Harveys Lake History

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The Sunset Area

Chapter 4: The Destruction of Sunset

On Sunday, June 24, 1928, a disastrous fire began to signal the end of a decade of phenomenal growth at Sunset.  In the early morning, Willard Gosart, the night watchman for the new county bridge, discovered a fire in the lower story of the Belmont Restaurant next to the Oneonta Pavillion. Esther Ide, the night operator of the Commonwealth Exchange, signaled area cottagers to help fight the fire.  Despite a steady rain, the fire spread rapidly from the restaurant to the Oneonta Pavillion and surrounding structures.  Earlier in the year, the Oneonta Pavillion had been remodeled.  A  spacious veranda had been added on the lower floor, and the upper floor had been enclosed for year-round use. 

After the fire call, Sen. A.J. Sordoni, with the Lake pumper, was the earliest to arrive, followed by the Kingston Independent Hose Company, which made the run to the Lake in twenty minutes.  Rescuers smashed into the rear apartment of the dance pavilion to arouse James Hennihan and Albert Mason who were sleeping in the pavilion’s apartment.  Hennihan was a local prize fight referee who had assumed the management of the pavilion for the 1928 season; he had finished his first dance only hours earlier. 

The flames were furious, and four times the firemen had to douse flames that even threatened the Lake pumper, which stood near the steamboat landing.  Rowland Newsbigle, one of the fire-fighters, was forced to jump into the Lake to avoid the snapping electric wires.  By 6:00 P.M. the fir was under control.  Lost were the reconstructed Oneonta Pavillion, the Belmont restaurant, Mundy’s candy store and the Hochreiter cottage.

There was inadequate insurance to rebuild the dance hall, and the Oneonta Amusement Company went into insolvency.  The Oneonta dance site was eventually sold to the Commonwealth Telephone Company for its large exchange building.  A few stone steps from the Oneonta Pavillion still grace the property.

Within two months after the loss of the Oneonta Pavillion, another fire at Sunset had tragic results.  On August 16, 1928, a fire broke out in the rear of the Casino bowling alley at 7:30 A.M. In the rear of the building was a boarding area for pinboys.  Eight pinboys were aroused and escaped through the efforts of Andrew Kovatch, the Casino bowling manager.  But as the boys were escaping the blinding smoke and heat, two of the eight teenage boys, Abraham Dymond and Matthew Yatko, apparently retreated to their room where they suffocated.  The fire had started in the kitchen, to the left of the boys’ bedroom.  An oil stove had been started an hour before the fire.  There were severe damages to the rear of the Casino and water damage to eight bowling alleys.  The Grotto restaurant next door received slight damage by fire and water.

The following year, on August 26, 1929, the Lake experienced its greatest property loss in history to fire.  Ten buildings between Hillside Avenue and Carpenter Road, which comprised most of the amusement section, were destroyed in a three-hour inferno.  In the later afternoon, a fire started in the power plant of the Bennethum bowling alley.   Fire extinguishers could not contain the blaze, and the flames shortly destroyed an adjoining boarding house used by the Bennethum employees.  The bowling alley itself caught fire, and the flames spread to an adjoining store and office building.  Fanned by a strong wind, the flames jumped the thirty-five foot front drive to the Sunset Pavillion and the Lake Improvement Company bathhouse.  Dorothy Gunton, the telephone exchange operator, called local fire departments and then fled the exchange as fire enveloped the building, cutting all telephone service from the area.

In a remarkable performance, Sen. A.J. Sordoni directed the sixty fire-fighters as they struggled to contain the huge blaze that was destroying Sunset.  The firemen directed their hoses on the Grotto, Casino and Bungalow City near the bridge.  They also saved the White Birch Inn and Carpenter’s Hotel on the opposite side of the disaster.  As President of the Harvey’s Lake Light Company, Sordoni summoned four gangs of linemen.  They cut the wire service to the area and rewired the lines around the fire zone, restoring light service to the area in forty-five minutes.  Sordoni was also President of the Commonwealth Telephone Company, and he had the company’s general manager, R.W. Kentzer, rushed to the scene; in an hour a line to the Valley was opened.  In less than six hours a new exchange and switchboard was in operation.  Two Bell Telephone Company operators, Audrey Heatherly and Jean Hommick, were vacationing at the Lake.  As they were observing the fire, they were pressed into volunteer service to manage the Commonwealth lines.

The fire damages totaled $135,000.00, a devastating loss by the standards of the time.  George Bennethum did not witness the disaster.  The energetic developer died suddenly in April 1927, and the Sunset holdings were now managed by Estelle Bennethum.  The Bennethum estate suffered the greatest loss in the fire.  The bowling alley, candy store, office boarding house, warehouse and power plant were totally destroyed.  The Sunset Pavillion and Bennethum bathhouse were also destroyed, along with a building that contained the telephone exchange and Garinger meat market.  A restaurant on the Lake Road, owned by Thomas James, was also lost.  Damaged in the fire was the saltwater taffy stand of William Hill, who had a small stand along the Lake shore above the Sunset Pavillion.  He had retired a few years earlier from Hill’s Pavillion at the bridge.  Before the fire, both Hill brothers, William and Harry, continued their family trade and reopened stands at Sunset.


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Copyright 2006-2007 F. Charles Petrillo

Copyright 2006-2017 F. Charles Petrillo