by Bonny Mayer
Historical photos originally published in the Rochester Daily Union & Advertiser January 10, 1901
It was a bitter cold January night in 1901 and the 109 children at the Rochester Orphan Asylum on Hubbell Park had all settled in for sleep at about 8 o’clock. The original orphanage had been at 19 Adams Street but it was moved to the Hubbell Park location in 1843 and then expanded in 1844 and 1870. The last addition, the brick West Wing built in 1891, was known as the Potter Memorial, since Henry S. Potter had posthumously donated the funds. While some of the resident children were true orphans, most had some family, a single mother or a widowed father, and many paid $1.50 a week for board. The orphanage also received support from the City and County.
Earlier in the day, the children had played in the snow while the staff worked at the daily chores. A gas jet was used to heat the steam for the flat iron in the laundry and, at the end of this day, someone had left the gas jet open, closed the door to the laundry and gone about the rest of the evening activities. While children ate dinner, prepared for bed and began a peaceful sleep, gas filled the room.
The regular day staff retired to the East Wing sleeping apartment. In the hospital, nurse Mary Brad and cook Maria Gordon were tending two ill children. Farther down the West Wing was a dorm for 75 girls. Mrs. Martha Gillis was a caretaker in the boys’ area and the door was locked between the East Wing boys section and the rest of the building. These staff members would not see another day.
When Miss Sarah Ashdown, who was in charge that evening, made her rounds at 7 and 11pm, she thought she smelled a faint order of gas. Unfortunately, she ignored the thought and rested as she prepared for her last round of the evening at 2am.
William Erhardt, janitor for the previous three years, lived in the rear of the asylum at 445 Exchange Street, (Miss Dinehart, the Director, preferred to have the janitor sleep off site.) That night Mr. Erhardt did his regular duties, consisting of stoking the boiler and lighting the gas lights, and then left the building at 7:30pm and went home for the evening. Sometime around midnight the gas, which now filled the laundry room, escaped under the door and into the hall outside the hospital below the West Wing. When it reached the gas lamps there was a small explosion and a fire broke out. There was an electric bell connected to Mr. Erhardt’s residence and at about 12:30am, he was notified about the fire. He reached the building in one minute and went directly to the boiler room. Later, at the inquest, he said, “Upon entering, I found no fire. I heard an explosion after leaving the boiler room, which was of sufficient violence to blow out the gas in the conservatory on the first floor.”
Two young men were coming down Plymouth Avenue, saw the funnel of smoke coming from the building, ran to the fire box on the corner of Plymouth and Glasgow and then proceeded to the buildings to help. Everyone at the Asylum had been asleep and when woken, found dense smoke had filled the rooms. Confusion reigned. From the reports, some made their way to the roofs but no one appeared to have used the fire escape and many of the windows apparently could not be opened. The scene in the night was terrified children between the ages of 2 and 14, with sooted faces pressed against the windows, screaming for help. Within a half hour after the alarm was called, the building was blazing out of control.
Moving the fire wagons through the streets of packed mud, ice, slush and rocks on this winter night was not an easy task. One of the rigs dumped over on the corner of Grieg and Hubbell, spilling firemen and ladders about. Later, one of the horses was sprayed with icy water, spooked and ran down the street with men chasing. Firemen went up and down ladders, carrying non-moving bundles down to waiting ambulances from five hospitals. Two of the casualties were a fireman and a staff member who jumped out of windows, could not hold onto the fire ladder and fell 20 feet to the ground. Several staff members, after being severely burned on the hands and face, also jumped out and added broken legs and ankles to their burn injuries.
Tragically, 27 children lost their lives that night along with the infirmary nurse, cook and caretaker of the boys. Several others died in the following days of smoke and burns and from the terror of the evening. The children, many burned beyond recognition, were taken to the morgue the next day and viewed by over 1200 people who were looking for their family members.
Those who survived the fire and were not ill enough to need hospitalization were taken in by the good neighbors on Hubbell and Grieg and as far away as Troup and Washington. They came out with blankets and warm hearts and took the little ones in for the night until this could be sorted out. By 3am, the horses hauled away the equipment and all that was left was a smoking brick building never to be rebuilt on that location. The structure could have been rebuilt, but the hearts of Rochester needed to heal and thus a Cobbs Hill site was chosen and Hillside Center was built.