Ken Gottry - Cambridge NY History


In March 2020 the village voters will be presented with a bond issue to fund a new firehouse on Gilbert Street. I thought it appropriate to look back at the last time we were asked to help those who help us.

Fires play a major role in our history. In March 1866 the West End burned which led to the formation of our fire department. In August 1947, the Old School burned which led to the current CCS. In March 1950, the firehouse burned which led to our current Municipal Building.

1950 Firehouse annotated 

 (click on any image to enlarge)

The J.J.Gray Engine House was built in 1868. By the early 1900s, it was no longer suitable to house our fire engines. By the 1940s, the rickety building was only used as our Village Hall.

1868 JJGray EngineHouse

Starting in 1943, village taxes were increased $0.63 per $1000 of assessed valuation. This added $1000 a year to the Building Fund, to cover expected village improvements. In 1949, the village was already discussing a $1M bond issue to build the new school. So, when the topic of a new firehouse was raised, we hesitated.

By 1910, the Engine House was not meeting the needs of our four fire departments. (more about our four fire departments in next week’s article)

1910 Firehouse annotated

The East End fire apparatus was stored in a shed on North Park Street. This shed was torn down a few years ago when the new Rite Aid was built. It stood about where Walgreens’ parking lot is today.

The West End fire apparatus was stored in a building on the north side of West Main. This building straddled the Cambridge Creek just west of today’s Village Pizza and Pasta (West End Market).

By 1925, the firehouse had moved to the south side of West Main, about where Bev’s Trading Post is today (O’Hearns drug store). It’s likely the move was needed to accommodate the department’s first chemical truck that was purchased in 1923.

1950 Firehouse annotated

For over 25 years we limped along with a rented firehouse. Then, on Saturday evening 4-Mar-1950 a fire started in the building owned by Darwin Whitcomb. In the basement were several cars and trucks. (I think this was called Northrup’s Garage).

On the second story, Mary McDonnell, 16, was babysitting for Terry and Susan Briggs, children of Mr. and Mrs James Briggs. Mary quickly got the children dressed and outside. She then notified Bob McWhorter who lived next door above his grocery store.

Bob rushed into the first-floor firehouse and drove one of the fire trucks out to safety. John McCarty ran over from North Union Street and drove the other fire engine out just as the fire reached the first floor. Local folklore claims Bob drove the engine right through a plate glass window in the store front. Not sure that’s true but it adds to the drama of the night.

The 1944 pumper began fighting the blaze to help save the entire store block. The 1928 LaFrance was attached to a fire hydrant across the street and joined the fight.

Soon it was clear the 21-year-old LaFrance was failing, and Fire Chief Charles Dusha sent a call to Salem and Greenwich. Salem sent 2 trucks but one broke down four miles north of the village.

The fire spread to Bob McWhorter’s grocery store just east of the firehouse. The blaze was so intense that windows cracked in the Oneida Market across the street.

The Cambridge firemen, with the aid of the trucks from Salem and Greenwich and the volunteers from the Shushan fire department, had the fire under control by 5am.

At Monday’s village board meeting, Mayor Gardner Cullinan appointed a committee of 3 trustees (Frank Higgins, Ken Randles, Harry Griffen) and 3 firemen (Charles Dusha, John Davis, Harry Arnold). They were to investigate options for a new firehouse and a replacement for the old LaFrance engine.

In the meantime, one fire engine was stored at Dave Moore’s garage (next to Clark’s Pizzeria) and the other at Ken Randles’ garage (Subway shop next to Stewarts). The village also obtained a small booster pumper on a 30-day rental.

The 4-Mar-1950 fire came just 3 days after the bids for the New School had been opened at a Board of Education meeting. The village was faced with rebuilding after 2 disastrous fires.

A plan was developed to build a new firehouse and purchase a new fire truck. The plan was approved by voters on 18-Jul-1950, firehouse 207-13 and fire truck 187-31.

The firehouse was expected to cost $22,000 of which $7000 already existed in the Building Fund. The remaining $15,000 would be raised by a 15-year bond. This represented no tax increase since the village had already been collecting $1000 per year for the Building Fund. The $600 per year for firehouse rental and equipment storage would be shifted to cover interest on the bond.

The Jul-1950 vote also approved a ten-year bond for $13,500 to buy a new Mack truck. The bond resulted in an increase of $1.00 per $1000 of assessed valuation.

In previous articles, I’ve recounted how the plans for the New School underwent major changes to cut costs. Similarly, the firehouse plans were reviewed and revised to “cut costs to the bare bone”.

On 21-Sep-1950 the revised plans were finalized. All previous bids were discarded, and the bidding process started over. The process was complicated by a “multitude of state laws” … the same ones our current proposed firehouse will face.

Alas, even with all the cuts in the plan, the cost was going to be higher than the original estimate of $22,000. This meant the bond approved in July wouldn’t cover the cost.

By 29-Oct-1950 the village board authorized contractor Frank Antolick of Schaghticoke to begin work even without all needed funds being available. As winter was fast approaching, housing for the engines was needed since Moore’s and Randles’ garages would no longer be available.

The village board started work on an expanded bond issue to cover the true cost of the building. If the voters rejected this bond, the board said the DPW crew would work on the building as time permitted.

In a clever public-relations move, newspaper headlines started referring to the project as the Municipal Building project and not the New Firehouse project.

On 14-Dec-1950 a vote was held to determine the size of the Municipal Building. If approved, the original plan for a simple 3-stall fire station would be expanded. The addition would include a court room, a village hall room, record storage, and more space for fire apparatus.

By a vote of 54-6., the bond issue was increased from $15,000 to $30,000. There would be no tax increase, but instead the bond would be extended from 15 years to 30 years.

In Mar-1951 Ken Randles’ garage, no longer serving as a temporary firehouse, was completely destroyed by fire. The new Mack fire truck had just been delivered that week, but the fire was so intense that not even all three fire trucks could save the building.

On 1-May-1951, the new Municipal Building was initiated when the new Mack fire truck was driven in under the guidance of Fire Chief John Davis. Final work was completed by 28-Jun-1951 by which time the other two fire trucks were in their new home.

On Saturday 7-Jul-1951 Cambridge showcased its new firehouse as it hosted the first annual Washington County Fireman’s Convention. The parade had over 1000 participants of firemen and bands from 18 different communities.


Now, it’s time for Cambridge to vote on a new firehouse to replace this 68-year-old building