Woodward Township
Clearfield County Pennsylvania
Brisbin Fire
Friday, May 2, 1884

Submitted by C.F. Ferdarko

What follows is an excerpt from a booklet, One Hundred Years in Brisbin, 
Houtzdale and Woodward Township published in 1976 compiled from the files 
of the Houtzdale Observer, History of Houtzdale written by the late John B. 
McGrath in 1912 and Histories of Clearfield County written in 1887 and 1911.
What the Johnestown Flood was to Cambria County, certainly the Brisbin Fire was 
to at least this part of Clearfield County. It was the morning of Friday May 2, 1884 
when the wind was blowing with nearly hurricane speed that the residents of Brisbin
realized with sudden alarm that what had appeared to be a fairly remote forest fire
was sweeping down the hollow toward their newly incorporated borough. Stories 
vary as to the cause. one is that some people west of the town were burning brush; 
one is that sparks from the dinkey engine caused it; another is that a  forest fire 
caused by careless smokers started the blaze and still another is that sparks were 
carried from the mill's slab burner where the shaving and chips were burned as 

With the west wind blowing so strongly that morning it wasn't long until the fire was 
seen to be approaching the sawmill of Hoover, Hughes and Co.  Immediately all the 
men available were sent out to fight the fire. This was about 10 o'clock in the morning. 
By noon it was evident that the mill was doomed. What really set the town afire was 
the fact that when the fire reached the great piles of boards outside the mill the terrific 
wind lifted them high into the air and hurled them through the town. By two o'clock 
the mill was a seething mass and the town was an uproar of confusion-crackling of 
flames, rush and roar of the wind, screams of women, wails of children, shouts of the
of the men. By half past three, Brisbin had been wiped out and the fire had moved on 
toward Sterling destroying Powel's trestle. At 6PM the fire was still raging at Sterling.

So far as we know, at least one person was burned to death, an old lady named 
Mrs. Donovan who died in a futile attempt to rescue her pig. Mr. T. C. Cryan of 
the Hoover Hughes Co. saved his own life by burying himself in the earth which 
he was compelled to do twice.

Nearly everyone over sixty years old today who lived in Brisbin or Houtzdale 
then recalls vividly some of the incidents of that memorable  day. One of our 
townsmen, then a child of barely six, very distinctly remembers having disobediently 
run off from his mother and being some distance from home when the panic spread, 
was terrorized to find he could scarcely return home because the hot stones and 
earth so badly burned his little bare feet.

Some are like "Aunt Kate'  Bateman of Brisbin who remembers climbing to the roof 
of the house and there, with bucketfuls of water handed her by her children, keeping
it wet with the aid of blankets, coats and anything else available. And her little house 
survived although partly because it was not situated directly in the main sweep of the

Nearly 220 families were left homeless and only about a dozen buildings remained 
standing in the borough. The people of Houtzdale and parts of Sterling quickly made 
places in their homes for the victims of the fire. Even on the same day, the Houtzdale 
Relief Committee was formed which immediately sent out telegrams to the principal 
towns in Clearfield, Centre, Blair and Huntingdon counties. This committee and the 
Brisbin Committee were active for some months afterward. The total relief fund amounted 
to over $11,000.

It soon became evident that the people of Brisbin would not long remain discouraged. 
Let us quote from the Houtzdale Observer of January 8, 1885, a little over seven months 
later, which says, 
"Brisbin today is ahead of the Brisbin which on the evening of the of May 
had been reduced to ashes. With better buildings, with new energies called 
forth by disaster, her citizens are more self-reliant and stronger, and while 
the fire was a terrible loss in many ways, it showed forth the highest and 
best attributes of the citizens of both boroughs."

Contributed by C.F. Ferdarko for use by the Clearfield County Genealogy Project (http://www.pa-roots.com/~clearfield/)

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