St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral - Table of Contents

1888 Fire - St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral
139 Pearl Street, Buffalo, NY

From the Archives #16
May, 2012

National Historic Landmark - Nomination

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One week before the disastrous fire that left St. Paul’s Cathedral in ruins, a  reporter for the Buffalo Morning Express wrote of his concerns about fluctuating gas pressure and the lack of proper monitoring of the four regulators that controlled the volume of gas that passed through the Buffalo Natural Gas Fuel Company’s lines to approximately 3,000 customers. “It is a matter of considerable surprise to me that there have not been ere this disastrous explosions attended with great loss of life and destruction of property.“ How timely that warning was!

Thursday, May 10, 1888 dawned cold and rainy. Throughout the city gas furnaces were in use in homes and commercial buildings to chase away the unseasonable chill. Breakfasts were being prepared over gas ranges in a number of establishments up and down Main Street. It was also Ascension Day, and St. Paul’s sexton and his assistant were preparing the church for the 10:45 service.   

The first hint of trouble came shortly after 9 am when the cooking stoves of Pierce’s Hotel erupted in flames that lapped at the kitchen ceiling. It was among the first of over 40 fires to break out that morning.  Excessive gas pressure, due to a faulty regulator valve at Michigan and North Streets, allowed four times the normal amount of natural gas to pass along the Main Street corridor. Gas meters in homes and businesses along and adjacent to Main Street blew apart. If there were a flame near-by, a fiery explosion ensued.

Meter “blow-outs”, with or without fires, occurred in St. Louis Church and the Asbury Methodist and North Presbyterian Churches.  “Blow-outs” and small fires also occurred in the homes of such Buffalo notables as Messieurs Goodyear, Fargo, Rich, Schoelkopf, Birge and Hamlin (today the American Legion Post on Franklin Street). One maid, attempting to light a furnace, was blown across the basement floor. She was not injured. Earlier that morning, Mr. Wilkinson, St. Paul’s sexton, had smelled gas in the Guild House (site of the present Parish House) and had it shut off.
The fire at Pierce’s Hotel was barely contained when another alarm was sounded a few blocks away. Smoke had been seen curling up out of a basement window on Pearl Street. St. Paul’s Cathedral was on fire. The window-shattering explosion came at 9:20, sending shards of stained glass and all three front doors, flying off their hinges, into the surrounding streets.
By the time the fire fighters reached the scene, flames had already made their way into the narthex and nave. Thick smoke poured out of the empty  window openings. The conflagration was unstoppable, devouring the walnut timbers and columns, pews, altar, bishop’s chair, pulpit, hymnals and Prayer Books. From time to time, up-drafts created by the inferno below would set a bell in motion, causing it to toll mournfully. As slates from the sagging roof rattled down among them, firemen fought to save the tower that housed the bells by pumping thousands of gallons of water through the louvered windows.
Choir boys, who had been scheduled to sing at the mid-morning service, were also on hand. They immediately went to work removing whatever objects could be salvaged from the burning interior. One or two of them managed to squeeze through the narrow sacristy windows and rescued a number of items; one being the alms basin which will be used today in the offertory procession. The brass Altar Cross, which fell down between the Altar and the east wall, also survived. Fortunately, all the altar plate, including the 1825 silver communion service, was safe in the Guild House across the street.
Although St. Paul’s had three gas furnaces in the basement (two under the chancel and one under the narthex), none of them were in use at the time of the explosion. When the gas meter for the furnace under the narthex blew, the open flame of a gas light in the furnace room caused the blast.
By noon the fire was under control and “the chief pride of Buffalo’s churches” was a smoking ruin. Unfortunately, the events of May 10 lead to the death of one Buffalonian, Dr. Augustus R. Davidson, professor in the Medical Department of Niagara University, and a twelve-year member of St. Paul’s Vestry. He had worked feverishly all morning directing the salvage operations as the cathedral burned. Due to overexertion and exposure to the inclement weather, Dr. Davidson developed pneumonia. He died on May 25, 1888 leaving university colleagues, parishioners, his wife and their five daughters to mourn his untimely passing at the age of 43.
At an emergency meeting that evening, the Vestry voted to rebuild immediately. A number of parishes offered their facilities to St. Paul’s congregation in the interval. Having accepted Dr. Israel Aaron’s generous offer, on Sunday morning, May 13, St. Paul’s congregation met in Temple Beth Zion on Niagara Street, and continued to meet there for many months. By October of 1888, New York architect Robert W. Gibson’s plans were accepted and work on the restoration began in earnest. The new St. Paul’s Cathedral was hallowed by Bishop Arthur C. Coxe on January 3, 1890.

Special thanks to Wayne Mori for making this archive available for reprinting.

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2014
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