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The Brewery Fire: A Reporter’s Notes

Tom Coyne's Notes From the FX Matt Brewery

By Tom Coyne

     The day after, it remains hard to believe that the brewery, such an important part of our community for so many decades, could have taken such a hit. And the timing of it, opening night of the tenth anniversary season of their weekly summer concert series, adds another layer to the story. 

     The first edition of the tenth season of the Saranac Thursdays summer concert series was getting ready to begin. Every year the folks at the F.X. Matt Brewery improve the line up for their street festival and the 2008 season was scheduled to build on that. The anticipated crowd for the kickoff was expected to be large. At the station, our game plan was to do the weather live from the brewery during the LIVE AT FIVE NewsHour and NewsChannel 2 at Six and cover the concert as a news event. Word was sent to the station by photographer Kelly Fuller that they saw some smoke at the brewery, but at a concert venue it could be anything from a venting of smoke from what is a manufacturing site to a barbeque gone wild. The beginning of a multi-alarm fire that would require fire companies from outside the city to fight? No, that could not be what Fuller was calling in. But, word from Fuller and Meteorologists Jill Reale was that the smoke was getting thicker and then flames were seen. From a broadcast perspective, we were in the right place at the right time and did the best we could.

     The draw of the music and the beer has been an attraction for years, add in opening night…the crowd would present both an obstacle and opportunity for responders. The obstacle is obvious, a large crowd in the immediate vicinity of a major, potential volatile fire. Local authorities first had to clear the area and then navigate the departing crowd to get equipment and men near enough to fight the fire. That provided us “civilians” with the opportunity to see how good these folks are. They cleared the area efficiently, without injury or incident, and got the rigs as close as possible to the awkward location of the fire. If you have ever been on Varick Street for St. Patrick’s Day or the post-Boilermaker festivities you can appreciate that accomplishment. While the crowd was nowhere near as raucous as either of those two events, the logistics of that congested area…with people going out and emergency vehicles coming in, it was quite the feat to get both done as effectively as they did.

     The logistics of the area presented a real challenge to fire fighters. The campus of the F.X. Matt Brewery, born of the old West End Brewery, sprawls over a large and irregular shaped city block. There are almost a dozen different structures as part of this complex. It was common in the late 19th century for such manufacturing centers to be constructed in the middle of cities. There were several breweries operating within the city limits in those days, along with many textile mills and other manufacturing. This is something that may be lost to the past several generations, who have grown up with factories built in suburban settings. Even up into the 1970s, it was not uncommon to have such urban operations. Most of them are gone. Even many of those who remember such places are gone. But, the brewery remained. It more than remained, it prospered.

     Getting back to the logistical challenge, the building that burned had only a small street exposure on Schuyler Street, the west side of the building. The four story brick building was about a city block long and seemed to be attached to another structure. That means that there was almost no northern exposure. On the south side, the building is set back about half a block with a small grocery store, a body shop and a few residences between the brewery property and Court Street. The body shop and a few other structures are almost side by side with the burning building. Fire fighters had to cut through those backyards, with their high brush and fences, to try and get lines in. Perhaps the most troublesome side was on the east. The building involved is more than half a block away from Varick Street. The Matt’s Brew House and administration building, with the 1888 Tavern that folks are most familiar with from the Brewery Tours, are on that side…as well as the parking lot that was to be used for the Saranac Thursday concert. A large stage, with scaffolding about two stories tall, is tucked in a corner of the brewery’s Court St. parking lot…in front of the east end of the burning building. There is also about 50 yards of property between the stage area and the building, limiting access. That meant that they best way to battle this fire was with aerial trucks. That presents two problems. First, aerial trucks take time to be set up safely and that was especially true at the brewery fire scene. The parking lot on the east side is uneven in level on the area near the buildings. On Schuyler Street, ladder trucks and aerial truck had to negotiate the railroad tracks that run through the middle of Schuyler St. The second problem… Utica doesn’t have enough aerials needed to get this job done. That necessitated a call for help.

     Thursday night, about 10:30PM, Utica Fire Chief Russ Brooks was leaning against a folding table, assessing where this battle stood. He asked me if I could believe this. “30 plus years and we’ve never had to call in help like this.”, he told me. Brooks was referring to the volunteer fire companies that responded to his call for help. From my count there were companies from Whitesboro, New York Mills, New Hartford and Maynard. I saw at least one fire jacket with RFD on the back and assumed the man wearing it made the trip in from Rome . There may well have been other fire companies there, but it is a large complex and our movements were restricted. If I missed a company, it is not a slight.

     “I’m impressed.” said Brooks. “They came when I asked. I told them what I needed done and they got the job done.” the Chief added.

     I don’t remember outside companies on Genesee Street in 1994 when the Kanatenah Apartments burned for two days. I think you might have to go back to the Phillip Thomas Lumberyard fire in Cornhill in the late 1960s for the last time non-city rigs were put to use on a Utica fire.

     The help didn’t only come from the fire fighting community. There were several blue uniforms that were wearing badges other than that of the City of Utica . Frankfort and New Hartford provided police back up to Utica for crowd and traffic control.

     Not long after Brooks told me that Ilion fire volunteers had their trucks at Utica fire stations to cover the city…fire alarms toned on the emergency radios. One thing about fire scenes, when the tones go off on the radios you can hear them all over the place. There are so many radios on at the emergency. Different tone patterns alert different agencies and the faces on the men of UFD indicated that they were about to hear something they were hoping not to hear. Then it came, “ Utica – telephone alarm of fire, 516 Lansing Street.” First, a telephone alarm is taken much more seriously…not that an automatic alarm is disregarded. But, it is figured that someone has witnessed signs of a fire in a building and it generates a higher level of response. The second cause of concern was the location. The 500 block of Lansing Street is in the northeast section of Utica ’s Cornhill region. That means a lot of older, often vacant buildings. Then came something I had never heard before. The dispatcher sent out a truck from Ilion and a truck from New Hartford. Ilion and New Hartford volunteers sent to work a fire in Cornhill. They knocked the flames down in a vacant house quite quickly. UFD sent a reserve truck from Schuyler Street staffed with Utica firemen who had been battling the brewery fire.

     I can’t and won’t speak for all Uticans, but as a father who’s family was at our home in South Utica …thank you to all of the volunteers, police and fire, who came to our city in this time of need.

     While writing this journal late Friday morning and early afternoon I hear on the scanner that firemen are still knocking down hot spots. They have begun the assessment of the damage to the structure. From being at the scene last night, I can recognize the areas they are talking about and understand how badly the damage is in the building that burned. It is devastating. The building that was used for canning Matt’s beers has pretty much been gutted. There is no roof. The fourth floor has fallen into the third floor. The fire is said to have started on the second floor, so you can imagine that the damage there is quite extensive. And still, the Matt family says they will rebuild. We hope so.

     Almost every Central New Yorker has grown up with Utica Club. Just this past week, at a station meeting, I mentioned how many roadside billboards I had seen this past weekend suggesting I taste Utica Club again, for the first time. My first time was over 30 years ago. With UC making a resurgence and the Saranac line going strong, New York ’s oldest brewery would have two brands worth marketing. How many of our kids have gone off to college with a Utica Club tee shirt or Saranac sweatshirt? How many specialty mugs have we sent to displaced Central New Yorkers as gifts? How many Schultz and Dooley’s are on display in our homes? This brewery has been an employer, community supporter and source of pride in this area for better than a century. We hope they recover and grow again. 

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