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Revisiting the Great Fire of 1871

Author Elaine Decker with her book, “Williamsport Past and Present.” KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette

It was a warm August night in 1871, with a gale wind blowing, an opportune evening for arsonists to strike.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Williamsport residents had traveled out of the city to attend a church revival and camp. Among those taking the church folks out of the city were two male strangers.

That was how Elaine Decker, author of “Williamsport: Past and Present,” described the setting of what became “The Great Fire of 1871.”

Decker, a guest speaker at the Thomas T. Taber Museum of the Lycoming County Historical Society, which recently hosted a Coffee Hour Program, captured the guests’ attention with riveting recollection and vintage pictures and a map of where the fire began and spread, a disaster that resulted in an estimated $300,000 worth of damage.

At that time, it was a monumental loss and had a lasting economic impact on what was known as “Center Square,” formerly the first official Millionaires Row, at the intersections of Mulberry and East Third Streets, Decker said.

Decker first touched on the years before the fire, which she said may have had relevance to its cause and origin.

Williamsport was chartered as a city in 1866. The Civil War ended six years before the blaze, in 1865. The city was growing because of the lumber boom but still had dirt roads. Many of the residents were European immigrants. Civil War scars remained painful for some, including those who may have been sympathetic to one side or the other. Some bigotry existed among residents. These were years when the Industrial Revolution was sweeping across the U.S. — the post-war years when the city was starting to become an economic powerhouse, as a result of the lumber boom.

Decker then took the audience to the night of the fire.

“Put your mindset on Aug. 20, 1871,” she said.

It was about 8 p.m., not yet completely dark, and “witnesses saw two men near horse stables with torches setting them ablaze,” she said

The wind was howling and horses were whinnying in their barns.

The men went with torches to the stable, owned by C.M. Baker on what was then called Black Horse Alley, now known as East Church Street, and it was quickly was engulfed in flames.

“They picked an opportune time,” Decker said.

Strong winds spread the embers out and upward and carried the sparks to the rooftops of buildings nearby.

Soon, many of the local landmarks were on fire, including an old log building at the corner of Third and Mulberry Streets.

It was the former Russell Inn, the first courthouse in Williamsport, and at that time the Affie Dumm house, she said.

Businesses destroyed by the fire included a confectionery shop, a millinery, and the Waverly House Inn, which housed many boarders and was a key hotel, Decker said.

Sadly, in addition to taking many businesses, the fire swept through the Mulberry Street Methodist Episcopal church, which had been rebuilt after having been destroyed by another fire just three years earlier.

The fire raged and spread over many city blocks.

It was such a conflagration that people brought cooled embers who lived five miles from the city, she said.

It was a night for opportunistic criminals, who entered empty homes — either those at the revival or watching the blaze — and pickpockets managed to move through the crowds, she said.

Among the treasured losses was much of Harrington’s Ice Cream and Candy Store, which had a bakery and upstairs residences, Decker said. The bakery survived any damage, she said.

The fire also burned a three-story furniture and paper warehouse, livestock and barns, churches and mansions.

Most of those on the city blocks were either uninsured or underinsured, she said.

“No one filed claims and there was no government assistance,” Decker said. “They had to pick themselves up and try again.”

Decker marveled at their fortitude.

“We’ve always rebuilt and overcome the tragedies and disasters,” she said of Williamsporters.

Sadly, the flood of 1889 resulted in many of those who rebounded after the fire losing their properties yet again.

Decker also theorized about the motive for the arson.

She noted how it was a year when many larger cities burned, including Boston and Chicago.

One theory was disgruntled Confederate sympathizers or infiltrators in the aftermath of the Civil War, she said.

Another theory placed the blame on immigrants who were cited as possible arsonists because of their religious beliefs — they had remained at home while many others were temporarily out of town attending the revival.

Decker showed photographs of the fire-swept area of the city today. Most of the lots are grass, vacant and parking lots. Much of it is in the East Third Street/Old City Gateway Revitalization Project area.

The revitalization is an ongoing improvement of the streets, sidewalks and addition of water and sewer lines to attract business and development.

Today, those improvements are designed to better connect pedestrians and businesses, along with providing a southern entrance for those at Lycoming College and easier access with less congestion to the various attractions downtown, such as the Susquehanna River Walk.

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