The Main Street Fire Of 1895
A Blizzard and a Blaze
It was January 13, 1895, 6:45AM, and it was a cold winter morning. So cold, in fact, that one of the boarders in the Sheehan boarding house at 99 Mechanic Street, decided to turn up the gas jet for a little more heat. It was a disastrous decision. Fire broke out, and before it could be brought under control, seven buildings surrounding the boarding house had burned, covering the entire block between Mechanic and Pine Streets. The Bradford Era reported that all the fire companies in the city were shortly at the scene. "A strong gale was blowing in from the northwest, and the flames, driven to increased energy, rolled high in the air and great masses of burning cinders were hurled hither and thither by the storm. Had the roofs in the neighborhoods not been protected by a heavy covering of snow, the fire would have made a clean sweep through that section of the city".
The fire had spread quickly through the two story wooden structure. Two men, Mahoney and Emmington gave the alarm, and raced through the boarding house, giving the other occupants barely enough time to escape to safety. Mrs. Sheehan, wife of the owner, John Sheehan, and her children lost no time in fleeing the building, and Mary Callahan and Mary Dorean, two young female boarders, leapt from a rear two story window - Callahan broke both her wrist and ankle, while Dorean was badly bruised. The girls, both scantily dressed, and barefoot, managed to make it to the United States hotel (currently known as the Star Restaurant), where they were cared for by friends. All the other occupants made it safely out, although several were badly burned.
The flames soon jumped to the adjoining buildings. The next building to go was the Leonard block, then the Columbia building on the corner of Main and Mechanic. The fire turned the corner then, destroying the Nusbaum block, the Smith Brothers grocery store, and the Rothstein building. A neighboring boarding house, operated by Mrs. Mary Peterson, was destroyed. She had no insurance.
Most of the occupants, whether boarders or businesses, carried no insurance or were vastly underinsured. All were considered a total loss.
The real heroes of the day, perhaps, were the firemen. Shortly after the fire began, a winter blizzard hit with full force. Fighting such a fire in these conditions is not easy, but the volunteer fire departments of Bradford did their best. The following was written later that day: "every fireman was at his post, and although his hat and coat and trousers were encased in an inch of ice, he didn't seem to care for that. In his icy armor he was there to fight the fire demon, and zero weather was not allowed to interfere with the efficiency of the service. The water thrown against the walls of those buildings which were not leveled to the ground formed in sheets of ice, and the front of the Columbia block looked like a crystal palace in a fairy grotto. The electric light, the telegraph, and telephone wire were so heavily laden with icicles that many of them broke down under the weight. Those that remained up became icy festoons along the street and added to the picturesque effects."
Many of the firemen suffered frostbite on their noses and ears. Bob Sisco, of the Citizen Hose, stayed at a hydrant until his hands, feet, ears, and nose were frozen. He was taken to his home and a doctor called. Bystanders offered hot coffee, gloves, and caps, and the nearby hotels, including the Coneely House, the St. James hotel, and the United States hotel threw their doors open to the victims of the fire, and the firemen.
The combination of fire and blowing snow did nothing to stop thousands of people from watching the firemen battle the blaze. In order to keep the throng of people at a safe distance from the warped and tottering west wall of the Columbia building, a rope was stretched from the corner of Main to the corner of Barbour Street, and Company C, the National Guard, was called out to maintain order.
The aftermath of the fire can still be seen today. Following the destruction of the buildings on the square, most owners chose to rebuild. The Sheehan boarding house was rebuilt by March of 1896 and is still standing. Today, "Players" is located there. The Columbia block was rebuilt as well in 1896, and renamed the "Phoenix Block", as tribute to its rising out of the ashes of that terrible fire. Today, it is No. 1 Main Street, and Warner Communications has its offices there. Nusbaum rebuilt, and for several years operated a grocery there - today, it is the location of Hallock Enterprises at No. 3 Main Street and Rothstein's new building now houses Colligan's Real Estate.
Such optimism and hope for the future was characteristic of the people of Bradford at the turn of the century. Even a "blizzard and a blaze" couldn't keep the town from growing.