1916 Galeton fire: ‘It took the heart out of the town’
For six hours, beginning at 1:30 a.m. Jan. 19, 1916, flames consumed two business blocks of the borough.
Nothing was left but ashes — and $220,000 worth of damage — after the blaze was under control at 8 a.m.
Reports from the Jan. 26, 1916, edition of the Wellsboro Agitator said the fire started from a gas light in the basement of Spiero & Barcus, the dry goods and clothing store. It was a two-story building with a brick veneer front and wooden siding on Main Street.
By 3 a.m., Spiero & Barcus was destroyed, and flames threatened the Grand Central Hotel, First Methodist Church, Spiegel Opera House, the Leader Dispatch office and the Baldwin block.
When the smoke cleared, all of those buildings were destroyed, the Agitator reported.
A blowtorch effect
In 1916, blocks were not like city blocks; rather, they were named after people who owned them, said David Castano, president of the Potter County Historical Society and County Historian.
Guests in the Grand Central Hotel, next to Spiero & Barcus, were woken up by R.E. Edgcomb, proprietor, and had to leave due to the danger — no lives were lost there, the Agitator said, although the three-story, brick building was consumed by flames.
At the Bell Telephone Exchange, Miss Josephine Femmer, chief operator, and Miss Cleolo Nelson, operator, stayed on duty during the fire, remaining in the building until it too caught fire.
Then they grabbed their hats and fur coats and left. On their way out, their clothes caught fire but were extinguished, according to the Agitator.
The fire singed buildings near Spiero & Barcus, the south side of Main Street, through the east near the Fred Mills’ residence, including businesses and residences on Bridge Street, Fred Bartlett’s livery barn and Horn & Devling, and Eggler Alley, the Agitator reported.
The flames spread rapidly due to high winds and, in hopes of fighting the flames, the firefighters used dynamite, destroying the Albee and Seltz block and Albert Lehman, the drug store, the Agitator said. This did not stop the flames as they swept through nearby buildings.
The buildings were all very close to one another and, due to the elevation, the wind formed a tunnel, giving the fire a blowtorch effect, Castano said.
Firefighters were stymied by a lack of water pressure. It was low due to citizens opening their spigots to prevent them from freezing, water company officials told the Agitator.
Water to fight the fire was provided from Mill Pond, which was near the hardwood and hemlock mills.
With the correct water pressure, it is believed the firefighters could have stopped the fire where it began, the Agitator said.
Frozen to the ground
Firefighters from Gale Hose and Goodyear Hose companies helped put out the fire.
The Wellsville Fire Department in New York state was going to come but was called off at 6 a.m. because “the flames had done their worst,” the Agitator said.
Several firefighters passed out from heat and smoke and were aided by local doctors.
A “couple of the firemen with Gale Hose were actually frozen to the ground. They were OK, but they were frozen to the ground because it was that cold of a night,” Castano said.
A story passed throughout Potter County is of Murphy, a woodhick and lumberman, who died of pneumonia prior to the fire, Castano said. Murphy was embalmed in a suit, with a bulldog, by the local funeral home, where people came to visit with him and shake his hand. No one knew his last name, which was common among woodhicks.
They called him a casualty — even though he already was deceased — because his was the only body that was consumed during the fire, Castano said.
Businesses and residences that were damaged or destroyed and their monetary losses, were listed in the Agitator and included the:
• Grand Central Hotel, $35,000;
• Methodist church, $20,000;
• Spiero & Barcus, $15,000;
• Albee and Seltz, $12,000;
• C.R. Mosch, $12,000;
• Leader Dispatch, $10,000;
• W.F. Spiegel, $10,000;
• Albert Lehman, $8,000;
• J.W. Vindel, $8,000;
• W.E. Kelly, $8,000;
• Bell Telephone Co., $7,500;
• Dickinson Allen, $7,500;
• Dr. A.H. Laye, $6,000;
• Horn & Devling, $6,000;
• James Campbell, $4,000;
• J.W. Zindel, $4,000;
• Walter Hackett, $4,000;
• White’s Economy Store, $4,000;
• White Goods Factory, $4,000;
• D.E. Schutt, $3,500;
• Fred Bartlett, $3,500;
• Virgil D. Acker, $2,000;
• G.F. Slebodnik, $1,500;
• Robert Smith, $1,500; and minor losses of $25,000.
“People were dependent on the business district to pull back together and, amazingly, it did,” he said.
On Jan. 26, 1916, after the Bell Telephone Exchange had burned, a temporary one was set up at the Mrs. James Calhoun residence, the Agitator said. Long-distance calls were made at the house. Without it, there would have been no phone service.
In a Aug. 24, 1916, publication of The Wellsboro Gazette, victims of the fire who had lost property filed a lawsuit on May 12, 1916, for $250,000 against the Galeton Eldred Water Co., of Coudersport.
Attorneys Virgil Acker, of Galeton, and James O. Sebring, of Corning, New York, defended the suit against W.K. Sweetland, of Coudersport, in front of the common pleas court of Potter County.
Plaintiffs stated that due to the low water pressure, the water in the firefighters’ hoses could not reach the top stories of the burning buildings and was unable to break window glass, the Gazette said. Robert O. Hayt, a civil engineer from Corning, investigated the water pressure issue.
There are no records of the outcome of the lawsuit, Castano said.
The community “pulled together to get the necessary businesses — dry goods, grocery stores, local businesses and insurance — up and running again,” Castano said. “It was a necessity for Galeton to rebuild; otherwise, the people had nowhere to go because they didn’t have the transportation they do today. There were no automobiles to take them a great distance.”
‘A defining fire’
Post-fire, Galeton started to decline economically, he said. The tannery, a big employer, closed four years later; lumbering began slowing down; and the Buffalo and Susquehanna Railroad laid people off — all contributing to the economic drops.
Galeton’s population was 4,000 in 1916 and had been on a decline when partnered with the end of the town’s lumber industry, the Agitator said.
The 1916 fire was not the only one that affected Galeton. Others included the fires of 1912, 1931, 1933, 1941, 1963, 1976, 1982 and 1984. There was no common source between each fire.
The 1916 blaze was a “defining fire for Galeton because Galeton, at that time, was the largest town in Potter County,” Castano said. “It took the heart out of the town after that.”