Monday, December 12, 2016

The Elmira Advertiser Fire of 1888

by Erin Doane, curator

Recently, I came across a box of metal type letters in the museum’s collection. A note on the box read: Type salvaged from the Advertiser fire of 1888. That made me think, “What was the Advertiser fire of 1888?”

Box of newspaper type letters
On the night of February 15, 1888, fire broke out in the basement of the Elmira Advertiser building on the corner of Lake and Market Streets. The resulting conflagration was the worst seen in Elmira in 15 years. The newspaper’s headquarters were destroyed as were several other neighboring buildings. The fire did nearly half a million dollars of property damage and two men lost their lives.

The Advertiser was first issued on November 3, 1853. At that time it was called the Fairman’s Daily Advertiser and served as a marketing vehicle for the printing business of Seymour and Charles Fairman. It was distributed free to farms along Water Street in Elmira. By 1855, the Elmira Daily Advertiser, as it was then named, was available by subscription for $1 a year.

February 26, 1855 issue of the Elmira Advertiser
By the late 1870s the Advertiser had moved into the building at the corner of Lake and Market Streets. Previously, the location had been the site of hotels operated by Silas Haight. Haight came to Elmira in 1836 and worked in the mercantile business. In 1839, he became landlord of the Mansion House on Lake Street. He enlarged the hotel in 1849 and it burned down a year later. Haight built a brick building on the site and named it Haight’s Hotel. In 1851, President Millard Fillmore and Secretary of State Daniel Webster were entertained there when their train stopped in Elmira overnight. That hotel ended up burning as well. Haight rebuilt again and called the new building the Hathaway House. The building changed hands around 1860 and continued to operate as a hotel through the decade. The Advertiser moved into the building around 1875.

Hathaway House menu, 1874
The fire at the Elmira Advertiser began around 7:30pm on February 15, 1888 in the jobbing room in the basement where the papers were printed. The building became engulfed in flames and the editorial staff had to escape by ladders out the windows. Winfield T. Foster, foreman of composing room, was badly burned as he fled the building. A schoolroom on the third floor of the building served as the theory department of N.A. Miller’s School of Commerce. Five students were doing some work there that evening when the fire began. Four of the students got to safety by dropping from a window onto a roof below but the fifth was not so fortunate. William F. Naylor tried to get to the stairs but died of suffocation and burning.

The fire quickly spread down the block. The building that housed the offices of the Sunday Tidings, the shop of a milliner named Mrs. Anderson, and several other offices caught fire. The flames continued to spread southward to F.A. Keeton’s retail grocery, which was one of the largest in the city, to Mr. Suess’ barber shop, and J.M. Robinson & Son’s furniture factory. D.A. Morgan’s liquor store and saloon, Kraum’s boarding house, Brown & Co. tobacco store, Dr. J.M. Hill’s drug store, and the law offices of E.P. Hart and Judge Thurston also caught fire. It is estimated that the blaze damaged or destroyed nearly $500,000 of property (over $10 million today).

Owego Daily Record, February 16, 1888
The Elmira fire department’s efforts to fight the blaze were hampered by the extreme cold and the fact that two of their engines were disabled at the time. Just after 10:00 pm, the Lake Street wall of the four-story Advertiser building collapsed. It struck Charles Bentley of Truck Company No. 1 and James Fisher, superintendent of the United Illuminating Company. Bentley died from his injuries. By 11:00pm, companies from Horseheads, Waverly, Owego, and Hornellsville were on the scene to help beat back the flames.

Advertiser building the morning after
Elmira reserve police were called in the night of the fire to stop looters.
The next day, with help from the Gazette and the Telegram, the Advertiser was able to produce and distribute its issue for February 16, 1888. The Advertiser was in a new home by June of 1889 and continued publishing until 1963.


  1. Oh my what a horrible event!!!! Loss of lives and property. Hard to even imagine what the night must have been like for the fireman, and property owners... the bitter cold trying to put a fire out of this size. Very interesting that fire companies from around the area came to help...that would be another story on how fire equipment and horses were able to reach Elmira in time... to help out with the fire....

  2. very interesting article...use to stand there all the time with my mother to take the bus back home from downtown when it flourishing..

  3. I have a marble top cabinet produced by J.M. Robinson & Son. It was shipped to my grandmother in Wellsboro PA.
    The shipping label is clear.