KNOX - "I write amid the ruins of what was yesterday a busy town," reported Major J.B. Maitland, superintendent of the Antwerp Pipe Lines on Oct. 13, 1878.
The major's telegram to E. Hopkins, the general manager of United Lines in Oil City was the first news of the disastrous fire that turned the Clarion County community of Edenburg into a living hell.
"Desolation reigns supreme from State Street to Sheridan's Machine Shop and from the hillside in the rear of our office, everything is swept clear," Maitland wrote.
Although this was not the first fire in Edenburg known as Knox Borough today, it was the worst.
Edenburg fires, according to A.J. Davis in his 1887 "History of Clarion County," "in their frequency and extent the several conflagrations that laid waste to the town, stand without parallel; and in nearly every case the fire has undoubtedly been caused by incendiaries."
In her "Compendium of Edenburg and Edenburg People," Miss Hettie Keatley described several fires.
"Edenburg can record more fires than any other town in the state of Pennsylvania in the same time," Keatley wrote.
The first fire was in a house being used as a hotel on the Emlenton and Shippenville Road. The second was William Forker's foundry on South Main Street in 1876.
The third was the Methodist Church on Jan. 5, 1877. The loss was reported to be $5,000.
The fourth fire, one Keatley called a "conflagration" occurred eight days after the fire at the Methodist Church on Jan. 13, 1877.
The main business section of the town on Main and State streets was consumed. The fire started in a room above Lowell & Livingston's clothing store by a man and a woman who had moved everything from the room before the fire started.
"Some suppose it was a lamp fire but mystery enshrouded the matter," wrote Keatley. The loss from this fire was estimated at $50,000 and displaced about 22 families.
A greater concern was the large tanks of oil behind the Edenburg House. There was a narrow escape when it was learned the Deniston Brothers had a large stock of nitroglycerin stored at Wilbur's livery barn. It was safely, and quickly, removed.
On June 19, 1878, while everyone was at a "trotting fair" another fire broke out.
At this scourge more than a dozen houses, barns, and more importantly, outhouses were destroyed.
"Most of the houses being tinder box structures and built in the manner common to oildom, the flames made their down the street," wrote Keatley.
Keatley said the "home guards" fought the fire but water was limited.
"The men displayed a spirit of heroism seldom equaled," wrote Keatley.
Miss Carrie Corbett was arrested on suspicion and released following a hearing.
The "incendiary torch" was raised again in early October or 1878 when "another dastardly attempt" was made to destroy the town. The window casing around the window of W.M. Kirkpatrick's store was doused with kerosene and set afire.
Keatley said a man roused the owner and, together, they doused the flames. "After this and other indications of "incendiarism" the citizens detailed a guard of a large number of men who took turns by squads of six.
Keatley wrote, "Every precaution was taken for a time but just when the night watch was lulled into security the most fatal fire of all occurred."
The Great Fire'
"Thirteen is an unlucky number for Edenburg," wrote Keatley in "Compendium of Edenburg and Edenburg People."
Keatley wrote: "The Great Fire" broke out on October 13, 1878, and "almost swept the little city out of existence."
Edenburg was an "inconsiderable hamlet" up to 1876. The oil boom changed the town and when the Allegheny Valley Railroad came through it became a business center.
Keatley wrote that E. J. Little, the town's policeman, discovered the fire at the rear of Wilbur's livery stable at about 4:10 a.m. Oct. 13, 1878. Little went to the rear of the Edenburg House and began to blow the whistle at the oil well.
Keatley wrote that "within a brief space of time" Main, State and Railroad streets were ablaze. The streets began to fill with people.
"Men, women and children ran half clothed from their blazing homes, glad to have escaped with their lives," wrote Keatley.
The combustible material in the livery caught fire and was soon the entire building was "wrapped in a sheet of flame." Keatley wrote that it was impossible to get the stock out and 10 horses were "roasted to death."
Keatley wrote, "It was a sight no Edenburger will ever forget. To see the flames leap from building to building with no mean to arrest their progress. Heroic efforts were made to check the progress of the fire but they were of little avail."
The entire water system was found to be inadequate to meet the needs of the moment, she wrote.
Initially it was believed the water lines had been cut and that the fire was the work of an incendiary.
In two hours, 30 acres of buildings had been leveled to the ground. In all, 174 buildings were destroyed including the Methodist Church (again!), the post office, express office, banks, stores and dwelling houses were destroyed by the "fiery demon."
Maitland, the general manager of the United Lines in Oil City, described the scene in a telegram to his home office: "Everything is swept clear. In short, all the business portion of the town is in ruins, leaving one hotel, Kribb's brick block and two machine shops. Such a calamity has never befallen our town. The hillsides are covered with goods saved and many poor families are surrounded by their all, homeless, without money and, seemingly, without friends. God only knows what will become of these people."
But Maitland was wrong about the lack of friends for the Edenburgers.
When his telegraph reached Oil City, the response was almost immediate. E.H. Hopkins replied that he would not be able to consult anyone that day it was a Sunday --but would the next day.
"Say $500 for immediate relief on my responsibility," wrote Hopkins.
A relief committee had already been formed and purchased supplies with the money provided by United. Keatley wrote that many of the people scattered on the hills had not saved a dime or a crumb "with barely enough clothing to cover them."
Neighboring communities, Elk City and Turkey City and Shippenville were "each on the ground early with loads of provisions."
Oil City was not behind in the matter of charity. Keatley said the town had just sent $2,000 for yellow fever sufferers when the news came of Edenburg's calamity. The members of the Oil City Exchange raised $500.
The Parker Oil Exchange raised $150 and private donations raised the total to about $2,000.
Within a few days after the fire 125 families had received aid from the Relief Committee. Some of the displaced families left to stay with friends in other communities.
The rebuilding of Edenburg began almost immediately.
"The clear rap of the hammer, the grating of the saw and the sound of the plane could be heard on every hand," wrote Keatley. "Many people unfamiliar with the indomitable pluck of the people of the oil region shook their heads and said this is the end of Edenburg.' They were never more mistaken."
Oddly, the first business to resume operations was "the peanut man."
Keatley wrote that there was "quite a competition" between Main and State streets for the location of the new post office, (Main Street won).
Undaunted the State Street crew requested the railroad place the new depot on their street. To no one's surprise, the depot was built on Railroad Street.
The new Edenburg rose "grander" than before.
"It presented a fine appearance when the new buildings were completed," wrote Keatley. The streets were widened to 30 feet and businesses re-opened as though nothing had happened.
"The new Edenburg was built with a view to the demands of business and will never be overdone," wrote Keatley.
Still more fires
To continue the history of Edenburg fires, the story picks up in Davis's history book.
"On April 19, 1879, only six months after the great conflagration, the incendiaries again applied the touch," wrote Davis. "This time a portion of the town that escaped before was chosen for the sacrifice. Crude oil was poured over the floor of a vacant building on the east side of South Main Street. This blaze burned 10 buildings."
A little more than a year later, on the night of May 22, 1880, a light was observed in an upper room of the vacant and unfurnished United States Hotel. Within a few moments, according an account recalled in the Davis history book, the building was in flames.
Most of the residents of the town were on the hillside, attending traveling circus. The crowd reported tore the circus tent canvas to shreds in its haste to get out.
This time, the fire swept away about 70 buildings, including banks, offices, stores and the post office.
After the May 22, 1880, fire, says the Davis account, many people and businesses "gave up in despair" and left Edenburg. But others remained rebuilt over the ashes of the lastest fire.
And yet again, on Aug. 23, 1880, fire broke out at the old Wilbur stable now owned by Wheelock and Moore, and several of the new buildings went up in flames.
The fire had a "discouraging effect" on the people of Edenburg and the area was slow to be rebuilt.
Meanwhile, the citizens of the town raised $1,200 a sum supplemented by the town council by $300 and a public water system was established which caused a "renewed confidence in the town's future prosperity."