Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Great Fire Of 1880 - When The Entire Town Of Milton Burned

Just after noon on May 14th 1880, a fire broke out on  the roof of the carpenter and planing shop of the Milton Car Works (Today, ACF).   No one is certain if the fire started inside the building, or if the embers from a passing train landed on the roof and ignited it.  The shop burnt like a tinderbox. In less than 5 minutes it was leveled to the ground.  Strong winds carried the fires embers to the roofs of nearby buildings, and before long, the entire town was on fire. 

 By 4 pm, the the fire had burned over 125 acres.  More than  400 houses were lost, in addition to all  of the hotels,  two banks, the opera house, the telegraph office, the Miltonian and the Independent weekly offices, all but two of the business houses, and the depot.   Before the fire, Milton had 700 buildings.  After the fire, only 60 were left standing.  
More than  3,000 people were left homeless, most having escaped the flames with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.  And one man lost his life.

The McCleery Mansion, First & Walnut Street
Today, The  Ranck Funeral Home stands here

Just after noon that Friday, the fire whistle sounded. But as it was customary for the  whistle to signal noon each day, Milton paid no attention to the sound.  

The fire originated in the extensive car shops of Murray, Dougal, & Co, which were located on the east side of the canal and alongside of the P&E Railroad, and extend form Upper Market street to within a few rods of Church lane, leading to Upper Cemetery.

Ruins of the town, as seen from the Cemetery Hill.  The Car Works are in the foreground
The canal is running through the middle of the photo, and the covered bridge, which was saved from the fire, can be seen across the river in the back. 
 (The bridge would later be lost in the 1889 flood)

"It caught the framing shop, situate above Locust street, just across the canal and opposite Clingers Planing Mill.  When first discovered, the fire was no larger than a man's hand, but before anything could be done to put it out the high wind which prevailed gave the flames an impetus that nothing short of a hose and steamer could squelch.

But before the fire department could get to the works, the whole shop was  a seething mass of flames, and the fire had communicated to the dry house and other buildings on the south belonging to the works.

At this juncture the wind had increased to a gale and scooped up, as it were, tons of the coals and brand livid with flame, and hurled them all over parts of our beautiful town." - History Of The Great Fire, By W.H. Smith, editor of the Argus

All that remained of the High School, which faced Center Street

A man rode up and down the street on horseback, alerting residents and business men.  A he hollered "FIRE!" , residents and shopkeepers came outside to see flames on roofs all over the town.  Men quickly climbed to the top of buildings, and formed bucket brigades, attempting to squelch the fires.  

Today the post office sits here.
In 1880, this was the Academy Of Music. The Presbyterian Church was on the left

One lady who was unable to persuade a gentleman to help extinguish a fire on her roof climbed the tree in front  of her home and made the attempt herself. But to no avail.
The ruins between South Front & Elm Streets

Rev Barnitz, pastor of the ME church, went on the roof of his house to prevent flying cinders from setting it on fire. But he was soon warned to descend and save his own life. When he came down, he was surrounded by flames.  He hurried back to the canal at the rear of the parsonage and found a woman who was stranded in the path of the fire. Together they went into the waters of the canal.  They were in the water for more than an hour before they "found a place to land that was not on fire".

The ruins of the Methodist Church, 33 Arch Street,  along the canal.

Dr Cyrus Brown was badly burned.

"... the citizens kept up the spirits and fought the flames with a courage born of desperation.  But their efforts were in vain, and it was only after discovering the Reformed and Methodist Churches wrapped in sheets of flame that the awful truth flashed upon their minds that our beautiful town was doomed to destruction."

Families began to toss belongings into the street and into the canal, in vain attempts to save some of their possessions from the rapidly spreading fire.

Many articles of clothing in bundles caught on fire and were consumed while being carried to a safe place.  Cherished goods were whisked off to safety, only to be, in the majority of instances, more speedily consumed.

Reuben Wilson, center,  surveys South Front Street
Looking North from about Center Street

One elderly lady packed her prized silver in a basket and gave instructions for a helper to hurry it out. He retrieved the wrong basket,  saving  a basket of clothes pins from the fire, and  leaving the silverware behind.

A gentleman had $200 in a bureau, which helpers had thrown in the canal in an attempt to save it.   He found the bureau later but a large portion of the money had been burned.   Another man quickly buried his money in a manure pile.  When he returned, some if it was able to be saved.

The Ruins Of Rebers Tannery

Mrs Durrell Jordan packed a trunk of valuables, including three gold watches, silverware, and $7000 in bonds, and sent it to the home of Cyrus Brown, on the other end of town,  for safety. Little could anyone suspect that soon, the fire would have spread that far.  Both her trunk, and the home of Cyrus Brown, were lost in the fire that day.

The corner of Broadway and South Front Street

Charles Lansan came across a woman whose clothing had caught fire. He doused her in the canal. "It was rough treatment, but effective"

Smith, editor of the Argus, recalls: "Families were separated.  Children were everywhere crying for parents.  And for three terrible hours, all bore the almost unendurable suspense as to what had happened to loved ones."

The Home Of Former Governor Pollock
This was the first stone house built in Milton, in 1796
Stone mason Peter Swartz built the home for James Black.
Today, the Elks Club Stands here.

Every Fire Company Within 50 Miles Asked To Come
The Chief Burgess and editor of the Miltonian sent a telegram to every fire company within 50 miles.  

Seven months earlier, in October of 1879, the Milton town council had held a special meeting and sold its upper engine house, two hand engines, hose and hose cart.  That left them with a steamer and a hook and ladder, both purchased in 1876.  There was no police department, the council having voted in April of 1879 to abolish it.

Looking Northeast, toward Broadway.  The Telegraph Office was on the first floor of the Railroad Tower. To the left is the Gresh Hotel.  In the corner is the ruins of the freight station, and a hand cart used to repair the tracks and equipment.  Barr & Wertman Carriage Works had stood to the left.

In Danville, William Brown  had just been married the night before. But when the telegram arrived, he joined his fellow firefighters and started for Milton to battle the flames.

The Williamsport Company got stuck in Muncy when their engine broke down - but they didn't give up, and they too, made it to Milton to assist.

Lewisburg's Silby Steamer, which was brought to Milton for the 1880 Fire

When the Sunbury Fire Company received the alarm,  two flat railroad cars were were at the third and chestnut street crossing in "fifteen minutes flat".  The firemen quickly loaded their steamer and Good Intent Hook and ladder truck onto the railroad cars, and the train made the run to Milton in 25 minutes.  As they approached the town, about a mile north they spotted the Lewisburg Engine, with four horses, traveling river road on their way to lend assistance.

 And then, the Sunbury crew got their first look at the fire.

Sketch From Harpers Magazine, June 1880

".... we were not prepared for such a scene as met our gaze. A black pall hung over the whole town. "

When the Sunbury  firefighters arrived the fire had been burning for  more than an hour. Men were still on the roofs of some buildings all along the rail line, with buckets, attempting to put out the flames.  They stopped for only a second to let up a cheer, thankful that help had arrived.

Looking Northwest From The Railroad Tower
The Catholic Church is on the left.

"But the wind continued so high that they could render but little service, and only a few houses here and there along the track of the fire could be saved." 

All the fire companies and their equipment were no match for this fire.  Sunbury reported that it was the first time their steamer had ever been "sent back from a building", and yet on this day, they had to abandon house after house, admitting defeat and moving on in an attempt to get ahead of the fire.    

Where the Railroad Freight Station Once Stood.

It was perilous work. After 3 hours, with the wind still blowing a gale, the fire had reached Mahoning street and three fourths of the town was in ruins. 

Looking Southeast from Filbert, Just South Of Broadway

A baker, W.A. Bostian, had a shop  on Elm Street  that he had opened just ten days before the fire. He had the bread for the day in the pans when the flames began to lick the building. In order to save something he and his brother dumped the dough on the floor and tossed the pans into an empty spring wagon parked in the alley.

The blaze spread so rapidly, with heat so intense, that he barely had enough time to escape the building. He was unable to save any of his clothing or belongings, which were in the sleeping quarters above the shop. But as they fled the building, they were able to pull the wagon with the empty bread pans up to Lincoln Street. 

The Crothers Mansion, Southwest Corner of Garfield & Lower Market Street

Frederick Godcharles was a young boy at the time of the fire.  He was in a private school on N. Front street, taught by Miss Clara Lawson, when the fire broke out. The school was located three doors above upper market street, and it was from there that the students stood with hundreds of other residents, watching the flames. 

 "Time has not blotted from my mind the terrifying scenes through which we soon passed." 

The students saw the flames and smoke break through one of the buildings at the car works, before they  were sent home,.  From his home, Frederick watched the steeple of St John's German Reformed Church topple to the ground.His father hurried home from his job at the nail works and carried his seriously ill mother out of the house,  the family fleeing in haste.

The Remains Of The Reformed Church

 "Their several steeples falling helped to increase the work of the elements - mills, factories, workshops alike shared in the common fate" 

By 4 pm, the burnt district covered up to one hundred and twenty five acres. Seven of the towns 9 churches were lost. As their steeples fell, they helped to spread the embers, increasing the fires.

The Catholic Church, on Walnut Street.
Behind it can be seen the remains of the original Milton Academy

"The fire destroyed all of the hotels,  two banks, the opera house, the telegraph office, the Miltonian and the Independent weekly offices, all the business houses with two exceptions, the depot, and altogether about 400 houses were destroyed."   

The William F. Nagle store on Broadway. On the left is the Reformed Church.
 The Canal bridge is up the hill on the right, and N. Front Street (Today Arch Street) is on the left.

The Miltoninan, May 1930

And Then There Was Arson
"At five o'clock this evening intense excitement was caused by two deliberate attempts to rekindle the fire. Some one placed a bundle of rags, saturated with coal-oil, at the back door or the Gresh House, a wooden hotel, and the only remaining one in town, and when discovered it had already set fire to the house. Another attempt was made to fire the old Catawissa depot, in the southern part of the town. As soon as these discoveries were made, the people were in a frenzy. A reward of $600 was offered immediately for the apprehension of the incendiaries.

 Much confusion ensued, the people seeming to become wild from fear and excitement, and many whose property was saved yesterday packed up their goods again, prepared for flight in case of another outbreak of the flames."

Interestingly enough, a similar arson attempt was discovered in nearby Watsontown a few days later.

By evening, families were combing through the debris, desperate to retrieve any possessions that could be saved. 

The fields were full of families, guarding what little they had salvaged.  Two women, and several children, were reported missing. And the body of a man was discovered.    Abram Angeny, 77 years old, were found in the alley back of the Broadway house. The verdict of the inquest was that he was overcome with suffocation and burned.  

The canal boat can be seen on the left.

Several children, separated from their families, were not located until nearly two days later, on Sunday.

Mr Fonds had a quantity of silverware stolen during the fire. When he went to save it, it was already missing. It was later found buried on the outskirts of town.

"The homeless camping out in the fields and meadows round, every bit of open space is filled and looks much like an emigrant train arriving in the west, weary, tired, and wondering what next to be done. "

View of the Destruction along Broadway, as seen from the Canal Bridge

All Of Pennsylvania Rallies Aid

That evening Govt Hoyt sent a telegram  to all the mayors in every city in the state: 
"The town of Milton has this day been almost entirely destroyed by fire. Three thousand people are not homeless, destitute of clothing, provisions, and all the necessities of life. I would suggest that you call a meeting of your citizens at once to furnish immediate aid to those stricken people. The hotels with their lodgings and supplies have burnt to the ground, but the private dwellings can, or course, do little but take their place.The few homes that remain have been opened for general relief. There is no grocery, baker, or meat shop left, but all of the people from the country have come forward with what provisions they have. "

The entire state rallied to send aid.  

The railroad shipped goods to Milton at no charge, and cars were loaded in every city.  Harrisburg, Altoona, Philadelphia, and Williamsport are just a few of the cities to send food and clothing.   Newspapers reported that their town women were busy sewing for the people of Milton.  Entire cars were loaded with food, clothing, and provisions.

 Several fire companies stayed the night, to help keep the embers from reigniting. 

A Load of provisions arriving in Milton, From Harrisburg

That very evening, the relief committee at Harrisburg loaded a train car. Large quantities of coffee, rice, tea, sugar, hams, shoulders, beans, fish, 5 barrels of flour, fourteen barrels of potatoes, salt spice, etc. The food, along with pots, pans, kettles, tin cups, and more, were on their way to Milton on the 4 am Niger Express north.

"The scene was heart rendering in the extreme, with hundreds gathering around the planing mill where food was distributed by the Relief Committee, seven car loads having arrived from Harrisburg, Williamsport, and other places. "

Looking down Broadway from the railroad tracks.

"Food was distributed again tonight, and those who were worth thousands on Friday morning stood in the food lines to receive the bounty bestowed liberally those throughout the country. "

Along with the food and supplies, came the tourists.

"At the request of Milton, no excursion train would run to the town on Sunday. "
But the lack of a passenger train did not stop the crowds.  Many came to help. Some came to take photos.  Others came to loot and steal.

"Large quantities of household goods were loaded on train  and taken up and down the road, and through the fields around the town. Sunbury, Lewisburg, and Watsontown arrived in droves. Nearly 20,000 were counted as visiting the town on Sunday alone. During the confusion, many articles were stolen or carried away. One lady lost $4000 in government bonds. "

"The sun dawned bright and clear on Saturday morning, but there was little else but charred ruins and grim walls to greet the bright rays where once stood the town of Milton.

The stricken inhabitants were astir bright and early, many having secured no sleep during the night.  During the early morning hours, many wended their way to the spot where once had stood their cheerful, happy, homes, but where now naught was left to mark the spot.  Strong men and women wept the scalding tears of despair as they stood and beheld the results of ears of toil now reduced to ashes." - Editor Smith

Tents in front of the Planing Mill, Where Meals Were Served To The More Than 3,000 Homeless.

"The saddest of all scenes was to observe the long lines of women and children apply for bread and provisions, which were dealt out to them by the committee.  Many approached very timidly, as if loath to be the recipients of charity, but their necessities compelled them to accept what there was to offer.

O.B. Nagle, Esq, Milton's "young and efficient Chief Burgess" stationed himseld a block before the commissary, and was untiring in his efforts to make the destitute as comfortable as the situation would allow.  He encouraged them to come forward and receive what there was to offer." - editor Smith

Looking North towards the Temporary Buildings
The Hackenburg Home, in the back, was one of the few homes to survive the fire

The town leaders new that the most important thing was to arrange shelter and put the men to work. If the families fled the area, never to return, all hope of recovery was lost. Two hundred tents were sent by the Governor, and they were set up as temporary shelters in all of the fields around the town. Temporary plank structures were erected in Lincoln Park to serve as stores, and the post office.

The first new building erected on the ruins was by the postmaster. A board shanty, it was ready to receive and distribute mail.  On Monday, Postmaster Bogle, having worked nearly nonstop since the fire, collapsed and had to be carried to his home. 

Temporary buildings were erected near Lincoln Park

"Thirty kegs of beer arrived on the noon train. It was returned. Men set at work to tear down dwelling walls, to prevent accidents. "

Looking North From Elm Street

Businesses quickly secured spots in whatever building was left, or whatever space they could find.

"Mr W.H. Smith of the Independent Weekly and Daily Argus secured two rail cars, has them switched off the rails, and set them up to run his printing business. "

Local newspapers reported the financial losses of every person in town.  And more reports came in:

J.H. McCormick Esq had insured his house just a few hours before the fire began. But only for $1200, which was not nearly half his loss.  Another man had just paid of his home.  After scrimping, and saving, he had recently cancelled his insurance to be able to use the savings  towards his mortgage.

Isaac Strickler wrote to the paper saying that many of the townsmen who had small amounts lost were being reported on largely, while others who had lost much more were not being mentioned
"I have been a businessman for the last twenty five years here in Milton, retired from business in 1876 and enlarged my store room and reopened on the 15th of last April with good worth over four thousand dollars. The block I lived on consisted of a large dwelling and two store rooms, which, with all the furniture, stock, and contents were consumed with seven other houses. My loss is over twenty five thousand dollars, with insurance of ten thousand. My wife and child had to be dragged out of the flames, taken to the river in the sun without a hat on their heads... . You can not imagine the desolation of our beautiful town." 

In November of 1880 A report of the Milton Relief Fund was made. $86,083.44 was distributed among the sufferers of the Great Milton Fire. (That would be roughly $2,163,808.54 in 2020)   You can view a list of the claimants, and what they received, here.

In August of 1880, The Rippel Brothers Advertised that they were open for business on front street, with photos of the ruins of Milton for sale.

Like A Phoenix, Milton Rises From The Ashes
 Sunbury - The town cannot possibly recover from this devastation for many years.

Lewisburg - It will be impossible for Milton to revive itself within the next five years, so many of the wealthiest men have lost their all. 

A few days later, once the damage had been more widely witnesses, papers reported that it would be twenty five years at least, before Milton was a town again.  Every paper was dire in it's predictions.   But Milton proved them all wrong.

"While the town was burned, yet Milton is not dead.  With characteristic pluck and enterprise of our citizens they at once began clearing away the debris." - Editor Smith

In one short year, over two hundred and fifty buildings - dwellings, stores, churches, banks, etc - had been erected.   

Not surprisingly, the  new buildings sported tin roofs, and metal cornices, more resistant to fire.

On May 25, 1880, the Milton Council unanimously agreed to grant no permits for any buildings other than of brick or stone.

Here's a look at Front Street Milton Through The Decades, showing just how well Milton Recovered:

Remembering The Fire In Celebrations
Every year the Great Fire Of Milton was commemorated, with parades, and even fireworks.  

1930 - A Fireworks display was planned in commemoration of the great Milton fire of May 14 1880.  "The story of the great fire at Milton will never be told. Every person had an experience that would fill a book. for years to come the fire will be talked of as one of the greatest calamities to ever take place in this part of the state"

There was also a large parade - with six sections, including floats and mummers. The weather was stormy, but the streets were still full.

At first one may wonder why the people would want to remember such a horrific event.  But it doesn't take long to realize it is not the fire they were celebrating, but rather the spirit it took to recover from the disaster.

"On the street corners and in the shops, and even in the homes, was heard on all sides Wednesday, 'You know Fifty years Ago today'-  and the story of the Great Fire is told again and again".- The Miltonian, May 15 1930 

I'm ashamed that it took me this long to learn about this event in Milton's history.  I was born and raised in Milton, graduated from Milton High school - and yet, I knew more about Chicago's fire than the one that happened right on the streets I've walked so many times.  The story of Milton's Great Fire, and especially it's recovery,  is an incredible one and this gathering of photos, and stories, is my small attempt to help it be known.

For More Stories & History of Milton

For more local history around us

 During the terrible fire which occurred in Milton on the 14th of May, 1880, destroying a large portion of the town, there was a sad affliction visited on the family of ABRAHAM ANGENY, formerly from Bucks county. On account of his age and feeble health, he was probably not able to get out of the way and perished in the flames. For the benefit of his many friends, who are readers of our paper, we will add an extract from a private letter to us from William Shields, a son-in-law and his wife Kate.

"The fire began just at noon, and in less than three hours, the whole of the business portion of the town was in ashes. It began in the Car Shops, and a strong wind from the north swept the fire along with wonderful rapidity. The burnt district comprises about 120 acres. But the saddest part of all, to us at least, was that Father lost his life in the flames. He was so terribly burned as to be almost beyond recognition. Had it not been for his crippled hand, and a single wristband of his shirt, we could not have identified him. We found him only a little distance from his home. How strangely and sadly the changes of life and death sometimes come over us. This aged couple had lived together in wedded life 52 years, and as cousin Kate further writes “his age and feebleness made us feel for several years past that he could not be with us long any more, but we little thought that his death would come to us in so sad a way.”

Follow Ups After The Fire


  1. Thank you for sharing this remarkable story. So much history and so much strength.

  2. The stereopticon photo of from Rippel Bros. is of Trinity Lutheran Church located on the southeast corner of what is now Mahoning and Arch Streets, the site of the present church. It was rebuilt following the fire using the walls that remained. That structure was raised ca. 1924 to build the present edifice. Rev. William Gotwald was the pastor at the time and was instrumental in helping to record and distribute monies given to the community. There is a list of that accounting at the Wentz Library, United Lutheran Seminary, Gettysburg. Mindelle Bartholomew


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