Milton History

a pictorial history of Milton, PA

Eyewitness Description of THE GREAT MILTON FIRE by FREDERIC A. GODCHARLES

THE sun arose upon a beautiful cloudless sky and all nature was decked in its lovely robes of green; it was the morning of Friday, May 14, 1880. The day was unusually quiet and serene after the various industrial plants of our thriving town had begun operations. This was in Milton, a town most happily situated along the eastern bank of the picturesque West Branch of the Susquehanna, the Otzinachson River of the Indians; a town which has few peers for prominence and industry and location in the Commonwealth. On this eventful forenoon, which was later to witness the almost total destruction of our shops, stores, manufactures, churches, schools, institutions and dwellings, and other attractions which together gave historic interest, commercial pride and beauty to Milton, there was naught in earth, sky, or air to presage the impending catastrophe so soon to befall the place. The writer was one of the pupils of Miss Clara Lawson, who conducted her select private school in her residence, on North Front Street, three doors above Upper Market Street. The whistles were announcing the noon hour, and we youngsters were hurrying toward our homes eager for the noon-day meal and the short rest in our school work. But, that particular day the whistles continued to sound their shrill noise and soon the general alarm of FIRE was unmistakable. I shall always remember that as we boys looked toward the car works, when crossing Upper Market Street, we saw the flames and smoke break through the roof of one of the buildings of the great plant; we understood the awful truth that the demon fire fiend had been turned loose and was at his work of destruction. We stood but a moment viewing the dreadful scene, then scampered to our several homes to warn our parents of the frightful occurrence. By the time I reached my home, on Center Street, near the canal, where my mother lay abed, stricken with serious illness, I told her of the fire, then rushed to a rear window and beheld the steeple of the German Reformed Church all aflame, and in a moment, saw it topple to the ground, a burning mass of charred timbers. The fire had, in a few minutes, gained frightful proportions. My father had been driven in great haste from the nail works, and arrived at home shortly after my appearance. We carried mother out the house on the mattress upon which she was lying, and with such clothing and food as we could gather in our haste, we left the house as the rear of it was in flames, crossed the canal bridge, being among the last persons able to pass over before it was a prey of the flames, and hastened to the meadows at the east end of the town. Here we lay mother, while we watched over her, and crouched in terror at the frightful scenes all around us. Thus, as a spectator and a sufferer in this most terrible catastrophe to ever visit Milton, unless some may consider the several floods more appalling and calamitous, I can never blot from my mind the scenes through which we soon passed. While immunity from calamity and disaster is the fortunate experience of a very small number of municipalities, it remains a question whether there is any town of comparable size in all America that has suffered a more destructive conflagration than did our own town on the visitation of this unforgettable fire. It was one of the most ruinous and serious catastrophes that ever befell a community, and is generally believed to have been the greatest fire in the history of the Commonwealth.

ORIGIN OF THE FIRE

The fire broke out of the roof of the framing shop of the Murray, Dougal & Company's immense car works, now a branch of the much greater American Car and Foundry Company. True, the day was bright and clear, but toward the noon hour, a high wind prevailed, increasing to a gale, and soon as the flames were free they spread rapidly. Large pieces of combustible materials from the shops, where great quantities of rich pine lumber were used in car construction, were dropped upon the roofs of the dry house of the car plant, other buildings of the car company, and nearby structures of every sort. The scene at once became a roaring furnace. Burning faggots were carried southward by the wind, directly toward the residential and business section of the town. The roar of the flames, even at this early period, was terrible to hear. Only a very few minutes elapsed before numerous houses, several churches, the large foundries operated by Bickle and Baily, and by John Lawson were enveloped in flames and being rapidly consumed. A general alarm called out all the citizens, when the most heroic efforts were everywhere made to check the flames. The utter futility of their work soon became apparent, when it was seen that the German Reformed, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches were on fire, and with the increasing violence and velocity of the wind, all human efforts were in vain. Attempts to save buildings was no longer thought of and every such effort was abandoned. To snatch an armful of clothing or bedding or a bit of food and then escape with life was the most that could be done. In fact, there were not a few who were compelled to flee for their lives and only succeeded in saving the clothing upon their backs.

OUTSIDE AID SUMMONED

Aid was hurriedly summoned, calls being made in all directions. Neighboring towns and cities were asked for immediate assistance and fire-fighting apparatus. Watsontown, Muncy, Williamsport, and Lock Haven to the west, Lewisburg, Northumberland and Sunbury to the south, and Danville to the east promptly responded when fire engines and hose were rushed to Milton by the fastest freight engines on both railroads. Even Harrisburg entrained a part of its best fire-fighting equipment. At one time there were seventeen different fire companies battling the stubborn flames in different parts of the burning area. When the wind suddenly shifted, one company was cut off from escape, and its engines and hose carriage and long line of hose were totally destroyed. To quote part of a story written a few years after the fire, we add: “There was enacted a scene in the terrible drama that almost beggars description. The roar of the conflagration mingled with that of the gale and the falling buildings were pierced with the shouts, cries, calls and groans of the terror-stricken populace; the hurrying to and fro of the multitude; the fright of the women; the cry of the children; all fleeing from the fire fiend in an effort to save themselves, and perhaps a small portion of their household goods. Here were strong men with unutterable groans, carrying boxes or some household treasure; there were mothers and helpless children in their arms, with others clinging to their skirts, flying they knew not whither, all in an effort to escape the flames. Vehicles were pressed into service either to aid in flight, or to bear away some cherished articles to a place of safety, only to be, in a large majority of the instances, more speedily consumed in the fire. Many bundles, articles of clothing and such were consumed while being carried to a supposed place of safety. The painful uncertainty which hung over the fate of everybody and everything was one of the greatest sources of alarm and suffering. Families were separated; parents lost their children; children were everywhere crying for their parents. For four terrible hours all bore the almost unendurable suspense as to what had been the fate of loved ones.

BURNED AREA

By one o’clock the buildings in the district lying between Locust Street and Broadway, and Front to Arch Streets had been laid in ashes, and the devastating element was spreading with even greater fury. Almost the entire four squares of Upper Milton had been burned to the ground. The residences of Mrs. R. McMurtrie, Mrs. A. W. Rhawn, Harry Hause, Mrs. Jane Strine, Caleb B. Moore, B. P. Lami- son, William K. Wertman, the Misses Finney, Henry D. Barr, former Governor James Pollock, J. Calvin Balliet, Jacob F. Gauger, Dr. U. Q. Davis, Dr. James P. McCleery, Robert W. Correy, William C. Lawson, and hundreds of other substantial residences. The only manufacturing plants to escape destruction were the Milton Iron Company and C. A. Godcharles & Company’s nail factory and puddle mill, and that portion of Murray, Dougal & Company’s car works, north of the framing shop, in which the fire orignated, and the Daniel Clinger lumber yard and planing mill. Every fraternal and patriotic society in Milton suffered the loss of their physical effects in the fire. By four o’clock the fire had completely destroyed 665 business houses, residences and industries, including the post office, Academy of Music, every bank, every hotel, every church, except the Christ Episcopal Church, on Upper Market Street, and every store except two small groceries, one drug store, and the carriage works of Seydell & Tilden and William K. Wertman, and the printing and publishing plant of The Miltonian. This burned district now also included all the buildings from Broadway, south along Front to Mahoning Street. The wind veered and took an easterly course, when the stone residence of Dr. Dougal escaped the flames, but all the buildings to the rear and south of it, to Lower Market Street and as far east as the Pennsylvania Railroad were destroyed. Among these structures were Cyrus Brown’s “36” Drug Store, the “Independent Weekly” office, Reber’s large tannery, Gotleib Brown’s immense slaughter house, a boat yard, the gas works, Broadway House, United States and Huff hotels, Swartz’s marble works, Central Express Company, Haag’s block, Overpeck’s Stove and Tinware store, Marsh’s Shoe store, J. F. Gauger’s store, Huth’s bakery, Lochman’s Sugar Bowl, the Goodlander block, Philadelphia & Reading Express office, Heinen, Schreyer & Company’s great general emporium, Spencer L. Finney’s store, Oppenheimer’s Nation store, and the clothing stores of Dreifuss Brothers and E. Reis, Gottleib Brown’s Meat shop, Baker’s Flouring mill, Sticker’s Dental parlor, First National Bank, Milton National Bank, Milton Public School building, and the Baptist, Lutheran and Evangelical churches, and residences of the Rev. W. H. Gotwald, Dr. Harry C. Sticker, Franklin Bound and Isaac Brown, and many others, including the largest and best merchantile blocks, and handsome residences. Thus between the noon hour and time for the evening meal almost the entire business section of Milton was leveled in ashes. The destruction of four short hours was dreadful, complete and effective. Where had stood the thriving town was now only a mass of charred, twisted and blackened ruins.

ONE LIFE LOST

During all this frightful tragedy of real life in which three thousand inhabitants were rendered homeless, but a single life was lost. Abraham Angeny was burned to death, his badly charred remains having been found in the yard of the writer’s parents, the morning after the fire. The victim, who resided nearby, had gone into the Godcharles yard for a pail of water, when he was caught in the raging inferno and burned, almost beyond recognition. It was indeed a merciful dispensation of Providence that this great cataclysm should have occurred in midday instead of during the darkness of the night, or the resultant loss in life might have challenged our senses.

RELIEF MEASURES

Immediate measures were taken for the relief and comfort of the destitute, for more than six hundred families had been rendered shelterless. A relief committee was formed of the most prominent citizens: The Reverend S. H. Reid, chairman; Clement C. Straub, secretary; George Piper, treasurer, and Robert Riddle, William A. Schreyer, Captain William P. Dougal, James M. Hedenberg, Alem Diffenderfer, Reuben F. Wilson, J. Frank Bucher, George W. Strine, Moses Chamberlin, Charles W. Tharp, C. Frank Follmer, Peter L. Hackenberg and Daniel Weidenhamer. To this committee all appeals for food and raiment were made, and from it went forth a call for assistance throughout the entire nation. The cry for help met with a generous and prompt response. Lewisburg and Williamsport sent provisions; Harrisburg rushed a carload of food, and wagons almost crowded the highways as they hurriedly carried foodstuffs and other necessities from the adjoining agricultural region.

A TENTED CITY

The day following the great fire a carload of tents was received from the State Arsenal, which afforded protection and shelter for hundreds of citizens throughout that summer. The militia did not go into their annual encampment because of the occupancy of tents here in the meadows surrounding Milton. Cash contributions to the amount of $87,819.19 were re ceived from cities and towns throughout Pennsylvania and adjoining States. This sum was distributed among the suf ferers by masters in chancery, appointed by the Court. As sistance from outside sources was also received in the re building of churches, and the General Assembly made an appropriation to aid in the erection of a school building. The expenses of this commission were deducted from the relief fund, and a small balance, less than one hundred dollars, was placed to the credit of the borough for the benefit of the poor.

REBUILDING THE TOWN

While the town was almost completely destroyed, its resources remained substantially unimpaired, and under the energetic efforts of the citizens, work of rebuilding was promptly begun. Buildings in the burned area were afterwards replaced with others of brick and stone, and the borough has since been one of the hives of industry for which our Commonwealth is justly proud. May we never be visited with another calamity, great or small. Milton, never a boom town, is destined to become a larger and mere important industrial community, as surely as it arose from the ashes of the great fire of May 14, 1880.

FIRST FIRE COMPANY

The first fire company in Milton was organized January 19, 1798, 140 years ago. There were several important companies serving the borough during the many years following, until the Miltonian Steam Fire Company was organized January 28, 1876. The first steam fire engine had been purchased and tested, and named for the newspaper founded by General Henry Frick, in 1816. The General was a fire fighter himself, having been president of the Enterprise Fire Company, organized in 1833. His son, Robert M. Frick, was the first president of the Miltonian Company; Leanander M. Morton, secretary; Robert M. Longmore, financial secretary; George J. Piper, treasurer, and John M. Caldwell, foreman. It was this company and engine which went into service at the time of the great fire. The steam engine continued to serve the borough most efficiently for many years before being replaced by one of more modern design and capacity. The motorized fire fighting equipment now owned by the several excellent companies is the pride of every citizen of Milton. So capable is the training of the men that not a single fire in Milton for many years has been able to reach a structure other than the one in which the fire originated.

OTHER MILTON FIRES

The several great fires in Milton, none of which, however, rivalled that of May 14, 1880, occurred as follows: during the night of August 30-31, 1859, the three-story brick building, known as the J. V. Goodlander block, was burned to the ground. In this fire the drug store of J. F. Caslow, boot and shoe store of David Krauser, restaurant of P. H. Schreyer, law offices of P. W. Hilgert and John Miller, the Borough Hall, occupying the second floor, and the lodge rooms of Milton Lodge No. 256, F. & A. Masons, and Milton Mutual Lodge Odd Fellows, on the third floor, were totally destroyed. This large business was rebuilt, and again on December 12, 1875, it was again destroyed in a fire which caused a loss exceeding $100,000. The business houses consumed were Jacob F. Gauger’s Tailor shop and store, B. K. Haag’s immense hardware emporium, Charles B. Krauser’s Boot and Shoe store, George W. Evans’ Tailor shop, Sanford & Waldron Drug store, saloon of Daniel Knauff, First National Bank and Milton Masonic Lodge. The fire departments of Lewisburg and Watsontown promptly responded and rendered most efficient service in saving other valuable property from becoming a prey of the flames. The Krauser block was destroyed February 17, 1904, in a terrible fire which had its origin in the basement of Sam, the Shoeman. The immense drug business of the Krauser brothers, Daniel and Ellis, and the jewelry business of G. Dallas Fox, the shoe store of Sam, the Shoeman, and the effects of the Henry Wilson Post, G. A. R., and S. Hepburn Pollock Camp, Sons of Veterans, were a total loss. The Kennedy block burned October 11, 1908, when four business blocks and four residences were destroyed. The Milton Manufacturing Company, Milton Nail Works and John P. Hackenberg’s Queensware and Lamp Wick plants were also visited by destructive fires.