Monday, August 24, 2020

The Wellsburg Fire of 1912

by Erin Doane, Curator

The locomotive sped down the tracks, casting up sparks as it passed. Usually, the tiny glowing embers cooled and blinked out as they drifted through the air and settled to the ground as harmless dust. On April 27, 1912, however, one of the sparks landed on the shed roof at Lockwood’s coal and lumber yard. It still retained enough heat to catch hold of the dry wood and a flame burst to life. The fire crept across the roof, growing stronger and brighter on a path that would lead to the destruction of much of downtown Wellsburg.

After the Wellsburg Fire of 1912

Charles J. Stringer saw the flicker of flames on Lockwood’s shed and sounded the alarm. Volunteer firefighters from throughout the village rushed to the scene. They reeled out their hoses and hooked them to the water supply. Throwing the valves open, they waited for the torrent of water to rush forth and beat back the flames. The weak flow that trickled through the hoses brought with it surprise and dread. Far up on the hill overlooking Wellsburg, a crew labored at cleaning the drained reservoir. No one could have known that the scheduled, periodic maintenance of the water supply would coincided with the greatest fire the village had ever seen. 

Fire at Wellsburg, N.Y., Apr. 27, 1912

As the firefighters struggled, wind blew over the blaze, lifting hot embers into the sky. The miniature firebrands floated across Main Street, down Front Street, and dropped onto the roof of an unoccupied blacksmith shop on Terrace Street that was owned by another member of the Stringer family.

Now split between two flaming fronts, the firefighters could not prevent the first fire from jumping to H.W. Young’s General Store just across the street from Lockwood’s yard. From there the blaze moved down the block to R.R. Welch’s ice cream and confectionery shop, to Robert’s general store, to H.O. Cole’s barber shop, to the Robert’s homestead, and even further to the Baldwin Hotel. The flames could not be stopped as they spread to more and more businesses and homes. Flying embers even set Mrs. Young’s barn ablaze on the hillside nearly a quarter of a mile away. By 4 o’clock in the afternoon, much of the village was a raging inferno.

The fire getting a nice start.

Just as hope was failing, help arrived. Another locomotive sped down the tracks; this time delivering salvation rather than destruction. It pulled a flat car upon which rode Elmira’s fire engine no. 4. Chief John Espey and his firefighters had arrived to reinforce Wellsburg’s exhausted crews. Together they were able to stop the blaze at the Exchange Hotel, keeping it from spreading into the mostly residential area of the village. By 7:00 p.m., they had beaten the flames into submission. 

All that was left of the Exchange Hotel after the fire of 1912

As the brave firefighters and volunteers struggled and sweated, hordes of spectators gathered to watch the dangerous show. They came by trolley, by wagon, and by automobile, clogging the streets to find entertainment in others’ heartbreak. Some read a special edition of the Elmira Star-Gazette that had been published that very afternoon describing the fire that still smoldered before them.

The fire drew this crowd.

Some of those arriving in Wellsburg late in the day were actually residents. Many of the local women had taken the opportunity that fine Saturday to ride the trolley up to Elmira to do some shopping. They returned to find their village ravaged by the extraordinary conflagration. Some even found themselves suddenly homeless.

General view of the fire at night Wellsburg, N.Y.

Twenty-three buildings were partially or completely destroyed by the fire including two hotels, three general stores, two feed mills, the carriage factory, the opera house, and five residences. By some miracle, though, not a single person was seriously hurt.

After the fire, Baldwin's Mill, Wellsburg, N.Y.


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