Friday, February 28, 2014

The Great Owingsville Fire of 1893

This is my first installment of my historical accounts of Bath County.  I hope you enjoy reading about the life of days bygone.  A little background for this first article:  I was raised in Owingsville and have lived there almost all my life; with the exception of when I was away for military service and lived briefly in Midland.  I have been a volunteer firefighter in Owingsville since 1991 and currently hold the Assistant Chief's position.  This first story has always captivated me; one, because of the sheer magnitude of the event, and two, because I use it as an example of how to advert a similar calamity through pre-planning and training at the fire department. Again, I hope you enjoy!

Throughout history, civilization has endured disasters that test the will and determination of the people who are the foundation of the communities they call home.  On the early morning of Tuesday, September 19, 1893, a disaster struck the city of Owingsville that threatened the entire livelihood of the community. 

Late Nineteenth Century Owingsville was rather typical in layout for the time; the streets were mainly dirt roads lined with wood framed or brick structures nestled snug side by side. Most of the buildings in downtown Owingsville were wood built structures hewn from the surrounding forests or mortar and brick with tin, tar or wood shingled roofs.  The streets were narrow and named much like they are now, with the exception of Johnson and Jefferson Streets.  Johnson Street was located at the corner of Main Street and the present location of the Citizen’s Bank, and intersected with Henry Street which is located behind the bank and Christian Church.  Jefferson Street is presently known as North Court Street and completed the block at the corner of Main by the Perfect Lady Salon and hardware store.  A large lumber yard owned by the E. V. Brother Lumber Company was located at the intersection of Oberline and Water Street, at the present location of the old Foodland Grocery Store once owned by Donnie Manuel.  Businesses along Henry and Jefferson Streets included the Peed & Hazelrigg stables, located at the present day location of Jamie’s Dance Studio and the former Gateway Video building, a blacksmith and wagon shop, a grocery store, dentist office and several storage sheds and barns.  Across the street, where the library presently sits, there were warehouses belonging to J.M Richart, J.T. Kimbrough and J.A. Ramsey.  Northeast from these buildings were the Christian Church, two homes and storage sheds.  Rounding the block from Johnson to Main Street was the C.H. Hoon Undertaking and Furniture business, located where the Citizen’s Bank presently sits.  Owingsville in September 1893 was very prosperous and thriving well.

Owingsville had endured two fires that threatened the entire commerce district; one in April 1873 that burned from Henry Street to another building on Jefferson Street, and the other in January 1891 that burned out a section of structures from the present day hardware store west to where the County Attorney’s office now occupies.  On both occasions, the town’s citizens valiantly fought the fires with the best equipment they had; buckets filled from ponds or wells nearby.  Firefighting equipment was in its infancy and usually reserved for bigger cities, with few organized fire departments in operation nationwide.  Most fire brigades were hired by insurance companies to protect properties they insured, often creating conflicts from the different insurance brigades in bigger cities squabbling on which buildings were to be protected.  During this era, a company called Sanborn Publishing created maps of cities that detailed the types of structures and their fire liabilities.  There are a few of these early maps that still survive detailing Owingsville’s city streets and structures.  These maps can be accessed online at the Kentuckiana Digital Library.  The closest map that reflects how Owingsville would have looked in 1893 was drawn in July, 1891.

 It is probably a fair assumption that the weather was warm and dry the morning of September 19, 1893, and was as typical as any late summer day would start.  At approximately 4 a.m., a fire was spotted at the Peed & Hazelrigg stable.  The livery area of the stable, including seven horses, was quickly consumed by the fire that soon became a raging inferno. Sparks and glowing embers filled the sky as most Owingsville residents were awakened by the commotion.  The fire raced westerly down Henry Street to Jefferson, destroying Pierce’s Blacksmith Shop, Hutcheson’s Saddlery, The Owingsville Opinion newspaper office and Dr. Nesbitt’s dental office, stopping at an empty lot left by the 1891 fire.  Winds carried the flames to the lumber yard on Oberline Street and several homes north of Henry Street.  Soon the warehouses across from the livery stable started burning and the fire raced toward Main, Johnson and Jefferson Streets.  Business owners clamored to their stores along Main Street and frantically began removing goods in efforts to save what they could, taking the items to the yard of the courthouse.  Citizens gathered what containers they could muster and began filling them with water from the cistern located in the courthouse square, but the fire’s intensity was far too great for the bucket brigades to render much assistance.  Clell Ewing, who lived just outside of Owingsville, sent his teams and wagons loaded with barrels of water racing toward downtown.  Morgan Goodpaster of Sherburne was making a supply run into town with his team and wagon when he saw the blaze and quickly gathered barrels, filling them in J.B. Goodpaster’s pond.  The actions of these two men saved many homes outside the business district that could have been lost in the calamity.

The fires of the Kimbrough, Richart and Ramsey warehouses quickly spread along the Main Street businesses, consuming Goodpaster’s Bank, which was located where the library now sits, eastward toward the Hoon Undertaking and Furniture business.  The Owingsville Christian Church, a “remarkable and elegant structure” according to the News Outlook, caught fire and consumed the surrounding buildings and adjacent homes.  At the height of the fire, a powder keg located in the warehouse belonging to J.T. Kimbrough exploded, causing a deafening report that shook the surrounding block.  By daybreak, the fire was still unchecked, but efforts of the citizens’ fire brigade had started to slow its progress.  Some houses on High Street sustained some roof damage due to flying embers but were quickly extinguished.  A great number of people living on the outskirts of town raced to help contain the inferno and as word of the fire spread, people from all over the county came to assist.  Several neighboring towns, such as Mount Sterling, sent assistance. 

A Sanborn Map of Owingsville drawn in 1891, showing the origin and path of the 1893 fire.                                       

Even before the fire was under control, insurance representatives started arriving into town to start damage assessments.  The entire commerce district of Owingsville was a smoldering wasteland, with the exception of the saloon that was located where the Perfect Lady Salon is presently.  The saloon was protected from the fire by a two-story brick wall adjoining the bank.  As devastating as the fire was, there was only one confirmed death associated.  Ms. Jane Dawson died from a reported heart attack after receiving an erroneous message that her son, George, and another woman had died in the fire.  Another man, John Spence, was injured by falling debris when a wall of the Hoon store fell. The economic loss however was disastrous. The day following the fire, the citizens and merchant owners of Owingsville sifted through the debris to salvage what they could. The Peed & Hazelrigg stable lost approximately $10,000 worth of stock, buggies and structures, along with seven horses.  The stable and contents reportedly only had $1,500 insurance coverage at the time.  J.T. Kimbrough lost a total of $10,500 worth of structures and stock, Goodpaster’s Bank loss was at $7,000.   J.A. Ramsey & Company lost $10,000, and the Christian Church, $12,000.  In all, around thirty businesses and homes were destroyed or severely damaged in the fire, totaling in over $100,000 in losses; a huge amount for the time.  It is estimated that only $40,000 of that loss amount was covered in insurance.  At least twelve homes were lost, rendering the residents temporarily homeless.  Many jobs were lost in the ashes along with the livelihood of the merchants who were unable to save their stock.  Piles of salvaged merchandise and store stock covered the courthouse lawn, unharmed from the inferno.  Within days, the businesses opened in temporary locations throughout Owingsville.  The Wolf & Sons business and Goodpaster Bank relocated to the hall of the Owings House, where Owingsville Banking Company now occupies. The time lock on the bank’s safe was opened on Thursday, September 21, and remarkably, the currency was untouched; although some ledgers sustained slight damage due to the binding glue melting away.  J.T. Kimbrough & Sons were housed in the courthouse and J.M. Richart, J.A. Ramsey and James Gillon relocated to the Bath Seminary School, where the District Courthouse is now located.  Several citizens opened up their own homes to other merchants and families that had been burned out.  The Christian Church congregated and held services at the Presbyterian Church located on East Main Street where St Julie’s Catholic Church is currently located.

Aftermath of the Great Fire of 1893

Within a week, most all of the debris had been removed from the fire scene and plans to rebuild began.  Although no direct origin and cause of the fire was ever determined, it is believed it was purely an accident; unlike the fire of 1891, which was thought to have been intentionally set.  Another fire that potentially could have been just as devastating occurred in March, 1907 when the livery stable belonging to William Atchinson and the blacksmith shop of A.N. Denton on Henry Street burned.  That fire originated at nearly the same location as the 1893 incident and threatened the business section of the city once again.  The fire was stopped by the use of a fire engine that had been purchased by the City of Owingsville not long prior to the event.

 Owingsville would rebuild as the town we see today.  Though the businesses and frontage of the stores have changed over the years, most of the same structures that rose out of the ashes of the 1893 fire are still standing today.  The shops from the Christian Church to the corner where Citizen’s Bank is located were razed a several years ago to accommodate the bank and its offices.  The front of the library has changed several times over the years and the Davis Department Store and Five and Dime Store are now part of the Christian Church’s Ramsey Fellowship Hall.  The block along Henry Street where the 1893 fire began has changed drastically, too; several buildings are tied in together along the ‘pocket’ to the corner of Main Street, although a few are now vacant and in various degrees of disrepair. 

During the modern era, there have been other fires in the same area of the Great Fire of 1893. A fire in the winter of 1997 tore through an apartment above the Perfect Lady Salon at the corner of North Court and Main Street, but was quickly checked and confined to the apartment of origin by the efforts of the Owingsville, Salt Lick and Morehead Fire Departments.  Although the apartment was significantly damaged, the salon, the library and the adjoining apartment were spared with minimal water or smoke damage.   Three other recent fires in the area were brought under control and contained with only the buildings involved damaged or destroyed.  The first fire was the small red tin sided building at the corner of Oberline and Water Street that was once Doris York’s shoe store, the second was the old feed mill and farm supply building that was vacant.  Both of those buildings were destroyed and fires were considered suspicious in nature.  The third fire was in the old Wills TV and Appliance store at the corner of Henry and Oberline Street and was confined to the back rooms.  An electrical problem caused that fire; the building was repaired and still stands today.

With the advent of modern firefighting equipment and tactics, it is unlikely that a fire of such magnitude as the 1893 event will ever occur again in Owingsville.  Owingsville has modern water supply sources and fire hydrants located at regular intervals throughout the city; gone are the days of the bucket brigades.  The Owingsville Fire Department has thirty-four volunteer firefighters who are trained according to the standards set by the National Fire Protection Agency and the Kentucky Fire Commission.  The Owingsville fire station is centrally located on West Main Street and houses two front line fire engines, a tanker/pumper truck, a ladder truck that elevates 50 feet and can direct a continuous flow of water upon a fire at that height.  There is a brush land firefighting truck located at the fire station for woodland or grass fires that may threaten homes and property in remote areas.   Other communities in Bath County are equally protected with fire departments in Preston, Olympian Springs, Bethel, Sharpsburg and Salt Lick, who, with mutual aid agreements, help each other during large scale fire incidents. 

If The Great Fire of September 19, 1893 had any silver lining, it would be the determination of the community and its people to overcome great adversity and thrive once again.  Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, Owingsville rose above the smoldering ruins to become the great community it is today.

Source material gathered from A History of Bath County by John Adair Richards, The Owingsville Outlook Archives, The Kentuckiana Digital Archive, and Sanborn Publishing Corporation.  The photo of the fire’s aftermath courtesy of the Haden Lacy archive, submitted to John Adair Richards for historical reference.

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