The fires of 1817 and 1845 in Sag Harbor were epic, tragic and devastating.
The first fire was perhaps the major contributing catalysis for the creation of the , the first ever in New York State (founded 1819.)
The second fire in 1845 was a horrid vision of the heart of a town being damaged with massive destruction in November thus depriving the town of wares and products needed for the soon arriving winter. In that fire 100 structures burned, dozens being homes. With the surviving homes already overcrowded do to the success of the whaling industry, many people were dispirited, displaced, and devastated. And yet the town came back to be one of the busiest in the country due to the true grit of the inhabitants and the lucrative nature of the whaling industry, an industry the town first fostered back in 1761, with Nathanial Fordham’s Wharf established to “try whales,” a place where whale oil was extracted from blubber.
The 1817 fire was in the springtime and started along the wharf where many warehouses containing whale oil were consumed and destroyed as well as twenty homes. Historian Henry Hedges born the year of the fire believes it started at 2 PM in a small barn that had some hay. With winds at gale force, the combination of wood structures , the wind, and the fact that at that time this section was the thickest developed part of Sag Harbor meant that in three hours 20 houses and 15 barns, warehouses, and other structures were totally gone. Eyewitnesses recall seeing desperate homeowners and shopkeepers alike hauling furniture, family valuables, and merchandise out onto what is today‘s Bay Street and Main Street to try and save them. However the intense heat drove all humans to abandon that course of action because the heat became unbearable. It was a scene of falling timbers collapsing burning walls, and desperate citizens fighting a losing battle to save even clothing. That day many went from prosperity to poverty in three hours. Widows became homeless and penniless. Other proud successful families were left to the charity of the town. Some believe it was the first test of the resolve of the moral fabric of a community that now prides itself in civic awareness.
The fire of 1845 occurred on a Friday morning November 14, 1845. The fire started in a commission room for furniture in the Suffolk Buildings. Unlike the previous fire in 1817, there was almost no wind at all yet the heat itself caused by the consumption of 100 buildings which created a distinctive current. With 57 stores, shops, all stocked for the incoming winter, the loss was devastating to the town, as large percentages of its food stock, winter clothing spun all summer, and other needed items went up in smoke. The damage was estimated to be in the neighborhood of $200,000 to $250,000. The heroic actions of the volunteer fire department and efforts of citizens and owners helped many businesses and residents. In the words of Henry Hedges, 28 years old at the time, actions “Saved three-forth’s of their goods, some half and some less ,but few lost all.” The names of the businesses affected had names like the Phelps’s Hotel, Steam Mills and Pumps, Suffolk County Bank and J. Hildreth. In fact on that fateful night Henry Hedges remembers, Doctor Abel Huntington, the Collector of the Port, declaring that the fire had climbed up Main Street stopping at the west side to the north brick walls of three buildings owned by Major John Hildreth. It was those buildings that saved the rest of Sag Harbor. Mr. Hedges believes the fire of 1817 was limited to “nearly quite the same lines.” The fire of 1845 damaged or destroyed most of everything east of Division Street.
With so many stables and barns destroyed the town was rocked. However Sag Harbor was an oil town, whale’s oil, and it would rebuild to become the epic dominate town that had Herman Melville characters talking about it, and the literary likes of James Fenimore Cooper investing in a whaling venture that included the purchase and ownership of a whaling vessel while he lived in Sag Harbor.
There would be two other fires later in 1877 and 1881 that destroyed multiple homes and businesses but nothing in the scope of the damages is 1845 or 1817. The scope of the fires is why so many of the historical buildings are made of brick. However it was the wealth from the whaling trade that enabled the owners to buy the bricks. It was written that Sag Harbor is an “Epitome of the history of the country.” One thing is certain, a walk up and down its Main Street, no matter what season, is a treat that brings you up and down a road filled with history preserved in character. Sag Harbor’s soul touches you with every step.