A tragedy all but forgotten

An Albany store collapse 100 years ago killed 13, and a victim's nephew looks for clues to his past

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Date: Monday, August 8, 2005

ALBANY - On Aug. 8, 1905, at 8:48 a.m, a large downtown department store collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 100.

More than 150 employees of the John G. Myers Co., who had been preparing for the 9 a.m. opening, were trapped in the rubble as the five-story structure at 39 N. Pearl St. pancaked down on itself, dropping the roof and all the floors in a twisted heap into the basement. At the time, a back wall was on jacks during a con struction project planned to shore up the foundation and enlarge the basement's storage capacity.

An extra edition of The Argus, which cost 2 cents, was snapped up with its macabre recounting of "one of Albany's worst disasters. ... Cries and moans of the victims under the mass of timber and brick appealing for help rent the air."

"The most agonizing scenes were witnessed in the streets, where were gathered hundreds of the friends of the victims of the disaster, anxious for news of their loved ones," according to The Argus.

On the 100th anniversary of the Myers' store collapse today, few Capital Region residents know of the tragedy. No mention was made of the 1905 catastrophe when Myers - after years of declining business in the ascendancy of suburban shopping malls - closed its doors in 1970, the last department store left in downtown Albany at the time.

Again, there was no description of the collapse when an elderly woman was discovered living "in primitive conditions" in a coal bin under the rubble of the former store during demolition in 1980. Nor was the catastrophe mentioned in 1984 when remnants of the Myers store were hauled away before construction of an office building that now houses several law firms.

"I guess people have forgotten," said Tim Leonard, 60, of Albany, a retired Amtrak engineer, for whom the Myers store collapse represents a family loss and a personal quest.

Leonard's uncle, Frank Leonard, a 12-year-old "cash boy" who had been working at the store for just two weeks, was killed in the collapse.

A newspaper account described a frantic search through the rubble by the boy's dad in the harrowing hours after the collapse. "Father Found Only the Dead Body of His Child," read The Argus headline.

Leonard was the youngest person killed in the incident.

"It doesn't get any worse than a 12-year-old boy who had his whole life ahead of him dying in a grossly negligent collapse," Tim Leonard said. "I'm still outraged and saddened by it."

The Leonards moved to Albany from Schuylerville at the turn-of-the-century. They lived at 101 Myrtle Ave. when Frank, the oldest of three sons, was killed.

The dining room table in Tim Leonard's South Pine Avenue second-floor flat - a two-family house in the Pine Hills neighborhood where he's lived his entire life - is filled with binders of archival material he's collecting about the collapse. He plans to write a family history in retirement.

"I feel like I'm solving a puzzle," he said. "There was very little said about the collapse in my family growing up. It always intrigued me and I wanted to know more about what happened to my Uncle Frank." Leonard has a copy of the only remaining photo of his uncle, along with newspaper clippings, related correspondence, a structural report and so-called "disaster cards," postcards of the era showing the Myers store collapse that were popular collectibles.

In the wake of the disaster, independent investigators faulted the architect and builder for jacking up the wall on an unstable clay base, which caused temporary supports to buckle, setting off the collapse.

The report also found blame in the fact that the department store was fashioned from a cobbled mishmash of mid-19th-century woodframe structures at 39 and 41 N. Pearl St. When they were connected in later years, the foundation was under stress because of the heavy combined load.

The builder, John Dyer Jr., and the architect, Clark L. Daggett, were taken into custody. They were fined and the department store compensated the families, but there were no criminal indictments and nobody went to jail for the collapse.

The follow-up to the collapse showed once more the reactive role of local government, according to Jack McEneny, the state Assemblyman and local historian, whose wife, Barbara, is Tim Leonard's cousin.

One positive development after the collapse was the immediate creation of a bureau of code enforcement for Albany, McEneny said. "It took the Myers collapse for the city to finally realize that a code enforcement bureau was a necessity and not a frill, even though it had been talked about and dismissed for years," he said.

A troubling aspect of Leonard's research into the collapse was that the construction workers and supervisors in the store at the time all managed to escape safely, but did not manage to warn the employees.

"It appears that there was plenty of time, perhaps 20 minutes or longer, from the time the floors started to sag and workers began to flee and the final collapse," Leonard said. "It seems like they could have at least yelled up to the employees that it was going to fall."

Of course, cash boys like Frank Leonard were on the bottom tier among the store's 350 employees. They were paid $1.50 a week in 1950 and acted as runners, shuttling money paid by customers for goods to the cashier, who made change. The cash boy then returned to the counter with the customer's change and also carried the customer's goods from the counter to the bundle room for wrapping and then back again.

A cash boy's written account of the job from that era described sore feet and deep fatigue from the constant hustling. They realized they were at the bottom of the food chain. "The floorwalkers were our masters and we were their cringing fearful slaves," the cash boy wrote.

Albany newspapers carried sto ries of heroism about employees who perished in the collapse after helping co-workers escape. Inside, the combined structures were a warren of confusing, narrow hallways and staircases.

At the 10th, 25th and 50th anniversary of the collapse, newspaper accounts referred to the Myers store collapse as "Albany's worst disaster." It wasn't.

In 1840, 30 people were killed when a bridge at the foot of State street collapsed. An 1894 fire in the Delavan House, a landmark downtown hotel, claimed the lives of 19 people.

Although no lives were lost, an 1848 conflagration destroyed dozens of buildings and nearly one-third of the city's downtown.

"The Myers store collapse was a major catastrophe and it stayed in the minds of residents for a long time," said Virginia Bowers, Albany's historian. "Unfortunately, a lot of younger people today don't even realize we had the Myers and Whitney department stores downtown."

The Myers store re-opened at 37 N. Pearl St. and remained a longtime downtown commercial anchor along with Whitney's department store next door.

"Whitney's and Myers were the Macy's and Gimbels of Albany," McEneny said.

The Myers store collapse cast a dark cloud over North Pearl Street.

McEneny recalled that his aunt, Elizabeth Horan, refused to shop there. "It really traumatized her because she knew people who were killed. She couldn't bring herself to go down to North Pearl anymore because it brought back that horrible memory," he said.

The Leonard family was paid $1,500 in compensation from the Myers' Co. insurance policy and used the cash to purchase a large black granite marker for the family plot in St. Agnes Cemetery, McEneny said.

"That was considered blood money and Frank's parents weren't about to spend it for their own needs," McEneny said.

Paul Grondahl can be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at pgrondahl@timesunion.com.