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Retrospect

The Great Monticello Fire

John Conway
Posted 8/13/21

The main business districts of many Sullivan County communities have been reshaped over the years by major fires. In Liberty, it was the June 13, 1913 conflagration that wiped out a large part of …

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Retrospect

The Great Monticello Fire

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The main business districts of many Sullivan County communities have been reshaped over the years by major fires. In Liberty, it was the June 13, 1913 conflagration that wiped out a large part of Main Street. Jeffersonville suffered a major fire on May 10, 1918, Callicoon on February 28, 1888, and Bloomingburg on February 24, 1922.

Monticello suffered two such blazes, the first in August of 1909, and then in June of 1919.

The 1909 fire is generally regarded as the worst—at least in terms of property loss—in the county’s history.

As the 20th century dawned, Monticello was among the most beautiful and most modern communities in the county. Magnificent shade trees lined its Main Street, and so did a growing array of electric streetlamps, powered by the massive generators located on the property of Peter C. Murray at the rear of his Palatine Hotel.

Murray had purchased the old Commercial Hotel on the corner of Main and Orchard Streets (known as Broadway and Landfield Avenue today) from long-time town clerk Al Gillespie around 1890, and promptly replaced it with a magnificent yellow brick, four-story, turret-topped structure he christened the Palatine.

He then erected the equally impressive Palatine Theatre, which connected to the rear of the hotel, and the adjoining power plant, which provided lighting for his two businesses.

This new-fangled concept proved so popular with village residents that other businessmen were soon prevailing upon Murray to produce power for them, too. In response to this growing demand, Murray built a new, enlarged power plant in 1904 that provided enough electricity to supply some 4,000 lamps-- the entire village and then some– while its exhaust heated the hotel and theater throughout the winter.

Before long, state of the art electric streetlights illuminated most of the Main Street business district. The village of Monticello was much the better for Murray’s investment.

But something went terribly wrong at the power plant on the evening of August 10, 1909. An errant spark ignited something and fire broke out sometime after eight o’clock. Fanned by a stiff summer breeze blowing from the northwest, the fire raged out of control, and the powerhouse was totally involved by the time the alarm was sounded at about 8:30. As the Republican Watchman newspaper later reported, “the flames spread, and in an hour the entire village seemed to be doomed.”

The theater caught fire almost immediately, and, according to the Watchman, “in less time than it takes to chronicle it, that place of masquerade, frolic and fun was in a mass of flames.” Despite the efforts of the village’s three fire companies, there was little that could be done to save the hotel building, which caught fire next.

The fire raced both up and down Main Street and then jumped the wide expanse of thoroughfare, igniting buildings on the other side. It raged all through the night, and into the next morning. By the time it was extinguished, Main Street was in ruins.

In all, 74 businesses had been wiped out, and the property loss estimated at over $1 million dollars, or nearly $30 million in today’s economy. The beautiful and distinctive shade trees that had lined the village’s principal street were destroyed, too, and they would never be replaced.

The north side of Main Street from the Carlton Hotel to the National Union Bank was burned to the ground. Buildings destroyed on the opposite side of the street included the heralded Hotel Rockwell on the southwest corner of Main and Mill Streets (today’s Broadway and St. John).

Joseph Engelmann, who served as the president of the village council–the equivalent of today’s mayor– ordered a village employee to New York City the very next day to purchase 72 new electric street lamps. Temporary shacks were erected to house the displaced businesses, and all available manpower was devoted to cleaning up the rubble.

Still, by the following summer, the rebuilding effort had not been completed. The O&W Railroad reported in its guidebook that year that “the burnt section is being rebuilt with the utmost speed, and the town is to be congratulated on its splendid effort toward rehabilitation.”

By 1912, downtown Monticello had been entirely rebuilt and Main Street had been paved. A new power plant had been constructed on St. John Street, away from the center of town.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com. On Tuesday, August 17, he will present “The Castles of Sullivan County” at the Liberty Library. Contact the library for more information.

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