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Keystone Hotel fire gave Gloversville a sad Christmas

A newspaper clipping about the Keystone Hotel fire. (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

It was December 21, 1909 and happy Gloversville citizens, like those of other cities across America, were engaged in the usual holiday preparations. What could go wrong? Unfortunately, the vibrant city was about to be hit by a double-whammy of misfortune, including loss of life.

To quote the December 23rd Fulton County Republican, “One of the most spectacular fires ever seen in Gloversville broke out in the Keystone Hotel about 5 o’clock. The conflagration raged for hours. The interior was gutted, as was the adjoining lunchroom and barber shop. The total loss will aggregate somewhat over $6,000.00. The fire was attended by several narrow escapes and the thrilling rescue of the fifteen-month-old daughter of the proprietor. The fire originated behind the bar in the cafe when the bartender lighted a match to search behind the bar for a bottle of liquor and accidently broke a glass, the fumes arising taking fire. The flames spread rapidly, and although the alarm was quickly sounded, it was some time before the fire department could react.”

If bartender Raymond Beohnlein accidently started the fire, he quickly redeemed himself by saving the life of the proprietor’s little daughter. “The baby was asleep upstairs when the fire broke out and was rescued with considerable difficulty by the bartender and John Lake. They and Miss Marie Lindner, the proprietor’s sister, escaped by jumping from a one-story extension at the rear of the hotel.”

While there were no deaths resulting from this first whammy, there was injury. “Gilbert Hayes, dozing in the office, was badly burned about the head and face and was taken to Littauer Hospital. F.C. Van Trump, asleep upstairs, escaped by jumping into an improvised life net. Three others also had narrow escapes, escaping only with the clothes they had on. While the building was well-insured, the loss to the attached lunch room, owned and operated by Smith Brown, will be nearly total.”

By mid-evening the Gloversville Fire Department quelled the blaze. But the second whammy would descend upon the glove city the following afternoon. The next day’s headline read, “Three Die in Fire in Gloversville.” Yes, the Keystone Hotel fire had been beaten back, but someone had to stay on the scene over night to determine it didn’t start up again, as fires sometimes did. Three men, Adam Fonda, the janitor of the now-destroyed hotel, John O’Brien and William Stephens, both masons, had volunteered to remain awake all night to oversee the smoldering remains of the hotel, and by Wednesday afternoon they were good and tired. To quote the paper, “They went to the hotel stable which hadn’t burned, where there were two sleeping rooms. At 3:30 the stable was discovered by hotel owner Richard Parsons and a friend, druggist Robert Baird, to be in flames. Owner Parsons rushed inside, and groping around in the smoke, was able to free the only horse inside, but couldn’t save four valuable hunting dogs.” The presence of the three men somewhere else in the large building was unknown to him.

Gloversville’s tired firemen returned and quelled the second blaze, but “it was twenty minutes after their arrival that someone mentioned there might be three men sleeping somewhere in the burning stable. Upon entering the barn’s remains, the firemen discovered the bodies. “Two of them were found kneeling by a bed with a blanket thrown over their heads while Fonda was found lying on the floor, having been overcome while trying to break out through the door.”

Upon examination, the fire department issued a statement that the fire had begun in an unoccupied horse stall. Was this caused by a spark blowing through the air from the previous fire? Did one of the victims light a pipe or cigarette before going to bed and toss away the match? The firemen thought not: no one in those old times tossed matches around in a stable full of dry hay.

Casting around for a cause, two men, hotel chef Charles O’Donnell and John Lake were examined by the police, but both were soon released. No reason for questioning the two former hotel employees was given, but authorities tried for some time to identify a cause. The December 30th Fulton County Republican retrospectively observed, “After the fire was discovered and the fire department responded, the fight against the flames for an hour or more was a desperate one.”

Of the three victims, Adam Fonda was the most widely known. “He had long been a familiar figure upon the streets of Gloversville and by his affable disposition, was on friendly terms with all the patrons of the hotel. He was also widely-known throughout the Mohawk Valley, being a member of the original Fonda family.”

One man in particular, a close friend of fire victim John O’Brien, took his friend’s passing particularly hard. “James Lynch, head waiter of the hotel and a close friend of O’Brien, attempted to buy some carbolic acid at a drug store Wednesday night. Fearing the death of his friend had affected Lynch’s mind temporarily at least, he was detained at police headquarters overnight. It is thought his period of depression will pass shortly.”

The 1909 Keystone Hotel fire with its resulting deaths dampened the holiday spirits of many Gloversvilians. Although Richard Parsons had taken the precaution to insure his property for the maximum amount possible, he never rebuilt it.

The Fulton County Republican published this headline the morning after the Keystone fire, unaware that shortly it would have to publish another story when three lives were lost in the hotel’s livery stable fire.