115 Years After New York’s Deadliest Hotel Fire, A Memorial Goes Up For The Unidentified Dead

The Windsor Hotel Fire On St. Patrick’s Day In 1899 Killed 86

Windsor Hotel Fire Memorial  by artist Al Lonrenz photo: Ricky Flores for The Journal News

Windsor Hotel Fire Memorial by artist Al Lonrenz photo: Ricky Flores for The Journal News

It only took 115 years, but finally 31 unidentified dead, who were killed in New York City’s deadliest hotel fire, will be receiving a stone which commemorates their final resting place.

On Thursday, October 9 at 4:00 p.m., a memorial service was held at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, N.Y. to officially unveil and dedicate a monument to those who were interred without a marker.

The Windsor Hotel built between 1872 and 1873, stood at 575 Fifth Avenue, between 46th and 47tth Streets and was considered one of New York’s finest hotels.

At a few minutes after 3:00 p.m. on Friday, March 17, 1899 with thousands of spectators along Fifth Avenue watching the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, a fire broke out at The Windsor Hotel and spread like lightning throughout the entire structure.

Windsor Hotel 5th ave 46th 47th street magic lantern slide B.P collection

The Windsor Hotel

On the 46th Street side of the hotel, John Foy, a waiter at the hotel was passing the parlor located on the second floor. Foy watched a guest light a cigar and try to toss the lighted match out one of the open bow windows. The wind was blowing in and the match struck one of the window curtains setting it on fire. Foy attempted to be a hero and to extinguish the flames, but within seconds the fire had spread all over the corridor, and Foy fled. The man who carelessly started the blaze was never identified.

Though the fire was discovered immediately, the alarm turned in promptly and fire fighters arrived rapidly, the entire hotel was reduced to rubble within an hour.

The newspapers of the day commented that had the fire broken out at night when the hotel’s 500 plus rooms were fully occupied with sleeping guests, the loss of life would have been tremendously greater.

Aftermath of the Windsor Hotel Fire - searching the debris - New York Tribune

Aftermath of the Windsor Hotel Fire – searching the debris – New York Tribune

As it was the final death toll was about 86 (exact numbers unknown), half of whom were unidentified and 31 of whom were buried April 17, 1899 in a group plot in Kensico Cemetery about 25 miles outside of the city.

Plans were drawn up to build a fitting memorial to honor those who perished in the conflagration. Noted sculptor Max Bachmann was commissioned to design a grand monument.

Original unbuilt Windsor Fire Monument at Kensico Cemetery by sculptor Max Bachmann

Original unbuilt Windsor Fire Monument at Kensico Cemetery by sculptor Max Bachmann

The monument was to be of granite, twenty-one feet high and twenty feet wide. It was to consist of a life size bronze figure of “Grief,” bearing a palm, and standing beside three columns. One of the columns was to be perfect, to represent those who escaped from the fire. The second was to be partly broken, to represent the identified dead, while the third was to be broken off at the base, to represent the unidentified dead.  The names of those who perished in the fire, but whose bodies were not recovered, would be cut in the stone.

The monument committee consisted of Rev. Dr. D. Parker Morgan, Chauncey M. Depew, James F. Sutton and Gardner Wetherbee of the Hotel Manhattan. The New England Monument Company were responsible for constructing the monument, which was to cost $7,500.

Apparently the monies were never raised and the monument went unbuilt.

Windsor Hotel Fire intermission warning magic lantern slide

Windsor Hotel Fire intermission warning magic lantern slide

For a few years afterwards there would be occasional reminders of the disaster like this magic lantern slide shown at silent motion picture houses during intermission reminding people not to smoke inside a theatre. But the fire stayed in the collective minds of the public for about one generation.

By 1919 with so many major tragedies having affected New Yorkers, (the General Slocum Fire, Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, Titanic, Lusitania, 1918 worldwide influenza pandemic, The Great War) the Windsor Hotel Fire was soon forgotten.

Finally a century later, the unknown victims will be remembered.

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7 thoughts on “115 Years After New York’s Deadliest Hotel Fire, A Memorial Goes Up For The Unidentified Dead

  1. Katherine Walshe

    Hi,
    I’m wondering if you could point me in the right direction please. I believe my Grandaunt, Bridget Walsh, worked in the Windsor Hotel and was in the hotel when it burned down. Down through the years, I heard of how she knotted sheets together in order to save people from the fire. She herself survived and returned to Ireland a number of years later. Do you know where I might find out any other information, including confirmation that she did work there.
    Thank you.

    Reply
    1. B.P. Post author

      Hi Katherine
      The best way to confirm this story would be to check all the New York newspapers and see if she was interviewed by the press in the days immediately after the fire. There were around 15 daily newspapers in NYC at the time. If you live near New York, they are available on microfilm at the main branch of the New York Public Library. Four newspapers are searchable online at the Library of Congress website loc.gov ; The Evening Sun, New York World; and New York Tribune. The New York Times website has its archive online and is also searchable (for a fee to read articles if you are not a NYT subscriber.)

      While searching online try spelling variations of your grandaunt’s name or “Miss Walsh” etc. as the newspapers did not always get names correct in their rush to go to press.

      As far as records of employees for the hotel, I think that would be a long shot. If you have the time contact the New York Historical Society and Museum of the City of New York and The New York Public Library. I would doubt they have anything. I do remember reading that when the fire broke out, a manager did take the register book with him, so you never know what was saved.

      Good luck and please write back if you find anything.

      Reply
  2. Barbara McManus

    Hi Katherine – My great grandfather, Thomas Clifton, worked at the hotel and was there during the fire. He survived and told the story to the family many times. He is quoted in the story from the New York Times and was asked to identify some of the victims. He always said the fire department was delayed due to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue.

    Did you find out anything about your grandaunt?

    Reply
    1. Katherine Walshe

      Hi Barbara,

      Apologies for the delay in getting back to you. I only saw your reply now when I was searching again.

      I will certainly look up the information on your Great Grandfather. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find out anything more about my Grandaunt and the Windsor Hotel Fire. If you hear anything, do let me know.

      Thank you,
      Katherine.

      Reply
  3. Katheirne Walshe

    Hello again Barbara,

    I read the New York Times article (22nd March 1899) in which Thomas Clifton is mentioned. In that article also, is says “The police yesterday made up a list of 157 employees of the hotel, of whom 15 are still missing. Seven of the names were additions to the missing list. The police said that the list of employees was incomplete. …”. Maybe it’s a long shot but I wonder if the file might still be available at some police station?

    Katherine.

    Reply
  4. Barbara McManus

    Hi Katherine – Did you ever get any more information on the employees from the Windsor Hotel? Maybe the Midtown South precinct at west 30th street might have some information. I think the old 14th precinct was the hotel’s precinct in 1899 which in turn was merged into the Midtown South.

    Barbara

    Reply
    1. Katherine Walshe

      Many thanks Barbara.

      I will do some further checks based on your latest information and will let you know.

      Katherine.

      Reply

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