May 10th of this year was the 150th anniversary of Troy’s Great Fire. The fire destroyed a major portion of the city’s downtown including the Institute’s entire physical plant. It was an important event in Rensselaer’s history because it marks the beginning of the move of the Institute from downtown Troy up the hill to its present location.
About noon on Saturday May 10, 1862, sparks coming from a locomotive started a fire in the wooden shingle roof of the Rensselaer and Saratoga Railroad Bridge located at the present site of the Green Island Bridge. By 6:00pm when the fire was finally brought under control nearly 700 buildings in a 75 acre area had been destroyed. Several people who were unable to flee their homes lost their lives and hundreds of families were left homeless. (Click the images below to enlarge)
The above photo captures the breadth and severity of the fire, which extended from Federal to Congress Streets and from River Street to Eighth Street. The man with the horse and wagon is at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Federal Street. The arched structure to the center right is one end wall of the block long Union Railroad Depot, just west of Blitman Residential Commons. The tall spired building in the center of the hill is the Troy University, the present site of RPI’s Folsom Library. Immediately to the left is “Mt. Airy”, the Warren residence. Directly down the slope on Eighth Street is the Ranken house where the Pittsburgh building now stands. Also visible on Eighth Street in the far left of the photo is the Church of the Holy Cross. (Photograph courtesy of Charles Porter).
Since 1844 the Institute had been located in two buildings on the north-east corner of Sixth and State Streets. Both of these brick structures (a classroom building and a laboratory) were destroyed in the fire. Also lost during the blaze was the Institute’s furniture, laboratory equipment, geological specimens and a portion of its administrative records.
The 65 members of the student body finished the school term in temporary quarters at Troy University. In the fall of 1862 classrooms were established in the Vail building on the south-east corner of Congress and River Streets. The Vail building was used until a new permanent home for the Institute could be financed and built.