April 18, 1906
By Bruce McKinney
Many people remember and many more will remember, if only briefly, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. It occurred at 5:13 in the morning on April 18th, an 8.25 on the Richter scale, on an otherwise clear day. It was a catastrophic event that brought down buildings and killed people. The earthquake lasted 48 seconds and its psychological aftershocks continue today. The nineteenth century was a battleground where scientists and deists argued the primacy of science or God. It was a battle that science was winning. Religion, a thousand years before, provided an explanation for the inexplicable but in the ensuing centuries saw its role as judge of natural events subsumed to increasingly scientific explanation.
For those who would like to consider what can be described as freak bad luck, cosmic chance, or divine intervention another event occurred the day of the earthquake 2,548.11 miles away, a serious fire in New Paltz, New York, a town located midway between New York City and the state capital in Albany. It would, by the standards of local calculation, be a very important event but one that would be driven from the front pages of even the local dailies by the simultaneous devastation in San Francisco.
At 11:55 pm on April 17th a fire was reported in the attic of the New Paltz Normal School. The Normal School that in time would become SUNY or the State University of New York at New Paltz was even then a significant institution with an enrollment of more than 500. The school, closed for the Easter holidays, was to reopen in two days and a recently detected leak in a water tank required two men work late into the night to complete its repair. They never finished. At a few minutes to midnight their "Rochester Lamp," something close to today's kerosene lantern "exploded almost without warning." Melvin Weismiller, a plumber and Louis Ackert his assistant who were making the repair, quickly saw the wisdom of escape ahead of spreading flames, descending to street level to sound the alarm.
The community in Ulster County was rural and the village, such as it was, concentrated within a quarter mile of the Wallkill River. The school was sited on Huguenot Street near the railroad station and the river. The physical plant was impressive, "a massive four-story structure of brick and stone, steep-roofed and vaguely Romanesque in detail" according to Elizabeth and Robert Lang's history of the university, "In a Valley Fair" published in 1960.
The town in that era was bustling in a rural way, the village a nexus of sorts. The Wallkill Valley Railway Company's line ran north to Kingston and south to Campbell Hall, the village's station very near to the Normal School. A trolley line ran due east, connecting New Paltz to Highland [then known as New Paltz Landing], the Hudson River and Poughkeepsie. In New Paltz its tracks terminated a few feet from the Wallkill and a short walk from the railway station. The trolley would soon celebrate its 10th anniversary, one of its four cars the Mohonk, Minnewaska, Highland or New Paltz departing hourly for eastern civilization.