Monday, June 14, 2010

Presbyterian Church Burns Down

On June 14, 1885 shortly after 4 p.m. fire was discovered on the west side of the roof of the Presbyterian Church located at the corner of Main Street and Normal Avenue. The flames spread rapidly and in no time the entire roof and steeple was a mass of flames. Eventually the steeple collapsed across Normal Avenue, had it fallen to the west it would have come down on numerous structures and had it collapsed across Main Street it could have crashed into the Council House. As the flames spread the dwelling belonging to Misses Duncan and a stable on the Wilson lot and out building on Mrs. Ruby's property along with the Church and its out buildings were either destroyed or badly damage in the blaze. A small mare in the old Wilson stable was also killed in the fire.

The Vigilant Fire Company engine (1860 Button and Blake) located across the street from the blaze was quickly on the scene and had a stream of water in play after obtaining water from the cistern located at the Bethel Church. The Cumberland Valley Fire Company engine (Philadelphia style engine purchased in 1877 named the "pioneer") arrived after an uphill run but was of little use because it had to be filled with buckets of water. At one point it looked like the Duncan property may have been saved but then the Vigilant engine lost water. It was determined that the pump packing was worn out causing the hand engine to draw air. Firemen had the engine fixed and working again in 15 minutes but not before flames destroyed the Duncan residence also. When the Vigilant engine went down telegrams were sent to Carlisle and Chambersburg requesting aid from their fire companies. In Carlisle the Good Will, Cumberland and Union fire companies quickly responded to the rail yard. Only two companies could leave town so the hose carriages of the Good Will and Union were loaded on a rail car and at 5:20 p.m. the cars pulled out along with the regular train. A very fast run was made to Newville when word was received that their services were no longer needed. The carriages were removed and loaded onto another car awaiting the arrival of another locomotive from Shippensburg. The companies were back in Carlisle by 7 p.m. Chambersburg's streamer was out of service at the time and a telegram was sent to Shippensburg stating that they would not be able to respond.

The origin of the fire is unknown, depending on what account you read of the blaze it ranges from a lightning strike to the steeple to a spark from a neighboring chimney to spontaneous combustion. Painters had been at work on the steeple for some time leaving paint, oil turpentine and benzene soaked rags lay in the area. Damages were estimate at almost $30,000 quite a large sum for 125 years ago.

Firemen lost numerous sections of hose at the incidents and the only reported injuries were numerous men with blistered hands from working the brakes for hours at a time. After the incident the cry for better fire protection in the form of a water works once again heard in the town. It would only be about another year before hydrants and a water system would be installed in the community. The lack of streamers and the use of only hand engines and hose reels were the cry in out of town news papers as other communities the size of Shippensburg all operated with steamers at this time.


Seagrave said...

Very nicly done, I did not realize that the church had ever burnt.
Great history !
New format is great!

Anonymous said...

Hey Brad,
Just tell your readers to close their eyes and think about this fire and how overwhelmed our firefighters must have been in this time period. That church was and still is a major piece of property. Fire Protection then was just in its infancy. Think about trying to fight that fire again today with a couple of hand pumpers.

Great job guy!

Sparky said...

Great story Brad. And yes CW I have sat an wondered what it would be like back in the day fighting fire like that....

Anonymous said...

Awesome write-up Brad! Can just picture the bay doors going up today and feeling the heat through the windshield... I believe it would go something like "HQ, E-152 is responding, OTS, and (add explicative here) start the 2nd, 3rd & 4th alarms!"


PS Go Bears!

Anonymous said...

Maybe the church was hit by lightning more than once, I recall the Vigilant 'oldtimers' talking about it when I was a kid.