DISASTER IN CLARENDON
By Ernest C. Miller
Contributed by Cindy Bigelow
The fourth of July is heavily celebrated all over the United States, in big cities and small villages. Our neighboring village of Clarendon celebrated it too in 1887 and with that celebration, nearly a century ago, a great calamity struck the town.
Adults know the story well and even small children have heard of the disaster that struck their village. Many adults, who live near as near as Warren, and through out the adjoining area, are totally unaware of the great Clarendon fire of July 4, 1887. It is a story that needs to be told.
In 1887 Clarendon and North Clarendon were very busy places, the activity due to the great Cherry Grove oil field that was discovered in 1882. Drilling had thrived ever since the discovery and the five or six large lumber mills in the immediate vicinity created employment for many men.
To go with all this turmoil there were hotels, livery stables, saloons, equipment supply stores, and a variety of other stores and shops. The plans for July 4, 1887, called for North Clarendon to celebrate in a great scale and arches were erected over the street by the gas company and were illuminated at night. Stores and homes were decorated and the town was ready for a great time on a great day.
The parade was a great success and the entire day was spent in pleasant festivity. About 9:30 PM, while the fireworks display was being shot off, the fire alarm sounded and the volunteer firemen rushed to their stations. They discovered a fire burning in the engine room of a local water company, and after getting that blaze under control, fire was discovered pouring from the Weaver House. Mrs. Thomas Mahoney, wife of the owner of the boarding house, was found unconscious in the hallway from breathing smoke, and she was rushed out to fresh air and safety.
In a very short time the water works and Mahoney's hotel were a pile of ruins and the sparks leaped from building to building. More than 150 buildings were completely destroyed including every hotel and every restaurant. Forty acres in the very center of town were turned black and it was claimed fifty small houses at the very ends of the village were also burned. It was a Brobdingnagian fire to say the very least!
The fire was even hot enough to burn wooden sewer pipes three feet beneath the ground to the point where they collapsed and the earth caved in. This of course made the roads nearly impassible. The Warren Fire Department went into action but it was too late to do much except protect a few other buildings. Ninety percent of the town was burned and in ruins and a Warren nespaper for July 5 reported on the "Terrible Calamity" claiming that more than 1,000 people were homeless and without food. Prompt and liberal relief was forthcoming and $8,000 was rapidly raised, all in cash. The Governor of Pennsylvania rushed 100 militia tents to town for use as temporary homes. The total loss was never estimated with accuracy but probably was over a million dollars, a figure that may seem low today but was certainly substantial in 1887.
One life was lost in the fire, that being W. C. McCutcheon, a pipeline gauger who was in Hill's Hardware Store when the fire started and who tried to save goods from that store. He was from Sandy Lake and his body was returned there for burial.
No one ever determined what caused the fire. Thomas Mahoney, at times a mettlesome man, was arrested in Sheffield following the fire and it was claimed that while drunk he made threats. He was released on $2,000 bail and in September, after a trial, Judge Brown released him for lack of evidence.
In 1981 Charles R. Tranter issued a picture book, really a photographic history of Warren County, and he entitled it, "The Way We Were". If you would like to see the Clarendon parade of 1887, and then what the town looked like the following day, you can see two superb pictures in this book. You will have to search a little bit because the pages are not numbered. It is worth the time!
Contributed by Cindy Bigelow for use by the Warren County Genealogy Project (http://www.pa-roots.com/warren/)
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