From the book “Chronicles and Legends of Milton” by George Venios
By 1880, the log homes of the early settlers were long gone. There were public and private schools for the youth of the community to attend and throughout the town there were many churches for the religious needs of the people. Milton's residential sections were mostly upscale for there were plentiful, well-paying jobs thanks to the numerous booming manufacturers. Many stately mansions were located here belonging mostly to the successful and wealthy industrialists. With the most modern transportation means of its era, railroads and the canal system provided links to key points of passenger travel and freight exchange.
Miltonians at this time were proud people. They dressed and developed manners and customs aimed at becoming one of the largest cities in central Pennsylvania. The business district, Front Street and Broadway, was lined with large, multi-floor, multi-tenant buildings, referred to as “blocks” named often after their owners. These blocks contained mostly apartments on the upper floors and on the street level, business offices, banks, and many well-stocked stores with every type of merchandise imaginable.
There was the famed Brown’s “36” Drug Store, the huge department store of Heinen, Schreyer & Co. and other names familiar to this day; Marsh's, Dreifuss, and J.F. Gauger's. Built in 1874, the large iron front, brick Goodlander block, at the time considered one of the finest structures in the area, contained the Masonic Hall, three large stores, five lawyers' offices, and a fine restaurant.
There were large, modern hotels on every block in the downtown area including the Broadway House, United States Hotel and the Huff Hotel, to name a few. Livery stables were also plentiful. Milton's town hall was the Academy of Music, three stories high containing offices, markets, and a small auditorium for public meetings and performances.
Friday, May 14, 1880 began as a bright, sunshiny and clear day. The air was dry and the severe drought was very unusual for that time of year. Children were in school and for most Miltonians it was the last day of the workweek in the factories. The downtown area was rather quiet.
At fifteen minutes before twelve o'clock the steam whistles at the Milton Car Works began to sound frantically but since it was so near to the noon lunch hour, few noticed the importance of the distress signal. A man on horseback charged down Broadway screaming over and over from the top of his lungs for all to hear - “FIRE! - FIRE AT THE CAR WORKS!” The fire originated at the Milton Car Works, now AC&F, located at the north end of town. At the time the property was bound by the canal and the railroad, by Upper Market Street on the south and by Fourth Street on the north, which led to the main entrance of the Milton Cemetery.
Flames were first discovered on the roof of the framing shop, located on the northern side of Locust, behind Clinger's Lumber Company. The fire may have been caused somehow from a spark within the shop itself, or an ember from the smokestack of a passing locomotive may have caused it. Although not proven, the locomotive theory is most likely.
As if on cue, the skies darkened and gale force winds began to develop from the northeast, fanning the fire that within minutes became out of control. The plant's own fire brigades, as well as the town's fire companies, were soon on the scene battling the blaze. The flames crossed Locust and set ablaze other buildings including two foundries. At this point the wind began hurling debris, vivid with flames, through the air like meteors over all parts of town and landing on roofs to the south and west.
The fire rapidly spread south, past Upper Market, past Walnut nearing Broadway and on its course enveloped the Methodist Church and spread across Arch to the Reformed Church. Both were wrapped in flames from the ground to the top of their steeples. Not only did the fire move south, it also crossed the railroad tracks at Walnut and began to engulf the St. Joseph's Catholic Church and the Broadway School on Broadway Hill. This was the only area where the fire crossed the railroad tracks.
The brave citizens fought with enduring courage, however at this point the realization of doom prevailed. Frantic telegrams were being sent in all directions, to all surrounding communities.
Buildings were crashing and burning like kindling. Still, the strong wind propelled embers through the air starting new fires at remote locations. The residential areas, west of Arch to North Front below Locust and south to Broadway, were now ablaze. The effort to save buildings was abandoned; the town's people were now making every effort to save their lives and a few worldly, cherished possessions.
Screams and cries of men, women, and children fleeing and carrying arms full of clothing, bedding, and any household treasure they could find in time, pierced the roar of the fire and howling wind. Wagons and carriages were loaded only to have the horses spooked and broken free amidst the fear. Many of the items being removed and carried were dropped in the streets only to be consumed by the fire. In the panic and confusion families were separated and parents lost their children. As a result, the frantic children were roaming aimlessly crying for their parents.
By one o'clock, an hour and fifteen minutes after the fire started, the residential district between Broadway and Locust was in ashes except on either side of North Front above Walnut. Along with the Methodist, Reformed, and Catholic churches; now the Presbyterian and Covenator also lay in ruins. The Academy of Music, where Rhetta Lawson's graduation exercise was held the previous evening, was destroyed. Numerous fires were spreading south of Broadway, especially within the business district along South Front and Broadway.
Assistance began arriving from other nearby communities. Fire fighters with horse drawn equipment were rushed across the dusty country roads and by special trains on both railway lines. Among them were local companies from Watsontown and Lewisburg, with others traveling greater distances including Muncy, Lock Haven, Williamsport, Northumberland, Sunbury, and Danville. Even Harrisburg was rushing a train to the scene. This was the largest fire any of these companies ever attempted to fight.
The business district was now about to be leveled. Fire started at the post office building, south of Lincoln Park, on the west side of South Front, destroying many businesses including the First National Bank and the Goodlander block. It moved south rapidly and spread across to the east side taking down the Huff Hotel and Heinen, Schreyer & Co., just to name a few. Along Broadway, Brown's Drug Store, the Broadway House Hotel and many other establishments were also leveled.
The business district now lay in ruins. Fire spread south of Broadway between South Front and the railroad, then across Center, also destroying the Center Street School and the Baptist Church. With the fire reaching Mahoning Street, the Sunbury Fire Department was prepared to defend South Front, south of the river bridge on the east and west side to Lower Market where, blocked by an army of exhausted fire fighters, the flames were extinguished. The fire destruction halted but not before destroying the Lutheran and Evangelical churches along its path. The entire space bound by Broadway, South Front, the railroad, and Lower Market was swept clear of all structures except Murray's Planing Mill, Baker's landmark flouring mill, and a few small buildings between the canal and the railroad at the Mahoning Street canal bridge. The entire business portion of the town was laid to ashes, except two small groceries and one drug store at the river bridge.
In less than four hours, almost all of Milton was decimated. Nearly 125 acres burned, consuming 625 buildings including churches, schools, businesses, and homes. Over 3,000 people were left homeless. All of the churches were destroyed except the Episcopal Church on Upper Market Street and the Bethel African Church on Broadway Hill. Two of the three public schools were destroyed.
Now, late in the afternoon, family members, husbands, wives, brothers and sisters, whose homes were destroyed, were frantically running through the debris covered streets in search of each other; fearing that loved ones were consumed by the fire. Although there were many injuries, miraculously, there was only one death, that of an elderly resident on Center Street, Abraham Angeny.
The few household goods that were saved were strewn all along the river bank and here men, women and children were beginning to congregate, turning their attention to survival - the basic needs of food and shelter. Eight out of ten families were left with nothing except the clothes on their backs. Those few residents whose homes were not destroyed kindly opened their doors and accommodated the victims. Many left town having accepted invitations from the neighboring farmers while others remained on the river banks with their goods and still others congregated to the lower island or the surrounding fields as a resting place.
In the meantime, Governor Henry Hoyt sent an appeal to all the mayors throughout the state: “The town of Milton has this day been almost entirely destroyed by fire. Three thousand people are now homeless, destitute of clothing, provisions and all the necessities of life. I would suggest that you call a meeting of your citizens at once to furnish immediate aid to those stricken people.” The governor arranged an abundance of relief material from the state arsenal and at 4:00 AM the next morning the material was sent from Harrisburg by train. Carloads of tents, food, and supplies arrived in Milton at 6:30 AM Saturday.
Saturday, the weather was bright and clear while Milton lay in charred ruins. The first order of business on the new day was the formation of a volunteer relief committee. The telegraph wires were immediately repaired and a makeshift post office was constructed at Lincoln Park. Relief headquarters were established at Murray's Planing Mill, one of the few surviving structures situated on the south side of Center Street, immediately west of the railroad tracks. On the east side of the railroad, volunteers, as well as state and county militia soldiers, arrived and erected tents. The tent-city was immediately christened “the circus.” All day long assistance poured in from every surrounding community by wagon and train while the local farmers brought wagonloads of food and milk. O.B. Nagle Esq., Milton's young Chief Burgess, stationed at the relief headquarters, talked for hours to the people, encouraging them, and inviting the needy to come forward and receive what there was to offer. A victim himself, he lost everything he possessed. The saddest of all scenes were the long lines of women and children applying for bread and provisions that was handed out to them by the committee. Many approached very timidly, as if too proud to be the recipients of charity; but their grim circumstances forced them to accept what there was to offer. Blankets and tents were distributed to the head of each household and by the end of the day, Saturday, the relief committee fed over 6,000 people.
On Sunday there were church services outdoors in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Numerous preachers of the community churches took turns with the sermons. People of the community and from out of town, estimated at 20,000, roamed the streets all day. Streets were filled with belongings that were left behind by the fleeing victims the day of the fire. Among the items were furniture, sewing machines, pianos, organs, pots and pans and other household items. A large grand piano lay charred and ruined in the middle of Broadway. People had gathered in groups to chat and generally the conversation was much the same, “we ran for our lives and lost everything.” There were many sad stories of the perils. There were as many stories of heroism and bravery.
One gentleman said he recently paid off his house. He scrimped and saved, cut every corner he could to do it, including canceling his insurance to save money. Now, unfortunately, his family lost everything, not only their home but also their belongings; nothing insured.
Other stories on the lighter side included one of an elderly woman who summoned a friend to help her carry her most important belongings. When they reached safety, and carrying only a basket, she opened it to see if her finest silver was safe; only to find that her friend grabbed the wrong basket; a basket full of clothespins. A man dragged a trunk out of his house only to be rushed by the oncoming fire. He opened the trunk, removed a large amount of money and buried it in a nearby manure pile. When he returned, the money was smoldering but he did manage to save most of it.
In 1880 dollars, total damages were estimated at $2,500,000. Relief efforts throughout the state were very generous raising over $87,000 for the community. To help put that into perspective, in 2002 dollars, the figures would be approximately $46,000,000 in damages and $1,600,000 in relief funds.
About one-third of the losses were covered by insurance, most of it carried by the businesses and industries. All of the churches received financial aid from their national organizations. The victims of Milton's great fire banned together and went to work to rebuild the community.
An article in the Miltonian newspaper at the time had an appropriate closing comment about the great fire: “Milton, Phoenix-like, will rise from the ashes, and take its place in the rank of the most beautiful, pleasant and prosperous towns now dotting the banks of the Susquehanna.”