Cudmore: The history of the Amsterdam Fire Department

PHOTOGRAPHER:

After a one year hiatus, the Amsterdam Icons calendar is back and the 2021 edition focuses on the history of the local Fire Department.

“Fire has always been an ever-present threat and danger,” wrote Jerry Snyder in announcing availability of the calendar on the website of Historic Amsterdam League, an organization Snyder co-founded.

Amsterdam’s first fire station was built in 1839 on Chuctanunda Street to house Mohawk Engine Company Number 1.

In 1870 the crew of volunteers and equipment there became the J.D. Serviss Steamer and Hose Company Number 1.

Serviss was a popular political leader and insurance man who became known as the “father” of the local fire department.

The Chuctanunda Street firehouse later was home to the city Police Department for a time.

Snyder wrote, “Volunteer fire companies continued to organize and operate as Amsterdam transitioned from a village to a city in 1885 and slowly began to add paid firemen to the force after the establishment of the Amsterdam Fire Department in 1890.”

The last volunteer companies were disbanded in 1907.

The first motorized fire truck was purchased in 1913 for the Chuctanunda Street fire station.

Two long-serving horses, Buster and Tighe, were assigned to other duties. The first aerial ladder truck was purchased in 1918.

Within a few years the department was fully motorized. For much of the 20th century the Fire Department had several engine houses throughout the city and a larger Central Fire Station housed in a converted stable and carriage house at Pearl and West Main streets.

That landmark was torn down after city Fire Department operations moved to the Public Safety building at Church Street and Route 5 in 1973.

The satellite fire station I remember was Engine Number 6 at the corner of Pulaski Street and Bartlett Avenue on Reid Hill, across the street from where my family lived when I was a youngster.

My father used to hang out with the firefighters in the 1950s, in particular Chris Bonafede, who drove horses at the Saratoga harness track in his off hours.

Snyder wrote, “Serious fires populate Amsterdam’s history.” In 1941 fire destroyed the McGibbon Block on downtown’s East Main Street.

Snyder added, “The rebuilt McGibbon Block burned again in 1943, making way for the Tryon Theater.”

Fire destroyed the grandstand at Mohawk Mills Park eight days before the New York Yankees were scheduled to come to Amsterdam to play their minor league team, the Rugmakers, at the park in the summer of 1942.

A team was assembled that replaced the grandstand and increased seating capacity by 200 in time for the arrival of Joe DiMaggio and his fellow Yankees.

A 1955 blaze in an East End tenement with no clear exits on Schuyler Street claimed 12 lives. The bodies were lined up outside the fire-ravaged building awaiting removal by funeral directors. The cause apparently was a kerosene heater.

Another fire which saddened the community took place in 1967 at the Guy Park Avenue home of Tony Greco, Amsterdam schools athletic director. Greco was not home but his wife and children died. Their home was behind Fire Department Engine #5 on Division Street.

In 1992 and 1994, arson fires gutted the former Mohasco carpet mill complex at Forest Avenue and Lyon Street.

In 2000, United Presbyterian Church on Church Street in Amsterdam burned. Lost in the blaze were Tiffany stained glass windows donated by the owners of the Sanford carpet mills.

The Shuttleworths, who owned Mohawk Carpets, had donated more naturalistic stained glass windows that also were destroyed, including one showing Jesus blessing factory workers.

The church has been rebuilt.

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