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Reminisces of Ogdensburgh

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Before it was a city, the village of Ogdensburgh was plagued over a two-year period by an arsonist who destroyed much of the commercial and residential buildings downtown. The following is excerpted from Reminiscences of Ogdensburgh:

Sept. 7, 1852 — An early morning fire on the north side of Ford Street in downtown Ogdensburgh swept through downtown, destroying much of downtown near Isabella Street. The fire was well under way before help came. The buildings being of wood and dry, burned rapidly.

Sept. 21, 1852 — A second fire in two weeks strikes downtown Ogdensburgh, consuming several buildings at the corner of Ford and Isabella Streets.

Oct. 19, 1852 - A third fire strikes downtown Ogdensburgh, crossing both sides of Ford Street. Residents suspect that the three fires in five weeks are the work of an arsonist, nicknamed the “fire fiend.”

The fire begins at the wagon shop of Israel Lamb, and in an astonishingly brief time every building on the west side of Isabella and north side of Ford west of Benedict Block was burning furiously. The flames crossed Ford Street to the historic Hasbrouck mansion, making a clean sweep on both sides of Ford between Isabellaand Catherine Streets, including offices of the Republican and St. Lawrence Herald newspapers. It was thought strange that all these fires were at the same time, between three and five a. m., and it was believed that they were not accidental.

Jan. 1, 1853 — New Year’s Day, at an early hour, the houses of Amos Bacon and Dr. M. G. Sherman caught fire.

Jan.18, 1853 — At 5 a. m., the carriage factory, cabinet shop and S. G. Pope shingle mill burned,

Feb. 6, 1853 —Between 3 and 4 a.m., the house of George Ranney, south of the Episcopalian Church, caught fire.

Feb. 8, 1853 — The Republican newspaper asks, “When will our fires cease?”

May 24, 1853 —The Republican’s editorial writes: “Were we believers in demonology, witchcraft and presentiments generally, we should unhesitatingly say that Ogdensburgh was a doomed spot; that its wickedness, its haughtiness, its pride or some other emphatic tendency to sinfulness has singled it out as a locality deserving an awful retribution.”

May 25, 1853 — A fire burns six stores, A. Vilas, J. & G. R. Bell, Chas. Hill and others. In one building R. W. Judson had a law office and Justice Bacon held his courts. The third story was used as the village “lock-up,” and contained at the time one prisoner, who was rescued uninjured, but horribly scared. Many now believed that the town contained a “fire-bug,” and rewards were proposed for his discovery. During the summer and fall a special watch was kept.

Dec. 29, 1853 — The “fire fiend” is blamed for another fire downtown. Sixteen stores are burned. The lack of a central water system is blamed for the extent of the destruction. At 11 p.m., a fire burst out in a long line of wooden buildings on the south side of Ford Street; the night was intensely cold and the citizens were sleeping; a few taps on the bell aroused the sleepers.

Jan. 18, 1854 — The large stone building on the west side, known as Doty’s woolen mill burned.

Jan. 25, 1854 — A cabinet shop burns.

Jan. 28, 1854 —Pine shavings are discovered under the door of the Methodist Church.They had been ignited, but went out before the building could catch fire.

May 6, 1854 —Three houses on Franklin Street burn.

July 4, 1854 —The red-coatedfire companies march in Ogdensburgh’s July 4 processions, and the ladies of the village deck the fire engines with flowers.

July 30, 1854 —At 2 a.m., Mr. Bacon’s barn and two others burn. “By unparalleled exertions our firemen prevented the destruction of the Presbyterian Church and other buildings. Some scoundrel cut the hose with a knife, rendering it useless. The fire was undoubtedly the work of an incendiary.”

Aug. 1, 1854 —The Republican writes: “ Truly our village may well receive, as it has earned the appellation of ‘City of Fires.’”

Aug. 31, 1854 — At three a.m., the barn of James Averell, on the north side of Ford Street, opposite the St. Lawrence Hotel, now Seymour House, burned, also the Averell’s house and two stores.

Sept. 10, 1854 — Ryon’s shop burned, R. W. Judson’s barn and other buildings caught, and were saved with difficulty. A heavy rain prevented the fire from spreading.

Nov. 22, 1854 — Ogdensburgh’s “fire fiend” is captured after a two-year series of downtown arsons. He is caught while trying to set fire to a house on Franklin Street. His arson spree helps convince village leaders to develop a community-wide central water system over the next 15 years with a pumphouse on the Oswegatchie River. The St. Lawrence Republican reports the capture of Robert Wilson, a well-known whitewasher and paper-hanger, familiar with the interior of most of the houses in town, and having constant opportunities of planning his crimes. He was discovered by E. W. Benedict, a hatter and neighbor of Wilson’s, in a house on Franklin Street, near his own home and Wilson’s. Benedict burst in the front door, and Wilson retreated through the back door, closely pursued by Benedict, who caught him as he was climbing the fence. After much scuffling, Wilson surrendered and was immediately brought to the police office by his captor.

The St. Lawrence Republican reported that his wife was also arrested for possession of stolen goods. Located in her home feigning sickness, the newspaper said she had,“wound upon her limbs, one whole piece of Irish linen, several pieces of cashmere, flannel, etc. She is being arrested.” Both husband and wife were convicted of arson and sent to state prison, where both of them died.

Mr. Benedict was rewarded by the grateful citizens with a gold watch and about $600 for his persistent efforts in searching out and detecting the culprit.

James E. Reagen is a former managing editor of The Journal and Advance News. He is the author of “Warriors of La Presentation” and “Fort Oswegatchie.” He is currently employed by the New York State Senate.

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