As outlined in Part 1, English immigrants John Harrison & John Dalley created a shopping empire in downtown Nyack during the Gilded Age that had as much import in Rockland County as the Nanuet and Palisades Malls. Billed as a City store in the country filled with up-to date styles of home furnishings and clothing, Harrison & Dalley created a unique, customer-centric shopping experience. All that changed because of a dramatic fire in 1915. Here is the story of the fire and its aftermath.
A Small Fire Gets Out of Hand Quickly
The fire started in the basement sometime around 10a on Wednesday October 13, 1915, near crates and excelsior at the foot of the elevator shaft. It wasn’t much of a fire at first. Employees attempted to put it out rather than call the fire department immediately. Quickly the fire got out of hand as more excelsior and wood in the basement caught fire. James Parks, an employee, became trapped and narrowly escaped but not before his hair was burned off. The elevator shaft in the back and the wide central stairway provided chimneys for the fire to spread to the upper floor where wicker furniture caught fire. Rolls of linoleum spread a dark smoke as they caught fire.
Hundreds Watch the Fire
The fire had already advanced when local fire companies arrived about 11a. Firemen opened windows on the New Street side to get at the fire. Unfortunately, this allowed a strong northwest wind to fan flames inside the building and the fire grew even faster. Firemen fought the blaze from both streets at once. Fire ladders stretched up on both sides of the building. Twenty streams of water were used at once, filling the basement to a depth of six feet as well. One cellar wall collapsed. After an hour, the safe crashed through the floors landing in the basement. Around 12p the roof collapsed. Not much could be saved. Many downtown stores closed. Hundreds of villagers lined the streets to watch the firemen at work.
Downtown Nyack Saved
The intense blaze coupled with a strong wind threatened the entire downtown.To protect the downtown, local fire houses summoned additional help from Central Nyack, Suffern, Pearl River, Piermont, Spring Valley, Congers, and Haverstraw.
The adjoining stores, Blauvelt Pharmacy (now Koblin’s) to the west and Lydecker Brothers to the east had four feet of water in their basements. Other stores east including Luleich Bakery had water and smoke damage. Firemen on the scene pumped the basements dry before they left that evening. Employees at the Blauvelt pharmacy moved inventory out of the store. Rockland Light and Power cut the electrical lines to prevent falling wires. The dental offices of Drs. Harvey and John Gilchrest and the Metropolitan Insurance Company located upstairs had considerable damage.
The fire companies performed well, keeping the immediate fire contained to one building. Downtown was saved from an even greater disaster.
Twelve firemen, seven from Nyack, suffered from smoke and escaping gas including Butch Logue, who seems to have been a participant in every major Nyack event during the 20th century. Moved to Nyack Fire Central on Park Street, Drs. Kline, Toms, and Leitner and two Nyack Hospital nurses saw to their recovery. A pulmotor, an early mechanical ventilator, borrowed from the power company was used to resuscitate the men. It was thought that a very ill Everett McBrien of Highland Company survived only because of the pulmotor.
A falling brick knocked William Locke unconscious. George Hofer was knocked out when a gas line in the cellar broke. Oscar Gage of Jackson Fire Company was blasted across the street by a stream of water while connecting a hose to hydrant.
Five members of the Nyack Fire Patrol remained on the scene watching for embers until a two-whistle signal sounded at 10p. Even so, a fire broke out in excelsior that hadn’t already burned three days after the big fire. Fire companies were called, and more water was used to extinguish the fire in the ruins.
John Dalley was out of town at the time of the fire. He returned immediately and worked quickly to restart the business. He reopened business by October 23, only a week after the fire. The upholstery section was the only department still intact. Dalley rented space at four different locations on S. Broadway and Main Street. 66 S. Broadway displayed new stock of furniture, rugs, and Victrolas. 68 S. Broadway became their home furnishings department. Women’s dry goods and men’s furnishings were sold at the old Fabbrini fruit store near Broadway on Main Street. At the Lyceum Theater on Main just above Franklin St, clerks sold cloaks, millinery, silks, dress goods, corsets, and muslin underwear. Arriving freight was stored at the Peerless factory near the railroad depot.
The same week, Dalley, a major local newspaper advertiser, published a card of thanks to the firemen in the Rockland County Journal. By November 6, much of the insurance was paid out by Joseph Gaynor agency. Dalley was advertising goods for Christmas in December.
Reopening on Main Street
A December 1916 ad indicates they were open again on Main Street for the Christmas season. It was a different looking building. The second floor was much truncated. The lunettes above the second floor disappeared as did the central triangular pediment. It appears that the second floor was still in use by the store as they were advertising mattresses and the like in addition to women’s clothing.
Harrison & Dalley Closes, F. W. Woolworth Moves In
Harrison & Dalley closed on December 5, 1934. Even at the end, their ads were top of the class in local papers. The family indicates that W. T. Grant may have leased the space for a year, but in any event F. W. Woolworth signed a 15-year lease in November 1935 and opened the next month moving from their old store at the corner of Main and Broadway (now Turiello’s pizza). Woolworths operated on a single floor. The second floor became office space including for the New York Telephone Company and Rockland Community College.
The Nyack Woolworth closed in 1993. It was the last Woolworth in Rockland County to close as Woolworth itself fell victim to new retail trends. At its closing the Nyack store had five full-time and four part-time workers. The old Woolworth building has gone through many owners and businesses since it closed, but one thing has remained constant, its famous sign with gold letters on a red background remains above the first floor although with a minor change to “F.W. Woolworth Way”.
A Lost Icon
Harrison & Dalley, the city store in the country, was the go-to department store in Rockland County for decades. Like a meteor, Harrison & Dalley magically appeared in Nyack at the height of the Gilded Age and lasted for forty plus years, a survivor of one of Nyacks most dramatic fires. It is hard to imagine in our current era of online next-day merchandise delivery that we once had the luxury of a personal retail touch in a store that had much of what was needed in one place, all accompanied by the sounds of creaking wood floors, the smells of turpentine and doughnuts, and the magical pneumatic tube. Like Florence Ripley Mastin we can only “dream of shopping there again”.
Michael Hays is a 36-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. He is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. Hays has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.