Election Night Bonfires
By Mary Ellen O'Connor
Election Day was a couple of weeks away, but the neighborhood kids in the South End were busy collecting wood, tires, and anything else they could burn, in anticipation of the election night bonfires.
Winter was approaching, and many of the homeowners were fixing or replacing stoops, fences, and gates. As much as they watched their wood, they were never quite as quick or as skillful as the neighborhood teenage boys who prowled the streets looking to build up their stash for the bonfires. If something wasn’t nailed down they “assumed” it was there for them to take. The biggest secret being whispered around the neighborhoods was where the wood was being stored, and everyone had an opinion.
When Election Day came, you could feel the excitement in the air! The neighborhood kids didn’t really care about the elections or the candidates. Our families were Democrats, and they voted for whomever Uncle Dan O’Connell, the party boss, chose. He was a numbers man, and knew his chosen candidates always needed a high vote count in every election if he was to maintain his powerful leadership of Albany County. He was a player in national politics because of those numbers, and he was not about to give that up. You could decide to stay home and not go to the polls, but Uncle Dan offered you the sweetener of a five dollar bill if you cast your vote.
If Uncle Dan did a favor for you during the year, like giving you a job or issuing you a license, he expected loyalty in the voting booth. To make certain, there were a lot of different ways to see how you voted. If, for example, the Polling Place was located in the basement of an establishment, a small unnoticeable peephole was drilled into the floor directly above the voting machine. When the voter came into the polling place, the Polling Inspector would YELL out their name which alerted the “peeper” on the floor above. Both the inspector and the peeper had the same suspect list memorized in their heads. Uncle Dan was relentless and unforgiving if he was crossed.
After supper, dressed in our best outfits, we all went to vote. My sister, brother, and I took turns going into the voting booth with my mother, father, grandmother, and grandfather as they cast their votes. We anticipated our turn at pulling the lever when we were shown what row to vote on. There was always an air of duty and importance that was conveyed to us on Election Day, but it was the evening that held the most fun.
As soon as we got home from voting, my father would kiss us goodnight, tell us to stay on our front stoop, and “be in the house by nine o’clock.” Then he would leave to ride the fire truck at Engine 4 on Hudson Avenue in anticipation of the election night fires.
It was dark, and the streets were quiet – for a little while. And, as if on cue, there was bedlam in the South End! Neighborhood boys came running and screaming carrying wooden crates, old doors, wooden beams, old fences, and anything else they could grab along the way. In a matter of seconds, huge stacks of rubble grew at the intersections of streets.
The pile grew at Park Avenue and Philip Street, as Jimmy Miller and his cousins Tom and Jerry kept running back and forth to the hideout.
“Hey! Somebody throw a tire over that hydrant!” Jimmy shouted as he ran down Park Avenue carrying a wooden beam.
There was a wooden fence that was halfway knocked down on the corner, and in a split second four of the boys pulled it out of the ground, and ran with it to throw on the heightening stack.
At Philip Street and Myrtle Avenue there wasn’t enough wood so a big kid named, Turtle, disappeared from the action. He was gone for quite a while, but no one knew where he went until someone spotted him carrying a huge piece of wood with chicken wire on his back. He looked like Superman as his fingers clutched the chicken wire to hold onto the baseball back stop from Lincoln Park until he could throw it on the pile.
As stacks were being built neighbors were either standing around watching all the excitement, or sitting on their stoops to protect the renegade boys from stealing their steps. The owner and his nephew from National Iron & Metal Co. on lower Park Avenue sat in the car across from the junkyard to keep an eye on their wooden fence. Nothing was safe that night.
The excitement mounted as somebody appeared with a can of gasoline, and began pouring some on the tire around the fire hydrant. Then they drenched the pile that was now reaching close to the power lines. A match was lit and thrown into the bottom of the heap. Whoosh! The blaze roared, and the people cheered!
There were bonfires from one end of the South End to the other. The tallest, and most dangerous was at the intersection of South Hawk and Jefferson Streets. It was so tall it could be seen from Rensselaer. It burned the power lines, and destroyed the asphalt.
The bonfire at Fourth Avenue and Broadway was by the B.T. Babbit Company. Even though the firehouse was just up the street, the fire engine was putting out other fires in other neighborhoods, so this one burned longer.
Fire sirens could be heard in the distance, but as they got nearer and louder the boys took off in all directions. The neighbors would watch as the firemen struggled to put out the burning tire, and wrestle if off the hydrant so they could hook up the hose. Finally the hose was connected, and the force of the water put the fire out and blew the ashes and charred wood everywhere. The firemen jumped back on the truck, and took off to put out another blaze.
As soon as they left, the boys came running out of hiding carrying pieces of wood to rebuild the bonfire. This time the pile wasn’t as high, but it did burn longer because the firemen were busy running all over the South End.
Once again, the fire truck roared down the street for the second time, put out the fire, and continued on its rounds. But this time all the wood was used up, it was getting late, and everyone went back into their houses. The action was over with for another year.
In the early 1960’s the election night bonfires came to a gradual end. They were too dangerous, and sometimes costly.The police began to crack down on the perpetrators, and word spread around the neighborhoods that things wouldn’t go well for anyone who was caught setting off a fire on election night.
Today, the face of politics has changed, and on election night when the polls close and the winners are decided there are victory celebrations for the winning candidates. The bonfire was an election ritual that communicated something intangible to a voting public.