Historic North Country Disasters

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  • EF5 Tornado: Philadelphia and Northern New York,
  • Watertown in Ruins: Watertown, 1849
  • Whitney Marble Company Boiler Explosion:
    Gouverneur, 1884
  • Carthage in Ruins: Carthage and West Carthage, 1884
  • Blown to Atoms: Plattsburgh, 1887
  • Barnum & Bailey Circus Train Wreck: Norwood/Potsdam,
  • The Great Floods: Northern New York, 1890
  • The Hartford Goes Down—All Hands Lost: Clayton, 1894
  • Appalling Bridge Collapse: Massena/Cornwall, 1898
  • Tupper Lake in Ruins: Tupper Lake, 1899
  • Snowbound: North Country, 1900, 1912, 1928
  • Adirondack Inferno: Northern New York, 1903
  • Runaway Trains: Coopersville, 1903, and Mineville, 1905
  • North Lawrence in Ruins: North Lawrence, 1907
  • Frightful Calamity at Benson Mines: Benson Mines, 1908
  • Seven Meet Death in River: Grasse River, Massena, 1911 105

  • Thousand Island Park in Ruins: Thousand Island Park,
  • Hotel Fire Claims Seven Lives: Malone, 1913
  • Bradley Powder House Explosion: Watertown, 1915
  • Deadly Christmas Eve Munitions Plant Explosion:
    Watertown, 1918
  • Exploding Shell Kills Eight Children: Watertown, 1922
  • Au Sable Forks Is Prey to Flames: Au Sable Forks, 1925
  • Tenement Fire Claims Seven Lives: Saranac Lake, 1925
  • Thirty Die in Sinking of the John B. King:
    Morristown and Brockville, 1930
  • Eight Persons Perish in Café Explosion: Massena, 1943
  • Logan’s Fault—5.9 Richter Scale: Massena/Cornwall,
  • Freighter Milverton Collision: Waddington/Ogden Island,

Sneak Peek: The Introduction

There were many times, while penning this book of doom and destruction, that I spoke of fate and destiny or of Lady Luck looking favorably—or unfavorably—on someone. His fate was then sealed…. Lady Luck cast her fair hand….It was a situation destined to repeat itself… As it turns out, I was on to something there without even realizing it until just now as I scribble down my intro (last, as always). An obsolete definition of disaster is an “unfavorable aspect of a planet or star.” Indeed, the old Italian word disastro comes from the Latin dis, meaning a “negative effect,” and astro, “star.” If that definition of disaster is taken at its word—then disasters (and the role we play in them) are already predetermined. In other words, unless it’s not our appointed time to die, we will die at a specific and inescapable time (whether by accident, illness, old age, disaster or countless other scenarios).
Whether you subscribe to such pseudoscience or not, the fact is that when we have a “date” with disaster, we may find ourselves among those being saved by heroes, or we may play the role of hero; we may be among those who stand by helplessly, forced to bear witness; or we may be among those who never stood a chance of surviving. We may feel somehow prompted to step outside for a smoke just seconds before the old tinderbox we call home goes up in flames, or we may be the poor soul who hesitates for too long at the third-floor window with its curtains in flames. We may happen to be on leave the day the freighter that employs us explodes, or we may happen to be on our very first day of work on that same doomed freighter when it tragically goes down in flames. When disaster strikes, we may live, or we may die; we may bear witness; we may save the day; or we may simply hear about it and shake our heads sympathetically. But eventually, our time, too, will come—whether gently in our sleep or not so gently as we play or work. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famously said, “Thy fate is the common fate of all; into each life, some rain must fall.” You will see those words in action repeatedly throughout this book. Ultimately, we all share a common fate (death). All that differs is how, where and when we will face it.
The following stories of disaster depict a wide range of tragic events that befell our ancestors. Most of them will not be personally recalled by those younger than seventy-five or eighty years of age—since they took place between 1845 and 1947—but the children and grandchildren of those involved may remember hearing the tragic stories retold in hushed tones at family gatherings. I found the sheer volume of calamities our forefathers faced to be astounding, and I touched on only a handful of them. As in my previous works, I lean toward resurrecting stories that have long been forgotten by many so that new and future generations of North Country residents will learn of our past tragedies and triumphs and know of the tough stock we northern New Yorkers come from. Our predecessors had a great sense of community, faith and determination that carried them through the unthinkable dangers so prevalent during their lifetimes. Their legacy has been left in all that we see around us today. We’ve inherited their estates, their farms, their factories, their camps and their towns and cities. And I believe we also inherited their strength and determination and that it will hold us in good stead, should we ever experience the unimaginable as they did.
Thankfully, many of yesteryears’ common disasters are rarely heard of today (industrial and hotel fires, train wrecks, shipwrecks and mine or factory explosions). You never see entire towns wiped out by fire anymore—at least not around here—and you certainly don’t see children working in dangerous factories or engaged in target practice around explosives. Tremendous strides in hazard prevention and safety precautions have been made in the past hundred years on local, state and federal levels. Whereas man-made disasters once seemed to outnumber natural disasters, today it’s the other way around. Natural disasters (ice storms, earthquakes, flooding, forest fires, blizzards, high winds and so on) will always exist, but we don’t have the control over them that we now have in preventing the careless, man-made disasters so prevalent in our past. Natural disasters cannot be regulated and are difficult, if not impossible, to contain. We can, however, arm ourselves with knowledge, familiarize ourselves with contingency plans, maintain adequate survival supplies, and learn from past mistakes. Learn from our ancestors so that their struggles and terrible losses were not in vain.
General George S. Patton said, “Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable.” We should remain ever-vigilant and be prepared—on both a personal and a public level—to handle potential disaster scenarios that could arise. Simply put, we should keep calm…but “prep” on.

Keep calm…but “prep” on. ~ Cheri Farnsworth

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