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Nyack People & Places: Fired Fireman Fires Firehouse

by Mike Hays

Jackson Hose Company on Main St. at Franklin Ave.in 1908. Part of the old village hall can be seen on the far right with 1 fire door showing. Courtesy of the Nyack Library.

Nyack was a mecca for incendiary fires for nearly 3 years when Village Clerk Smith smelled smoke coming from the Jackson Hose Company’s station on the first floor of Village Hall at 12:15p on July 20, 1909. Flames were shooting up the back wall of the station. “Don’t call it in, we will take care of it!” yelled ex-fireman Peter Ross who, with a friend, rolled the hose carriage out the station doors and hooked up to a hydrant on Main St. Fortunately, Justice Levinson, who was interviewing 2 prisoners in the village lock-up behind the fire station, phoned the alarm in to Nyack fire station central for much needed help. Smith escaped through a second-floor window and the smoke-threatened prisoners were set free.

When the fire was finally contained, the 2-story brick building at 134 Main St., now the home of Hudson House restaurant, was a blackened mess. Both of Jackson’s fire wagons were destroyed, including their precious parade carriage. Every chair, table, and scrap of paper was charred, and on the second floor, the trustees’ piano, village papers, and furniture were ruined.

Fires were a fact of life at the time because businesses and homes had more open flames from gas lights, kerosene lanterns, candles, and fireplace. But evidence that a firebug was loose was found at many fires from 1906 up to the Village Hall fire. Local business people were alarmed and presented a petition for more security at a village trustee meeting in Village Hall the night before the fire. It turned out that the gas jets had been turned on in the firehouse, so there was little doubt that this was another in a long line of incendiary fires. Suspicion quickly focused on Peter Ross.

The First Opera House Fire

Opera House hotel circa 1960 viewed from Depew Ave. The hall of the Opera House was above the single floor buildings.

The Opera House, on the second-floor of a building attached to a hotel, was for many years Nyack’s finest meeting hall. The Opera House occupied a busy location near the train station at the northeast corner of Depew and Franklin Aves, now the site of urban renewal apartments.

On April 30 1906, just at the beginning of the incendiary crisis, men working at the train station turntable just across the street heard a loud explosion and saw flames coming out the front of the building. By the time firemen arrived the bar room was in flames and fire had spread up the stairs to the second floor. Firemen were praised for “fearlessly walking into the seething flames” by the local paper. The building was saved. The cause of the fire was never discovered, but it occurred at the beginning of a long string of fires in which incendiary materials were found.

A Summer of Fires Features a Second Opera House Fire

On June 28, a Liberty School watchman noticed smoke coming from a building owned by the Depews. Rousing a neighbor, they were able to carry water and douse the flames. Everyone noticed the smell of kerosene.

At midnight on July 11, 1909, firemen were called out to a burning store room attached to a barn on New St. near Park St. The building was owned by the Lydecker Bros and was used by the Empire State Tea Company for storing boxes and barrels. The firemen were able to douse the fire with water before much damage occurred. It was reported that the fire could have started in no other way but through incendiarism.

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A week later, a second unexplained fire at the Opera House broke out at 4a on Sunday morning. Fire alarms sounded. A number of Italian workmen staying in the hotel escaped, although one wasn’t roused until the firemen entered the building. The fire was contained but with much damage. The end of the building where the dining room joined the hall was torn down and three firemen were hurt, the most seriously was Harry Williams, who fell from the second floor to the sidewalk on Depew.

A Night of 4 Fires

A fire Armageddon started on Monday night, July 19. Fire alarms rang all night. The first fire occurred in a barn on Depew Ave that belonged to fish dealer Edward Tenny. It was badly burned. Unfortunately, the furniture of Mrs. John Fitzpatrick who had been taken to the alms house 2 weeks earlier was destroyed. Ironically, the village trustees had decided the night before that her possessions should be burned as they were not worth storing.

Hudson View Hotel on Burd St. near Smithsonian Hall was struck with a minor fire started by incendiary materials under a porch.

The third fire was nearby at the John Porter Sign Company in the Seabury Building on lower Main St. where the Nyack Hospital’s first Kirmesses were held. Papers saturated with kerosene were found in the building and a window was left open to provide a draft.

The fourth fire started almost immediately after, in T. S. Dutcher’s barn on Broadway north of the Baptist Church. Incendiaries were removed from the barn along with a cow and horse. Damage was minor. It was clear than an experienced firebug was at work.

A couple outsiders who had arrived in Nyack the day before were arrested, arraigned, and put in the lock up behind the fire house by sunrise. Moses Solomon of Albany, a cigar maker looking for work, was seen at the Tenny fire and arrested. Another cigar maker, James Murphy, was seen on Franklin Ave. and arrested.

Firehouse Fire

On the morning of the fire, James Lynch and Peter Ross went drinking in several local saloons, Lynch drinking beer and Ross beer and liquor. It was never explained why they went to the fire house, but upon being told the “arsonists” were in the jail, they went to see them, the jail abutting the rear of the firehouse.

Ross and Lynch stood in a barred corridor outside 2 cells. The lock-up may still be seen just as it was that day at the Hudson House restaurant. It is now their wine cellar. Ross left and Lynch found that for some strange reason Ross had locked him into the corridor. When the constable came by he wouldn’t let Lynch out even though he knew him, because maybe he was supposed to be locked up. Next Judge Levinson arrived to talk to the prisoners. Lynch, the constable, Judge Levinson, and the 2 prisoners were together when the fire broke out. No one else was in the station.

Ross returned to the lock-up after about 10 minutes, during which time he was seen walking around the outside of the fire station by an employee of the John Post Co., which was located just behind the fire house. Shortly after Ross returned, village clerk Smith smelled smoke and the fire had started.

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Peter Ross

1910 view of north side of Main St. showing Village Hall a year after fire.

Peter Ross, the first to fight the fire, was soon arrested. He had an opportunity to start to turn on the gas jets in the back of the fire station and light them, when he locked his friend in the jail. He had motive since he was expelled from the Jackson Hose Company a year before for failure to pay his dues. As an ex-fireman, he knew how and where to start fires. Arson is tricky to prove and the evidence in this case was circumstantial. Ross had motive and opportunity. He was bound over to the Grand Jury.

At the Grand Jury hearing, Ross had many defenders who attested that Ross was of good character from a well-respected family. Ross grew up in Nyack. His parents were Irish and had 11 children. In fact, Ross had been in trouble before. In 1899, at age 14, Ross and Grant Dutcher were arrested for larceny. They confessed to stealing Miss Nukart’s pocketbook at the Nyack Union Free School. They had the pocketbook when arrested, minus 50 cents, and Ross was sent to a Catholic Protectory in Westchester County.

In 1903, Henry Hope, the station master at the S. Nyack station was assaulted with a club and robbed. Frank Davis of S. Nyack was arrested on suspicion of robbery or at least knowing something about the robbery. One of his friends was Peter Ross, who when interviewed by police, claimed Davis told him not to tell the story of a time when Davis and others planned to rob Hope but overslept in a nearby greenhouse. Ross may have been a nice guy, but he hung out with an unsavory group.

Would an Ex-fireman Torch a Firehouse?

1890 view of the Jackson Hose Company in front of their prize carriage at their old station house on Jackson St. They moved to old Village Hall the next year.

Firefighting arsonists do exist. About 100 are arrested every year according to Firesetting Firefighters – The Arsonist in the Fire Department, published by the National Volunteer Fire Council in the 1990s. Firefighter arsonists, typically profiled as young men between ages 17 and 25 (Ross was 24 at the time), sometimes set fires with plans to put them out. The firehouse fire seems to fit this type of “hero fire” for it was Ross’ intention to put the fire out himself.

It is also possible that Ross had a revenge motive in mind for being drummed out of the department when he destroyed Jackson Fire Company’s prize-winning fire carriage. One of the biggest parade events was planned for October 9, 1909, the Hudson Fulton Celebration parade commemorating the anniversary of the Fulton steamship and Hudson’s exploration of the river. With the loss of their carriage, Jackson Hose Company was denied the opportunity to parade at its best.

Grand Jury Results

The Grand Jury met at the end of October, 1909. Evidence was presented once again on the village fire and several others directly related to Ross. Apparently, Rockland County had hired a detective to follow Ross while he was on bail. Ross was not indicted; rather, a presentment was handed to the court, meaning the prosecution had inside knowledge of the facts. There is no record of any trial or whether Ross was convicted.

Arson Aftermath

Peter Ross continued to live in the village with his parents. He enlisted in the army in World War I, serving with the 498 Aero Squadron building air fields in France. In 1923, Peter Ross was interred in Oak Hill Cemetery and the mysterious life of Peter Ross ends there.

Jackson Hose Company never went back to 134 N. Main. They built a new firehouse on Park St. at the junction with New St. A new fire station was recently built at the same location.

Village hall was refurbished; the fire doors were removed on the first floor, and the Nyack Police force moved in. Village administration remained on the second floor until they moved to their current address on N. Broadway.


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The building became Raoul’s in the 1980s, the sister of a SoHo restaurant. In 1990, the Hudson family took over the building and established the Hudson House restaurant, retaining many historical features including the old village jail and the village safe on the second floor.

The story of Peter Ross, who likely set so many fires in the village, is still a local legend in fire houses. Nyack Fire Department: A Commemorative History states that “whenever old-time firemen gather in the companies’ comfortable quarters, they are certain to hear the story of the day when Nyack village hall was set on fire and of the fireman who was arrested for arson.”

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Photos: Historical photos courtesy of the Nyack Library. Current view of Hudson House by Mike Hays.

Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.

HRHCare Community Health logoNyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is brought to you by HRHCare and Weld Realty.

 




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