Stunned residents left with memories after Johnstown blaze

Joe DeCristofaro gazed despondently out at the twisted steel and crumbled brick wreckage lying in pi
People watch as firefighters battle a blaze on West State Street in Johnstown on Thursday.
People watch as firefighters battle a blaze on West State Street in Johnstown on Thursday.

Joe DeCristofaro gazed despondently out at the twisted steel and crumbled brick wreckage lying in piles along West State Street.

Gradually, he identified the charred factory machines that he once operated at Arrow Leather Finishing, his father’s business. Just hours earlier, he had been working in the building when someone alerted him of the fire rapidly spreading down the block.

By the early evening, there was little left to salvage. All that remained were the smoldering ruins of the block and the omnipresent odor of smoke.

“It’s all tragedy as far as I’m concerned,” said the rattled Johnstown resident. “This was part of my life for 25 years.”

In all, four of the city’s historic leather factories were leveled by a rapid-moving blaze touched off by a welder’s torch being used by a salvage crew in the former Gordon Finishing building. Gusting morning winds picked up hot embers and touched off more than a dozen fires around Johnstown.

Across the street, William Brown waited patiently for the insurance adjustor to arrive at his 29 N. Melcher St. residence, where partially melted beige siding was hanging from the building. Debris lifted from the blaze ignited his carriage house and gutted the building. His home survived only because fire crews kept dousing it with streams of water.

“Very quickly, it went from building to building,” he said, as crews from three ladder trucks continued to douse the smoldering remains on West State Street. “Luckily, the fire department kept their hoses on the house.”

For Brown, it was the second time in less than a year that he found himself surveying the damage to his property. In June, a bad hail storm pounded his house, knocking out windows and destroying the siding. He had only recently repaired the damage.

“Now this year it’s the fire,” he lamented. “And I’ve only been here five years.”

Harold Baez stared up toward the gaping hole burned into the roofline of his two-family house at 20 N. Melcher St. The New York City resident had only recently invested $12,000 into renovating the attic into a living space.

“And it was finished, too,” he said. “But the fire burned that whole corner of the house.”

Several doors down, Judy and William Gotobed sat on their lawn waiting for electricity to be restored to their neighborhood. Burning embers touched off small fires around their roof, prompting fire crews to knock out an attic window and cut a hole in the roof.

Gotobed said he noticed his neighbor’s house starting to ignite from the embers and went to extinguish it with a garden hose. That’s when he noticed flames starting on parts of his own home; even the family dog, a black lab named Buddha, was slighty singed when an ember landed on his shoulders.

“It was crazy,” Gotobed said Thursday evening. “Everywhere you looked, there was a yard or a pile of leaves on fire.”

Sandy and Ray Castler of Amsterdam drove to Johnstown after hearing about the fire. For decades, they had traveled by the leather factories on their way to Caroga Lake and had become so familiar with them that the gaping hole on West State seemed foreign.

“You take it for granted and then one day they’re not there anymore,” she said. “It changes the whole look of the place.”

City Historian Noel Levee said all four of the destroyed buildings once played a significant role in Johnstown’s once booming leather industry. Many of the companies that established a name for tannery businesses in both Gloversville and Johnstown originated in the factories along West State Street.

“It’s sad,” Levee said. “You have a piece of Johnstown’s industrial era that went up in smoke,” he said.

The oldest and perhaps most renowned among them was the former Ireland Brothers company, which was built during the late 1870s and was once the world’s second-largest producer of the embroidered long gloves, once fashionable women’s apparel. This building later housed Pearl Leather Finishing until Arrow Leather occupied it most recently.

The largest of the destroyed buildings belonged to the Richard Evans & Son Glove Co. and was built sometime during the late 19th century. The structure later housed the Lee Dyeing Co., once one of the area’s largest employers.

The fire originated in a building that housed Jacob DeBeer Baseball Manufacturing, which crafted balls from locally produced leather during the early 20th century. The building eventually became Gordon Finishing, a business that closed about a decade ago.

“The interesting thing is some of the larger companies in Gloversville and Johnstown started in those buildings,” said Steve Oare, a Johnstown native versed on the area’s leather history. “To have that all gone is going to be a shock.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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