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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Terrible Conflagration

Bradford's Main Street prior to and following 1883 fire.
In Times Past
February 1883
Originally printed on February 14, 2007
Journal Opinion 

Bradford’s Roswell Farnham had just finished a term as Governor of Vermont, the local Civil War veterans had returned from the 16th GAR Encampment in Bennington, young Snowflake Bentley had made his first recorded observation of snowflakes in Jericho, Vice President Chester Arthur had replace assassinated President James Garfield and the Brooklyn Bridge was about to be competed as America’s “greatest engineering work.”  But on the morning of February 19, 1883 these events were not on the minds of area residents. 

At 2 o’clock that morning a disastrous fire destroyed ten buildings in the heart of Bradford’s business district, an area known then as the Square.  Later that day from its office opposite the “great fire” site, the Opinion published an extra edition describing the “terrible conflagration”. 
The Opinion reported that the fire had broken out in the pool hall on Main Street.  It spread rapidly to engulf neighboring wooden buildings on the west side of Main Street from where Perry‘s gas pumps are now located to Bank Street and up to High (now North Pleasant) Street.

 The Village municipal water system was not yet built and therefore the supply of water was limited.  Firemen used a hand pump to get water from cisterns until the supply was depleted. It was reported that some even used snow to help contain the flames.  As was often the custom among firefighters in those days, saving the flaming buildings became secondary to containing the spread of the fire to other structures.    

 The bank building to the north of the fire was saved only by being “enveloped in wet carpets.”  The  heat from the fire was so intense that buildings on the south side of Bank Ave and the east side of Main Street were thought to be in danger and occupants removed some of their belongings.  One of the last eyewitnesses to the fire was Fred Doe.  In an l948 interview described how he helped remove groceries from the Prichard and Hay store.  Within two hours the flames were under control.  Only the fact that winds were calm saved the entire business area from being swept away by the flames.  Had the fire crossed to the east side of Main Street “nothing could have saved the frail wood structures” that lined that side of the street.  

With dawn, Bradford residents surveyed the damage and the Opinion Extra gave a complete description of the losses.  Ten buildings had been destroyed with an estimated loss of $75,000. Central to the destruction were the Hardy building, the Shepardson block and adjourning buildings.   Aptly described as a “hive of commerce” these buildings had housed enterprises as varied as a millinery shop, harness shop, hardware store, tailor, barber, photographer, several grocery stores and a jewelry store.   Professional men who suffered loss of their offices included two dentists and several lawyers.  

Lost also were the records and ceremonial regalia of both the Masonic Lodges and the Grand Army of the Republic.  The Ladies Public Library, located in the Hardy building, was also destroyed.  Insurance was estimated by the Opinion to have covered about $45,000 of the loss. That coverage varying from total for some to none for others.  To place this loss in perspective, it might be noted  that the average American family in 1880 had an annual income of about $500

The Opinion praised the heroic work of the firemen of Waitsville Company No. 1, who operated out of the firehouse on South Main Street.  Also praised were the “noble ladies of Bradford” for their efforts during and after the fire.  There was no report of injuries to either firefighters or occupants.
By mid-day, Bradford had begun picking up the pieces and had begun relocating some of those who had suffered damages.  Dentist F. H. Everett had relocated to a new office previously occupied by Dr. Paine.  Tongue in cheek the Opinion suggested that “if you take gas, the latter named will be dispensed with.” 

In a prophecy that would prove true, the editor of the special edition suggested that the fire might prove a “blessing in disguise to Bradford” as the proposal had already been made to replace the destroyed wooden buildings with a “substantial brick block”.  Within a year the brick Union Block (now Perry’s) and the Stevens Block south of it had been built and occupied by a number of businesses.   The replacement of these destroyed buildings helped Bradford village retain its position as a shopping center for the area.  Trips from the back country to its stores in horse -drawn wagons would continue to be common.  

In the late 1880’s Bradford village was described in Child’s Orange Gazetteer as “an enterprising and thrifty post village.”  Child’s spoke in glowing terms about the well managed academy, the growing summer tourist business, mills and stores, a well selected library, and intelligent inhabitants.  “The village streets are nicely shaded, adorned with well built and nicely painted dwellings.”    The population of the town in 1880 was 1520, a number that declined as residents moved to America’s growing cities and developing West.  Bradford would not see that level of population until 1950.  However, this decline in population seems to have come more from the rural sections of the town than the bustling village center.  Until the arrival of the interstate in the early 1970’s Bradford’s shopping center competed very successfully with larger centers to the north and south.    

This great fire would not be Bradford’s last. Other spectacular fires include one in 1887 that burned the Trotter House;  in 1901, the large stone Paper Mill was destroyed; and in 1945 the Town Hall on South Main was struck by lightening and burned to the ground.   The east side of Main Street has seen  several major fires including the 1947 fire that destroyed five buildings, the 1959 fire that destroyed  Stuart’s Restaurant and the movie theatre, and the 1975 fire that destroyed the Chimes Restaurant block. 

Picture identification:  Top photo.  The three wooden buildings to the right were among the ten buildings destroyed in the Great Fire of February 19, 1883.  The Prichard and Hay store can be seen on the south side of Bank Street.     Bottom:  The brick buildings that replaced the wooden structures are from right to left are the Union Block (1884), the Stevens Block (1883). The brick Bank Building replaced the Prichard and Hay building in 1891.  Photographs courtesy of the Bradford Historical Society.

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