Around noon on April 1, 1852, the Great Fire of Chillicothe broke out in John Watt’s cabinet-making shop at the southwest corner of Walnut and Water streets. The fire alone wouldn’t have resulted in one of the city’s biggest disasters, but it was more than that. The wind was strong that day, blowing shingles off roofs, breaking tree branches and leaving limbs strewn about. Unfortunately, the strong wind also sent embers from Watt’s shop to one building after another in the city’s main business district, destroying everything in its path and leaving a quarter of the city in smoking ruins.
Captain ER McKee was nine years old at the time of the great fire. Fortunately, 100 years ago, on April 1, 1922, on the 70th anniversary of the tragedy, McKee, then 79, sat down with the Gazette and gave a colorful account of the day.
It was lunchtime, and the half-dozen employees of Watt’s cabinetmaking had gone home for their afternoon meal, except for one worker who had stayed behind. . In the middle of the room was a large drum stove and after his colleagues left for lunch, the man picked up an armful of wood chips from the floor and threw them into the stove. For some reason, the chips exploded, opening the stove door and sending embers onto the chip-strewn floor. The man only had time to run to save his life.
Young McKee, who lived near Watt’s shop, recalled that he “saw the fire first and raised the alarm”. By then, the wind had sent swirling embers on their way to destruction, quickly setting adjacent buildings on fire. “The fire went north first, then east,” McKee recalls, “jumping over the driveway toward the buildings to the north, then toward the Clinton Hotel.”
The stars were aligned against the city that day because it was April Fool’s Day. After the alarm sounded, many firefighters who on any other day would have responded immediately were convinced it was an April Fool’s joke. This was not the case.
Fortunately, most of the city’s firefighters rushed to the scene, as 9-year-old Louis Thoman witnessed first-hand. The young boy was the last person to visit Watt’s shop before the fire broke out. He had come home from school and his mother had told him to take the family’s handcart to Watt’s store and load it with wood chips. After he arrived, the lone worker told the young boy to help himself, and Thoman picked up armfuls of shavings from the floor and filled the cart.
Thoman was driving home, pulling his cart behind him down the driveway when he saw smoke rising directly into the afternoon sky. He turned his head skyward, but a noise further down the narrow alley soon caught his attention. He turned around in time to see a fire company’s two-wheeled horse-drawn wagon racing towards him.
“My cart was in their way,” he recalls, “and a fireman grabbed it and threw it over the fence. I went home crying and informed my mother who told me to go back and get the cart. But the only thing left of Thoman’s cart were its steel wheels, the rest having been completely burned. Against his mother’s wishes, Thoman did not immediately return home. There was too much to see.
Next to Watt’s cabinet shop was a blacksmith’s shop and in a scene that would often be repeated that day, one of the employees unleashed around a dozen horses tied up in a shed out back of the building. Soon, frightened horses invaded the streets and chaos reigned.
Likewise, 16-year-old Martin Kramer, who was working at the Clinton Hotel that day, rushed to the stable. “When the fire alarm was given,” Kramer later recalled, “I ran to the stable and helped get the horses out and let them loose on Walnut Street. None burned, but a large number of chickens burned in the poultry houses.
Joining the confused scene in the streets, countless people carried groceries in an effort to save them from the oncoming hell, including 18,500 hams. Fraser’s warehouse workers threw the hams from the second and third floors onto the street. The hams were then stacked in the dry canal bed, but they soon roasted and filled the air with the aroma of pork.
Other residents rushed to the fire with two-gallon buckets of water. It was the law that each dwelling had to have a certain number of fire buckets, depending on the number of rooms. Buckets were made of leather and brave locals filled the streets to put out the flames and pour water around business establishments and homes to slow the spread of the fire.
It wasn’t just people and horses, however, that filled the smoky streets that day. Hundreds and hundreds of rats rushed out of their hiding places, fleeing from the fire and adding to the chaos.
Unfortunately, during the confusion, some locals looted. Thousands of dollars worth of goods were stolen and taken away in the terrible tragedy. The next day’s Gazette reported on the disgust felt by the Chillicotheans. “It would seem that nothing sweeter than the pangs of hell can touch the petrified sympathies of the villains who would fly under such circumstances.”
The overwhelming majority of residents, however, participated in the fight against the fire. Despite the most valiant efforts, high winds fanned the flames relentlessly. By the time the fire was extinguished, Second Street and Water Street lay in charred ruins.
“What made it such a disaster,” Captain McKee recalled, “was the fact that Second and Water Streets were the main shopping streets of the city at the time.” Only one building on these streets survived the fire.
A headline in the next day’s Gazette summarizes the tragedy. “Chillicothe to ashes!” The fire caused Chillicothe to fall behind other towns and take years to catch up. The Chillicotheans still talk about it 170 years later.