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The Great Fire of 1863

Michael Hillman

Ask all horse owners what their three biggest fears are and nine out of ten times a barn fire will make the list if not outright top it. Predominantly constructed of wood and filled with dry hay and straw, barns are torches just waiting to be lit. So, it’s not surprising the extent horse owners take to keep potential ignition sources out of their stables.

The first thing I did after purchasing my farm was to install an old fashioned mechanical fire bell in the stable which was activated by heat. It can be heard as clear as day in the house even with the windows closed. For once a barn fire gets started, you only have minutes before it’s out of control and an alarm may mean the difference between losing both your horses and barn or just your barn.

In 1863 horses were the primary mode of transportation in Emmitsburg. The first run of the Emmitsburg railroad was still twelve years away and automobiles and planes were thoughts of idle dreamers. As such, if you wanted or needed to travel you did it on horseback or in a carriage. The half hour trip to Frederick today took two days which necessitated an overnight stay. And, a round trip to Gettysburg or Thurmont occupied almost a full day.

Instead of parking meters, the streets of Emmitsburg were lined with hitching posts. Instead of garages everyone had stables, and for those that couldn’t afford their own stable, the town had at least five public stables. Each and every one was a potential torch just waiting to be lit.

The stable for the guests of the Western Maryland Hotel on the south-east corner of the square was located behind the hotel. The stable for the Emmitt House Hotel was located at the end of West Main Street. Emmitsburg residents who didn’t have their own stable stabled their horses at one of three stables run by the Patterson brothers and a Messrs. Gunther and Beam. The Patterson brothers had two public stables in town. The larger one, which housed horses most frequently used, was located on West Main and Patterson Street and their ‘turn out’ stable was located on the south side of East Main Street opposite modern day Jubilee grocery store. Gunther and Beam’s stable was located just east of the Elias Lutheran Church in what is now the church’s upper parking lot.

It was in the latter stable that something went horribly wrong on the night of June 15, 1863. What happened that night we may never know for sure. Did someone carelessly throw a cigar away? Did a kerosene lantern fall and break? Did improperly dried hay spontaneously ignite? History only records that at 11 PM that night the alarm of fire was sounded.

While water was plentiful because almost all homes had their own wells or pumps, there was no organized and formal fire company to fight fires. Instead, the community would turn out en mass with buckets to form bucket brigades. While a bucket brigade would normally be sufficient for small fires, it was no match for a barn fire. A firefighting hose cart built in town in 1851 by the Emmitsburg Fire brigade (the predecessor to today’s Vigilant Hose Company) was used at the great fire. (The old hose cart is on display in the museum area of the Vigilant Hose Company station.)

The fire quickly spread with the prevailing winds. It first burned the homes and businesses to the south of the stable - the North West corner of the square. Because of the height of the buildings on the square, which were the largest in town, the fire was easily able to jump to the North East Corner of the square and began to burn down East Main Street.

Folklore has it that the fire traveled east for two blocks burning everything in its wake, at which time, its eastward progression was stopped by the citizens of the town. The fire then jumped to the southern side of East Main Street and burned west back to the square.

However, a review of maps of the town at the time suggests a more probable progression of the fire. The eastern progression of the fire was not stopped at the end of the two blocks by the efforts of the citizens but by the lack of fuel. In 1863 the majority of homes and business in Emmitsburg were located on West Main Street and not East Main Street. The end of the second block of East Main Street contained only a few widely spaced houses providing too great a distance for the fire to jump.

As for the jumping of the fire to the southern side of East Main Street, the most probable location was near the square which contained the largest buildings as well as the greatest concentration of buildings. One only needs to draw a straight line from the Lutheran Church’s parking lot to the North East corner of the square – the direction of the prevailing wind to see that the line intersects the middle of the first block on the south side of East Main Street. From there, the fire on the southern side of East Main Street would have progressed eastward until it too ran out of homes to burn.

Because of the prevailing winds, the fire on the south side of East Main Street would have progressed more slowly to the west, which accounts for the fact that the last building to be destroyed was the Western Maryland Hotel located on the south east corner of the square. The fire was not brought under control until 7 AM the next morning. All of the homes and business in the western part of the town, save those on the North West corner of the square, were spared. John O’Donoghue’s house, which sat opposite the Western Maryland Hotel on the South-West corner, was saved by the placing of wet blankets on the roof which prevented cinders from nearby flames from igniting its roof.

Unfortunately, at the time Emmitsburg did not have a newspaper, so we have to depend upon reports from the papers of surrounding communities as to the events of that evening. According to the Gettysburg Sentinel and General Advisor:

"On Monday night just about 10 o’clock, a fire broke out in our neighboring town of Emmitsburg, ten miles from this place, which was truly awful in its ravages. It commenced in the livery stables of Messrs. Beam & Gunther with such rapidity that it defied all attempts to stay it. The glow of the fire could be seen by the residents of Gettysburg. The fire consumed the properties of the following persons:

Julie P. Rowe, owner of the property occupied by the livery, loss estimated at $800; Beams & Guthrie, 9 horses, 1 cow, 2 hogs, vehicles &c burnt, $2,000; John Barry, barn & stable, $600; J. A. Elder, barn & stable, $600; Lawrence Dwen, house, shop, barn &c., $4,000; William Waters, house and stable, $600; Dr. Eichelberger, house and stable, $4,000; Michael Addelsperger, house and stable, $1,500; James Addelsperger, tin establishment, with goods, $3,000; James F. Addelsperger , house and stable, $1,000; Dr. Patterson, house and stable, $4,000; Daniel G. Addelsperger, house and stable, $2,000; Patrick Kelly, house and stable, store and goods, $6,000; George Bishop, house and barn, $700; Francis McGraw, house and stable, $1,500; James Hospelhorn, $3,500; Upton Kooutz, house, shop, stable, $1,400; Caroline Zimmerman, house and shop, $1,500; Jacob Eckenrode, furniture, meat, &c, $700; Jacob Harner, house, $500; John Haupt, house and stable, $1,000; Hugh P. Dailey, house and stable, $1,000; David Morrison, house, $300; Samuel Welty, furniture, $150; John Hoover, house, $900; Charles Shirkley, furniture, &c., $400; James L Wise, house and barn, $2,000; John Miller, house and barn, $4,000; H. & G. Winters, house, $600; James Knouff Smith, house and barn, (not his hotel property), $1,000; Jesses Seabrooks, furniture, $450; Mrs. Eli B . Lefevor, furniture, $300; Jesse H. Nurser, house and stable, $1,600; Joshua Shorb, residence, store, building and stable, $4,000; Shorb & Addelsperger, a very large stock of store goods, $12,000; Daniel Wile, City Hotel and stabling, $10,000."

According to the June 27, 1863 Gettysburg Star and Sentinel:

"On Monday night last, at about 10 o’clock, a fire broke out in our neighboring town of Emmitsburg, ten miles from this place, which was truly awful in its ravages. It commenced in the livery establishment of Mssrs. Beams & Guthrie, and spread with such rapidity as to defy all efforts to stay it. Twenty-eight dwellings were destroyed, rendering homeless fifty-four families, numbering in the aggregate one hundred and eighty-nine persons. These have been cared for in various ways. A large portion have been accommodated at the Sisterhood; the Hall in town is full, whilst all having spare rooms have freely given it to the homeless. A ruffian named Eli Smith has been arrested and confined in Frederick jail, on suspicion of having been the incendiary."

According to uncited newspaper articles collected by Zourie Hyder Wentz (1852 -1940):

"When the sun arose upon the burnt district, it revealed the horrors of the night, and the people realized they were homeless, many pennyless, blackened walls or only foundation to tell where eight hours before comfortable habitations stood. Houses were opened to shelter the thirty families who were so suddenly made homeless, some repaired to friend’s houses in the country. The fields and roads close by were strewn with furniture and bedding. Some of this was damaged by the sparks, one piano on the pike as far down as the Warehouse was greatly damaged, while beds were being carried away they took fire upon the men’s shoulders. While the fire was raging, the church bells were rung to call the people from the country. A few came, quite a number came up the road within sight of the town, seeing the great light, they concluded the Rebels had fired the town, and they returned to their homes, fearing they knew not what, for these were perilous times. The army under Lee was moving up the valley of Virginia, the Army of the Potomac was moving toward Washington. Sixteen days later these two armies met at Gettysburg with results well known to all. The excitement of the army passing helped to divert the people of our town, the battle, the return of the army passing, kept up the excitement, thus the people were kept excited the whole summer, later families or individuals left for other fields."

"Between midnight and morning, Rev. Dr. John McCloskey brought the boys from the college to assist at the fire. No doubt some of these boys have often thought of this fire and the jolly time they had."

"Many amusing incidents occurred, such as carrying feather beds down stairs and throwing a mirror after it. An old lady came to the writer with a basin of water and insisted upon his throwing it on a burning house. Some carried their furniture into houses where it fared the same fate it would if it had been left at home. The excitement was so great, many were not responsible for their acts. It was no uncommon thing to see groups crying and bewailing together. It was a piteous sight to behold."

"For weeks the town was the attraction, not only for people near, for they came long distances to view the ruins, many letters from friends away came urging these sufferers to come to them, others came to see and do for their friends. The citizens held a meeting and appointed a committee to go to Baltimore and solicit aid. They collected quite a sum which, added to contributions sent from towns, gave great relief. Forty-five houses and stables in all were destroyed, besides the household effects by the hand of some malicious person applying a match to the stable of Guthrie and Beam, their loss was eleven horses, carriages, buggies, harness, &c. When the Union Army came through on the road to Gettysburg, almost the first question asked, was ‘did the Reb’s burn this town.’ A few persons built the same summer, but the burnt district was not wholly rebuilt for many years. Prior to 1870 only nineteen houses had been rebuilt."

The question of how the fire started occupied the minds of many. A week after the fire, Eli Smith, a resident of Emmitsburg and Union sympathizer, was arrested on suspicion of starting the fire to prevent advancing Confederates from taking supplies from the town. In July of 1863, Smith was formally arraigned in Frederick and charged with arson.

On June 15th 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee began his Pennsylvania Campaign as the advance of the Confederate Army crossed into Maryland. During the night the citizens of Gettysburg looked southward and saw an orange glow in the sky coming from the direction of Emmitsburg. Rumors began to spread throughout the countryside about the Confederate invasion. It wasn’t until June 29th that the first Union soldiers saw the damage that the fire had caused. Tired from a day’s march from Frederick and Middletown, the Union soldiers set camp in Saint Joseph’s Valley. The town’s residents welcomed the Union troops. After seeing the damage done by the fire on June 15th, the troop thought that the Confederate army had torched the town.

For many years, that’s where the story of the great fire of Emmitsburg ends. However, recent research by the Greater Emmitsburg Historical Society has uncovered that in April of 1864 Smith was found innocent of the charges and set free. The Historical Society is in the process of obtaining the actual court records and with them can hopefully cast more light on the events leading up to and during the Great Fire of 1863. Stay tuned, there may yet be unexpected twists and turns to this long underreported story.

Lieutenant William Ballentine of the 82nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment recalled:

"The town is a very nice one, hardly as large as Urbana, but all fine buildings. About one half of the town was burnt about two weeks ago. The people think it was done by a resident of the town whom they now have in jail. He is said to be a Union man although the town is one of the worst secessionist towns in Maryland. But that was not the reason it was burnt. It was in revenge for some private wrong done by some individual of the town; his store was set on fire and burnt the rest with it."

As after any fire, many of the homes and business were rebuilt over time. Beam and Gunther were no exception. They rebuilt their livery stable on land now occupied by the antique mall. Their decision to relocate to this spot resulted in confusion in the minds of many as to the exact location of the start of fire. Many old timers only knew of Beam and Gunther being located at this second location and equated the location of the start of the fire with the new stable and not their original stable located next to the Elias Lutheran Church.

Contrary to popular folklore, the conditions that eventually led to the decision to form the Vigilant Hose Company lay not so much in the fire of 1863, but a 1881 cholera pandemic that had broke out in India. Public health officials, eager to prevent its spread to America, began to demand that unsanitary conditions in densely populated areas be addressed. In May 1881 the Frederick County Board of Public Health directed Emmitsburg to correct concerns over the purity of drinking water." In May of 1883 a town meeting was held to determine if sufficient funds could be raised for an Emmitsburg Water Company whose purpose would be to supply the citizens of Emmitsburg with pure mountain water. With a resounding "yes" the town elected John Donoghue, whose home on the square was saved during the fire of 1863, as the first president and authorized him to begin selling stock, the proceeds of which would be used to fund the construction for the company.

In 1884, one hundred and twenty five years ago, following the building of the water company’s reservoir in the hills west of town and the subsequent installation of fire hydrants on the streets of Emmitsburg, the Vigilant Hose Company was founded. While a massive "conflagration" fire is most unlikely nowadays, the men and women of our local fire company continue to remind us that everyone must always remain vigilant to the ever-present menace of fire where we live, work, learn, and relax.

Read other stories by Michael Hillman

Read other articles of historical events that shaped the Emmitsburg area