The 18 new trees that will line 24th Street from Buffalo Avenue to Falls Street will not only beautify the neighborhood, but will serve as a subtle reminder of a tragic community loss 60 years ago.
The trees -- nine fragrant 'Ivory silk' lilac trees, with the rest a mixture of blooming American hop hornbeam, disease-resistant elms and red maples -- will line the streets once walked by the children of the Reid family, Mary Ewing and her eight children and two men who died in the fire at the Moonglow Hotel at 2449 Allen Ave. on Nov. 16, 1957.
It was the worst loss of life in a fire in the history of Niagara Falls.
"Please don't forget what happened here," said Bill Bradberry, a onetime city administrator and longtime local activist who was 9 years old and living on Allen Avenue across the street from the Moonglow Hotel at the time of the fire. As a child, he had played with the children who died.
He was addressing just a handful of people, mostly members of the group that had planned this event for more than a year. Then the men, most from the business and religious communities of the neighborhood, grabbed shovels and a rake to cover the roots of the first tree planted at Buffalo Avenue and 24th Street.
Falls Forestry crew members Tom Langer, Marcus Perry and Daniel Gravelle stood back while the planning committee, far from turning one sod and then leaning on the shovels symbolically, heaved the rich dirt into the hole.
Participating in the low-key but meaningful ceremony on Monday were 4th District Legislator Owen T. Steed; Charles McCreary of Damascus Baptist Church, Ron Anderluh of the Niagara Street Area Business and Professional Association, local historian and author Dan Davis and the the Rev. Raymond Allen, president of the Niagara Ministerial Council. Steadying the trunk was City Forester Joe Urso.
This investment in the future of the neighborhood was far different from the solemn ceremony held 10 years ago to memorialize members of the Reid and Ewing families, who had lived in the condemned former hotel at 2449 Allen Ave., just off 24th Street.
The families moved to the Moonglow after Hyde Park Village, a public housing project built hastily for wartime workers, was condemned. With few accommodations for large families, the Reids and Ewings, who had come north from Alabama for work in the booming factories of Niagara Falls, had few choices. They moved into the rundown, unheated three-story building in the fall of 1957.
Shortly after 4:30 a.m. on Nov. 16, 1957, a fast-moving blaze, possibly caused by a kerosene space heater, swept the dilapidated building. The blaze was discovered by a passing police officer, traffic division Captain Jack Dietz, who happened to be the father of the building's owner, William Dietz.
Despite heroic efforts by the Niagara Falls Fire Department, the fire claimed 18 lives, 15 of them children. They were Mary Ewing, 27, and her children Howard, 9; Horace Jr., 8; Arlene, 6; Belinda, 4; Gloria Jean, 3; Terry and Jerry, 1-year-old twins; and Bonnie Patricia, 2 months. The children of Sanford and Louise Reid who died were Walter, 17; Herbert, 16; Carson, 11; Harvey, 7; William, 3; Sanford Jr., 1; and Mary Louise, 5 months. Two single men, Jack Thomas and John Jackson, also died.
The survivors, most of whom were injured, were Horace Ewing Sr. and Sanford and Louise Reid, as well as four of their daughters. The youngest survivor, Annie L. Chivers, was 4 years old when she was dropped from a second-story window by her sister Lucille. Chivers wrote about the fire and its aftermath in her 2013 book, "Out of the Fire: Life From the Ashes."
The tragic deaths shocked the city and spurred immediate action from the Niagara Falls Housing Authority, which responded to demands for safe municipal housing for workers and their families. Dietz, the owner of the building, was tried on several charges and convicted of first-degree manslaughter. He was sentenced to two to five years in prison, eventually serving 16 months.
Ten years ago, the 50th anniversary of the fire was marked with a formal ceremony at Niagara Falls Fire Department headquarters. Bradberry organized the solemn event, which included a fire department color guard, the reading of the names of those who died, the dedication of a plaque bearing their names and several speeches, including one by a retired firefighter who told the heartbreaking story of finding an infant's body.
In her book, Chivers, who now lives in North Carolina, recalled that emotional event. "Even though I had known of this incident, hearing it from him caused me to completely lose my bearing," she wrote. "I had been standing behind the line of firefighters until then, but I had to take a seat."
Bradberry said, "It was a very heavy event and very well attended. I was amazed by how many people crowded into that fire station. It was very powerful. We wanted to raise awareness throughout the city that these dangers still exist in overcrowded bad housing."
When Bradberry and other community leaders, including the Rev. Harvey L. Kelley of the New Hope Baptist Church and the Rev. Joseph H. Jones of Damascus Baptist Church, began to discuss how to mark the 60th anniversary of the fire, they were drawn to the idea of investing in the future, rather than marking the past.
Those discussions resulted in the commitment from the city to plant 18 trees on 24th Street between Falls and Niagara, passing the intersection of Allen Avenue.
"It's a lovely thing to do for the community, in honor of my family, and a blessing," said Chivers, who plans to visit the area and see the trees in the spring.
"Out of tragedy, we can look forward to some kind of triumph," said 4th District County Legislator Owen T. Steed, who was on the planning committee. "But looking at housing conditions in Niagara Falls today, we know there's a lot that needs to be done, especially inspections before people move in. Everybody deserves to live in a place that is clean and safe."
"I would call this the public initiation of a community's attempt to improve itself, and to do so by honoring those 18 lives with 18 trees," said Bradberry. "It's just a start. We don't want to limit this to 18 trees; there is room for probably 1,800 trees in that community."
Ron Anderluh, revitalization coordinator for the Niagara Street Area Business & Professional Association, hopes that continued discussions result in a more comprehensive plan to beautify the neighborhood.
The corner of 24th and Buffalo once held benches, bushes and a sign welcoming people to the neighborhood. Over the years, it became tattered and was removed. "I'd like to see a plan for what the area would look like on both sides of the street, and that's coming next," said Anderluh. "Eventually we're going to be planting a lot more trees down 24th Street and down Welch Avenue," he said.
"Eighteen trees seems like a lot of trees, but when you start spreading them out along that corridor of 24th Street from Buffalo Avenue to Falls Street, I might have just enough to spread them out so they make an impact," said Urso, city forester.
"I've never done anything on this scale," said Urso, who noted that the planting of trees has become a comforting memorial for grieving families, including many along Robbins Drive in Hyde Park.
Unlike single memorial trees, these 18 trees will not be marked with the names of those who died, said Bradberry, at least not officially.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with naming the trees," he said. "If people want to name the trees, I would leave that up to the community, maybe up to the neighborhood to adopt a tree and name it after one of the children, or one of the adults. We would encourage that."
But, he said, "The bottom line here is that I think the community is mournful of the loss of life, but we are done mourning and are turning the corner toward development in their honor. The good news is that it's about all these components of the community coming together."
He particularly praised the participation of Marc Audet, Niagara Falls Olin Corp. plant manager. "I know there were many men and women who worked at Olin over the years and lived in that neighborhood," said Bradberry, noting that Olin has planted trees on its property between 24th Street and 27th Street.
In a statement, Audet said, "Olin supports a variety of worthwhile causes in our Niagara Falls community, and we’re proud to help contribute to this beautification initiative that’s near our facility."
After the first tree was planted, the group moved on to Allen Avenue, where Davis used a historical map and GPS to find the exact site where the Moonglow once stood. "Now we're on the lot," Davis said as the group gathered near a building owned by SantaRosa Trucking.
Bradberry would like to place a small plaque at the site of the Moonglow Hotel, and have a small memorial display inside nearby Damascus Baptist Church.
But, he said, "The most important part of this is the years of continued improvement in the community in the names of the deceased, who may have lived to do great things."