and rushed through the flames in front of the house. While doing so, he dropped one of them, and stopped to pick it up. All three were so badly burned that they died. Mrs. Williams escaped by jumping from a second story rear-window, where there was no fire, and within an hour afterwards was delivered of a child. The train of cars was entirely destroyed, as well as a house of Joseph Bivens, another of Andrew Hendricks, the building occupied by Williams, a carpenter’s shop, 50,000 feet of lumber, etc. The loss of property was estimated at $80,000.”

Fortunately, the 1917 blaze did not result in any additional property loss other than the depot building, nor did it claim any lives, although a number of people were injured. Erie stationmaster J.H. Kirk and his assistant, Edward Engelmann, were both burned while attempting to save the books, tickets, and money from the depot office.

The depot also housed the Wells Fargo freight office, and the Western Union telegraph office, both of which were destroyed. The Narrowsburg community was without telegraph service for about 24 hours before repairs could be made.

Also destroyed was the well-known restaurant operated in the depot by the Murray brothers. In the days before the railroad introduced dining cars, the Narrowsburg stop was noted for its fine food, and among the notables who had dined there were President Millard Fillmore and Daniel Webster on the railroad’s inaugural run.

Perhaps to show his gratitude for his business having been saved, William Engelmann, the proprietor of the Annex Hotel, “generously offered the use of his building, which is near the railroad tracks, to be used as a temporary depot. This has been accepted by the road officials,” the Liberty Register reported.

The town’s business district spared, and a potential major disaster averted, the people of Narrowsburg had a little something extra to be thankful for during the Christmas season of 1917.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.  


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