Monday, July 4, 2022

When Most Of The Town Of Benton Was Destroyed By Fireworks - 1910


While most of the Benton's residents were attending 4th of July celebrations in nearby towns, young boys playing with firecrackers accidentally started a fire that burnt down much of the town.    38 houses, 48 barns, the post office, the bank, a department store, the meeting hall, and many other businesses were all destroyed in the 1910 fire, believed to have begun when  firecrackers ignited hay bales.   

On the morning of the 4th of July 1910, a train arrived from Bloomsburg, carrying the Bloomsburg baseball team, and many spectators.  The two teams were scheduled to play a double header that day.

Benton won the first game, 9-7, and many of the guests from Bloomsburg dined at the Exchange and McHenry House Hotels for lunch. Then the teams and spectators boarded the train, and went to Bloomsburg for the second game of the day.

Main Street Benton in 1909, Before the fire

Not all of the Benton residents attended the game.  Some families took picnics to Grassmeere Park, five miles north of town. Others went 12 miles to Millville for the fourth of July celebration held there.  

Main Street Benton, showing the Hotel Exchange, before the fire.  Photo by H.A. Kemp, who would lose his photography gallery in the 1910 fire.

A few young boys, who were still in town that day, were playing with fireworks near the area of George Crossley's blacksmith shop, on Center Street. One of the fireworks ignited the hay in Crossley's barn.

The remains of the Crossley Blacksmith shop and barn, where the fire began

At a few minutes after 3pm, Clyde Hirleman, a borough councilmen who lived on nearby 3rd street, noticed that Crossley's barn was on fire.  He quickly ran to the borough hall to ring the fire bell. But by the time he returned with a garden hose, thee barns were now ablaze.

One spectator was quoted, in local papers, as saying "When the alarm was sounded the whole town was being enveloped in a volume of smoke and a minute later a big blaze broke forth from the smoke and swept along the street with great rapidity."

The New York Times

A strong north wind fanned the flames, and sparks flew from house to house, where almost all were covered in wooden shingles.

"Practically all the buildings had roofs of wooden shingles — [they] were sucked into the air by the fire and blown onto other roofs." - Robert E. Kline, 13 years old at the time of the fire.

"The town had no adequate fire apparatus, and most of the men were gone. The fire practically had its own way.  The people became excited, did not work to good advantage, else it is thought that much property might have been saved." - Tunkhannock Newspaper, 

The town of Benton's fire fighting equipment consisted of an an old fashioned hand pumper, which had not been used in some time, did not work, and a chemical engine, which was not effective in stopping a fast spreading fire.

The town did not have a public water system.  According to the Wilkes Barre Times Leader, attempts were made in 1906 to install a water system, primarily for fire protection.  A company had been organized, and pipes and water plugs were on the ground ready to be placed, when several citizens secured and injunction , based on the cost increase for tax payers.  The pipes and plugs were disposed of, and no further effort was made.  Five years later, a dam was built, to provide water for future fire fighting efforts.

When news of the fire reached Millville, the drums were beat to draw the attention of the crowd.  Then, according to Bessie Mordan, a school teacher, the announcement was made "To residents of Benton: Many homes in Benton are afire and flames are spreading fast."

Millville is 12 miles from Benton, and the residents were traveling by horse and buggy. There was no chance of them arriving quickly enough to help with the blaze.

When news reached Bloomsburg, the B&S railroad furnished and engine, and firemen from the Winona and Friendship Fire Companies loaded a steam pump and a hand car and hose.  As many volunteers as could fit jumped onto the gondola, and the train sped to Benton.

By the time they arrived, the fire had devoured a number of businesses and homes in a three block area.  

The Presbyterian church, in the background here, survived the fire.  The Benton Argus Newspaper building remains are shown, smoldering, here.

"Fanned by a terrific win with no rain for a long period, the flames literally swept the town.  Sweeping through the business part of the town.  Only the first class mail matter was saved from the post office.  Nothing was saved from the Benton Argus, while the building of the Columbia County National Bank was entirely destroyed." - The Miltonian

The vault of the bank however, was intact, and all securities and currency was thought to be safe inside.

Two large trees in the yard of Harry Long, whose home adjoined the bank building, stopped the sparks from spreading to the other side. Above the Long house, another large stored was shielded by trees.  "Had it not been that the embers fell against the trees nothing could have saved the business section"

The telephone officed was lost in the fire, hindering communication with outside towns.

Unfortunately, the Bloomsburg equipment was of no more use than Benton's own apparatus.  The pumper sucked up gravel and sand from fishing creek, and broke the hand pumper.  There had not been any real rain for a long period of time before the fire, the water level in the creek was quite low.  Five years later, a dam would be constructed in town, to help with future fire fighting efforts.

A list of buildings destroyed in the fire was published in the Wilkes Barre Times Leader

The Exchange Hotel, before the fire.  Baseball players and spectators had gathered here for lunch on the day of the fire, before heading to Bloomsburg for the second game in the double header. By the time the residents returned that evening, this building, like to many  others, was gone.

The Exchange Hotel location, after the fire, 1910

No one was killed in the fires.  One woman, Mrs. Reas Hess, was badly burned.

Three weeks later the Argus printed a letter from Chief Burgess Dr. J. B. Laubach who also commended the citizens for their generous hospitality. "From the day of the fire, not a person has been left without a place to sleep and something to eat. The people have responded splendidly to the needs of the fellow men." He noted this was not a short-term commitment. "They have done and still are doing their part nobly."

And it wasn't just their own town that rallied around them.
The "Jolly Club", a boys and girls club in Danville, held a festival and sent the proceeds to Benton.  

The Philadelphia Inquirer, on July 10 1910, reported that the towns of Berwick and Bloomsburg had held town meetings to gather subscriptions to send to the fire victims.  Danville was planning a benefit convert, and a benefit baseball game, where the teams would pay to play and all of the money would be sent to Benton.

  $100,000, approximately 1/3 of the towns $300,000 property loss,  was expected to be paid out by insurance.

The same paper also reported on the Benton Town Hall, after the fire.
"a small building, presents a peculiar appearance since the fire.  In addition to being the temporary home for four homeless families, the post office has been established there."

"With fire insurance adjusters on the ground and with all of the property owners clearing their land, many with the avowed intention of rebuilding if at all possible, the scene is a busy one. The people are displaying a wondering optimism, and a "New and Greater Benton" is their cry."



The Town Almost Wiped Out by a Disastrous Blaze on the Fourth 

An exploding firecracker thrown into the barn of George Crossley in the rear of one of the principal residential streets of Benton, Columbia, county, Monday, caused a fire that wiped out the heart of the town, the business center of northern Columbia county. 

The flames spread over ten acres, destroyed sixty buildings and rendered thirty families homeless. Starting shortly after 8:00 p. m. the flames spread with frightful fury. With no fire protection other than a bucket brigade, and with the water supply from the creek nearby nearly exhausted, their plight was relieved only by the arrival of the Bloomsburg fire department, which took a tiro engine to the scene by special train and getting a water supply from a creek nearby, managed to subdue the fire which, however, had literally eaten itself up.

 An estimate of the loss placed it at 300,000 with all the property owners carrying more or less insurance. Fanned by a terrific wind an with no rain for a long period, the fire  literally swept the town. Sweeping through a residential street they soon reached the business part of the town. Only the first class mail matter was saved from the post office. Nothing was saved from the plant of the' Benton Argus, while the building of the Columbia county National bank was entirely destroyed. The bank has deposits of about $200,000.  The vault appears intact and it is thought all the securities and the currency will be safe. Two large trees in the yard of Harry Long, whose home adjoined the bank building, saved the entire business part of the town from being wiped out. Just above the Long house was  another large store that was shielded by the trees. Had it not been that the embers fell against the trees nothing could have saved the remaining part of the business section. 

With the telephone office burned down communication with outside towns was cut off, and it was with difficult that outside help was secured. All the homeless families, were cared for by neighbors.


Less than a year later, a fire ripped through the Rohr McHenry Distilling Company, destroying the ten-story brick warehouse along with 17,000 barrels of premium whiskey. The company closed the following year. 




  1. What happened to the kids that caused the fire?

    1. There is no mention of who the kids were, or what may have happened. I know one historian said they were most likely very young. Others also said its not certain that fireworks were the cause - although most papers mention fireworks as the cause. Still, that isn't a certainty, as often the exact same news article would run in multiple papers, so if one reported it as being caused by fireworks, the others may run the same article, or parts of the same article..

  2. Hi Heather. I grew up in Benton. I came across your blog and find it fascinating. I enjoy learning the history of Benton and the surrounding areas. I'm wondering if I could contact you privately. I couldn't find a way to contact you, except to leave a comment. My reason for desiring contact is that I wrote an article on Benton for a magazine. It is to be published in 2023. I am in contact with the editor regarding obtaining pictures for the article. I have a couple of people who have agreed to share pictures they have of Benton, and I see that you have some that the editor might be interested in using. Some of the pictures are the same ones that the other people have, or might have, but I think you have some that the others don't. Would it be okay with you if I give your name to the editor in case he is interested in using your pictures? If so, how would he contact you? Also, I'd like to have contact with you because I'd like to learn how you got started researching and blogging on historical topics. Did you grow up in Columbia County? I did extensive research before writing my article on Benton and found it utterly fascinating! As I read through your article, I recognized where you obtained content and it was fun to see the sources you used. I hope to hear back from you. My name is Maureen Longnecker. I am on Facebook and have an email account we could use to correspond, if that would be acceptable with you.

  3. My email address is, and you are more than welcome to contact me - but know that I am terrible at answering messages. There is just never enough time. You can also message me through the facebook page for this blog - Valley Girl Views. But again - I'm terrible at answering messages. Information on copyright and photo usage can be found here -


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