From the Editor and Nephew, 8/8/21, Photos From Wellsville Fire Department and Allegany County Historical Society
My uncle Bill didn’t move to Wellsville until 1948, when he was twelve, and the family moved into a house on the Baldwin Road, then mostly farmland. This edition of, “Me and My Uncle,” will look back at what Bill Hendrick recalls as, “major fires, fires that changed Wellsville dramatically.” For some of the earlier blazes, Hendrick was a teenage boy in awe of the tragedy and excitement. For most of the big infernos of his time, Bill Hendrick was a volunteer fireman with the Emerald Hook and Ladder Company. There were many other fires, like the Sinclair Refinery Fire, that aren’t mentioned in this reminisce, saved for a future edition.
The first big fire Uncle Bill can remember vividly is a blaze that permanently changed Riverside Drive(Rt. 19 North of Wellsville,) and downtown Wellsville. The Morrison Hayes American Legion was located on Riverside Drive just past the Wellsville Country Club. As crews responded to that location on the edge of the village, many downtown residents could see the dark smoke rising in the northwestern sky. That fire was a total loss and Post 702 moved from that disaster to a new location on Jefferson Street, near the current American Legion.
Maybe the biggest of the “big fires of Wellsville NY” was the fire that changed Main Street Wellsville forever. The day of the “City Hall Fire,” must have been both paradoxical and traumatic for the residents of Wellsville as it was April Fools Day. This centerpiece building stood between the current Community Bank branch on Main Street and the current Jones Memorial/Strong Health Clinic. That location now is an extension of Madison Street leading to the largest intersection in Wellsville, also coined the “Gateway to Wellsville.”
Hendrick recalls that, “At the time, “City Hall,” wasn’t just the headquarters of government, they housed the Community Center, and ironically, the firehall. This was the home of the Emerald Hook and Ladder Company and the Grant Duke Hose Company.”
The building was a total loss and demolished, leaving a large empty lot, now one of the busiest streets in the village. Wellsville government offices relocated to the Municipal building on Main and Jefferson Street, that was recently vacated by both town and village governments.
Fast forward about ten years and Uncle Bill recalls the “Bolivar Road Short’s Fire,” at the same location as the current day Short’s Gas and Deli. With plenty of fuel storage creating potential anxiety and danger, Hendrick looks back:
“I went out on the second call, which usually meant it was a pretty bad fire. They had to evacuate that entire neighborhood due to the smoke and potential for fuel explosions.”
The fire burned for two days and crews all the way from Olean responded to help contain the blaze. The first question about this fire I asked Uncle Bill was, “Did the tanks explode?”
“No they didn’t and it was because one guy who worked for Short’s literally saved the neighborhood, his name was Don Whitney. As the fire burned and everyone was panicked, Don turned off the main valve to the tanks. He was the real hero of that fire…..”
Just a year or so later, another Main Street landmark building burned: The Pickup Hotel, located where the current, “SugarDaddy’s” is located, across from the Fassett Greenspace community space. Uncle Bill vividly recalls fighting this fire from the bucket of the Emerald Hook and Ladder:
“I was up in the bucket applying heavy water from above the fire and boy was it hot!! When I started to see the flames coming up from the center of the building and through the roof I knew it was over. We had a radio system that allowed the guy in the bucket to communicate with a guy down below on the control board. When I saw the flames come through the roof I told him to get me the hell down!”
That fire left another large hole on Main Street that remained for many years. The family that has operated Pizza King for decades in Wellsville invested in the lot which is now the very popular summer destination, aka, “Sugardaddy’s.” If the weather is warm, that lot is bustling with families, sports teams, and ice cream lovers.
A final fire that Hendrick can bring back to memory quite easily is a fire that the Emerald’s were called into after a request from the Andover Fire Department. The Joyce Hotel was on fire and they needed a ladder truck. After the fire was out, the Allegany County Health Department responded to the scene and ordered that all the food and beverages that remained be destroyed and disposed of.
“Well that health department guy gave that order to the right crew: Myself, Dick Murphy, John Dean, Jim McKinley, and I think Bob Walsh. As sworn firemen and most of us public servants, we set the health inspectors mind at ease and promised to properly dispose of the alcohol.”
Uncle Bill and his motely crew of tired out firefighters confiscated all that alcohol as ordered and took the ladder truck back to Wellsville. The fire occurred during near the holiday season and the spoils of the blaze apparently made for a great series of Christmas parties that year. Hendrick recounts with a wide smile:
“We properly disposed of all that booze, as directed, and had some great parties. Everyone got a big kick out of the old saying: The Drinks Are On The House!!!”