MAJOR FIRE, TRAIN CARS DERAIL
A hectic day in Almond 50 years ago
Compiled by Donna B. Ryan, Special to the Alfred Sun
The Alfred Sun
October 26, 2017
ALMOND-Fifty years ago this fall, October 23, 1967, was a major news day for Almond Village-when fire wiped out one of the oldest landmarks in the area, and ten cars were derailed a short distance away on the Erie Lackawanna’s tracks.
Big headlines in the Evening Tribune reported: “A major fire broke out just before noon today in the Almond business block housing the M&D Auto Supply Store and the Palmer Sporting Goods business… The flames apparently began on the ground floor in the auto supply shop and were fed by exploding cans and bottles of paint and chemicals. Flames spread quickly into the second story and moved toward Palmer’s Store. Volunteers, numbering about 50 and including adults and children, began moving merchandise and furnishings from the store and piling them in front of Coslo’s. (Ed. Note: At this time, Coslo’s was located at the present site of Muhleisen’s) For a time flames gave way to smoke, and it appeared to observers that the firefighters were gaining. However, the flames ate their way through the second story above Palmer’s, and soon were burning more fiercely than ever.
“By 12:45 the Palmer Store was completely in flames. Between the M&D and Palmer’s is Smitty’s Barber Shop, also in flames. Three families lived in upstairs apartments in the building, and they were evacuated safely. Among materials taken out of Palmer’s were the Town of Almond clerk’s records. Albert Palmer, owner of the sporting goods store, has been in business 34 years on the site. Today he and his wife were marking their 14th wedding anniversary. ‘I’ve lost everything. I don’t want to talk about it,’ Palmer said. Shotgun shells and paint cans were still exploding in the burning building just before 1 p.m.,” the Tribune reported.
Over 100 firemen from eight departments “battled the fire, using their pumpers and laying lines to nearby Canacadea Creek. The fire companies finally began going home about 3 p.m., leaving the Almond firemen to handle the mop-up. Hot spots still were flaring up as late as 10 p.m. that night,” according to the newspaper.
At the same time, other fire companies went to the site of the 10-car derailment just opposite the Almond dump, concerned about leaking naptha from the overturned tankers. “Using four cans of a new detergent-type foam from the Hornell department, the danger area was blanketed to prevent any sparks generated in moving from igniting the naptha. A crane then lifted the tanker and the other cars from the tracks. Erie-Lackwanna work crews, working under flood and spotlights, replaced ruined rails and normal traffic was restored” the next morning, the Evening Tribune recounted.
The next day’s Tribune, October 24, 1967, continued with these reports: “Fred Darling was alone in the M&D Auto Supply store when he heard a noise in a storage room and thought a cat had pushed something over. Smitty, the barber, had just finished with a customer. Minutes later the ancient wooden building was in flames, and before it was over last night an entire Almond business block had been destroyed.
Despite the raging flames and the incessant explosion of paint cans and ammunition, there were no reported injuries. The only casualty was a Pekingese dog trapped in Barbara Dickinson’s apartment, which Don Washburn bravely tried to save but was forced back by the flames.
Wayne Kellogg, who has continuously served the AHS as a board member and/or treasurer since its inception in 1965, was fire chief at the time. Today, at age 91, he remembers the day vividly: “I was running the mail route, and Lee Ryan Sr. was riding with me, learning the route to be my sub. We got down into town and saw what was happening, and we stopped at the park and I jumped in the car. I told him to take the outgoing mail back to the Post Office and run the rest of the route. It was the biggest fire Almond had ever had…dangerous with paint cans flying out of Alan Knight’s store and hot coals flying around. We had a lot of firemen there keeping watch of the houses next door. We had firemen and a State Police car posted all night, to prevent looting.”
The business owners suffered heavy financial losses: The M&D building, separated from the Palmer building by a closed space of several inches, was owned by Alan Knight of Ft. Myers, FL, and Mosher and Darling had just signed an agreement to purchase it out of rent. They had not been able to secure adequate insurance coverage on the wood building due to its age, condition, and tar paper roof.
Lee Mosher, in writing “The Rest of the Story” for the May 2000 AHS newsletter, noted that he and his partner leased the former Hagadorn Hardware from the Torrence family (at the corner of Main and Karrdale Ave) and “for the next two years tried to restore and sell the remaining stock…but turnover in sales was too slow to rebuild the business…and (we) finally sold the largest portion to a junk dealer.” He termed the fire a “lasting, unrecoverable loss.” Don Smith set up “Smitty’s Barber Shop” in the basement of his house on the north end of the village, and later built a small shop in his front yard.
The June 1999 AHS newsletter gives more insight into the tragic results of that October day: “The impact of the fire on Almond residents is evidenced by their ability to pinpoint where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news …or when they happened upon the scene. The community’s loss of a favorite place to congregate and the deep personal blow to Al and his family is described in an AACS English class essay about the fire found in the archives files, written by Al’s son, Ben. Summing up, he writes: “I shall never forget the day that happened…that was one of the worst days of my life.”
But Al was not a quitter. Through his life, he had conquered a handicap that would have made some folks give up and become bitter. With his friends’ help, he soon was in business again, only on a much smaller scale.
On Dec. 9, 1967, the Tribune ran another update on the efforts of Smitty, Mosher and Darling, and Al to salvage their businesses: ‘But it is Palmer’s recovery that is perhaps the most remarkable. Crippled from the waist down by polio since he was four years old, he was still able to operate Palmer’s Sporting Goods for more than 34 years, making him by far the senior businessman in the block.
He was 25 years old and had just lost his job as town clerk in an election (he was elected at 21, the youngest person ever to hold the post in Almond) when he opened Palmer’s Sporting Goods on Main Street. It grew to be a popular hangout of youth in the community with its soda fountain and pool tables, and a favorite shopping place for sportsmen from throughout the area. Then came the morning of last October 23 and destruction.’
The Tribune noted that Al’s loss was more than thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise and real estate that day. “Part of his life also went up in flames. But 19 days later, Palmer and a group of friends had put together a small wooden building on the front lawn of his home. There, almost directly opposite the ruins of the business block, he operates the new Palmer’s Sporting Goods store. One day, he expects to rebuild on the original site, ‘if things go right.’
But things didn’t go right and various men testified in the Oct 1999 AHS newsletter about the toll the fire had taken on Al, physically and emotionally. The next spring, Al took sick but would not go to the doctor. His family explained: “The doctor stopped at the house on his way through town and told us he had pneumonia…but we did not know how sick he was.” At the prime of life, on April 28, 1968, a little over six months after the fire, Al died at his home at the age of 59.
Today’s generation sees an apartment building on the Palmer block site and the stories and anecdotes of the “Palmer era” are only memories. Those who do remember don’t want to be termed “old timers” but you have to be at least “middle aged” to remember. (For more information on Al Palmer and his legendary man-cave hangout, check out the June 1999 AHS newsletter.)
Transcribed by Kathy Bentley.
Photo from the Alfred Sun.