The Great Fire of 1895:
December 1895 was not a season of cheer in Ridgefield: Much of the center of the village, including the Town Hall, had burned to the ground.
The fire broke out around 9 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 8 on the second floor of the Bedient & Mead Building (where now Books on the Common is). Those people clustered in the distance at the left are apparently examining the Bedient site.
The fire jumped Bailey Avenue and spread southward, destroying the wooden Town Hall, the Masonic Hall (which held the Ridgefield Press offices and printing equipment), some houses and stores, and was finally stopped at the Scott Block, where Bissell’s new pharmacy was then and where today is the Village Tavern (that location would be off to the right of where the picture above ends). The fire also leveled McGlynn’s hardware and plumbing building on the north side of Bailey Avenue, behind Bedient & Mead.
To provide a bit more orientation in the picture above, the town hall had stood where that last elm on the left is. The next three elms are about where the Masonic Hall was (and its replacement is today, housing Coldwell Banker real estate).
To the right of the chimney stack in the center of the picture, in the background, there’s a large building with a tower in front: That was Hiram K. Scott Jr.’s livery stable that stood on the site occupied until last month by The Ridgefield Press. Thus, that tower was right on the edge of Bailey Avenue. A description of the “most heroic effort” to save that building will appear in a coming post about the fire.
Across Bailey Avenue from the livery stable, you can see a one-story building with awnings — that may be the only structure in this picture that exists today. Then it was Fogarty’s hardware and plumbing, and today it houses shops across from the old Press building (now a gym). It was saved largely because it had a tin roof protecting it from dropping embers.
Just to the west of Fogarty’s Plumbing was McGlynn’s hardware, which burned down.
Visible just to the right of Scott’s livery stable is a portion of an apartment building, or tenement, where early in the 20th Century, many immigrants from Italy lived.
Damage from the fire was estimated at $100,000, the equivalent of nearly $3 million in today’s dollars. Much of the losses was covered by insurance.
The picture was probably taken by Joseph Hartmann, whose studio in the Bedient & Mead building was destroyed. Hartmann was almost killed in early attempts to fight the fire, as we will see in a coming posting.
While the town hall was destroyed, virtually all the town’s important records survived —
primarily because many were kept in the offices of the people who maintained them, such as the town clerk and probate judge which were not in the town hall; the records were rescued before the fire reached them in the Scott block. (Ridgefield’s land records are complete back to the day of the town’s founding as are birth, marriage and death records — though not all births or marriages were recorded, usually because families failed to notify the town clerk of the events).
What follows is the dramatic account of the fire that appeared in the Ridgefield Press the Thursday after the blaze. While The Press office and printing equipment were destroyed, Editor Edgar C. Bross was able to work with nearby newspapers to get out that week’s issue of The Press, on time and with complete coverage of the biggest story since the Redcoats came to town in 1777
Ridgefield In Ashes
By Edgar C. Bross
The Ridgefield Press, Thursday, Dec. 12, 1895 — All night long, Sunday December 8, 1895, the citizens of this town watched with feelings of consternation the spread of the biggest conflagration that ever swept through the village, and no adequate means were at hand to check the awful destruction which was the result of it.
A smouldering ruin, with thirteen business firms and several families without shelter, and nearly $100,000 worth of property destroyed, was the condition of things as the gray winter light dawned Monday morning. The entire community was saddened by the awful calamity which a night had brought forth; and, added to the general gloom, every able-bodied citizen had become so weary and sore and blistered, in the almost futile endeavor to check the spread of the fire, that the village was practically prostrate.
The business firms which suffered so seriously were with but few exceptions, composed of enterprising young men, who had engaged in business only a short time, older men having given way with the weight of years, and for this reason the burden is especially discouraging.¶
Notwithstanding, as will be seen later on, nearly all of the business firms have recovered from general paralysis, steps have been taken to at once resume in temporary quarters, and efforts will soon be made to build the burnt district.
There have been all sorts of stories as to the origin and discovery of the fire, and we have
carefully sifted them, believing that the account given below is as accurate as can be gathered from any source, inasmuch as the parties interviewed were reliable eyewitnesses of the conflagration from 9 o’clock Sunday evening till nearly daybreak Monday morning.
Louis Joffee, Joseph Hartmann, and some other pedestrians in the vicinity, discovered smoke issuing from Bedient & Mead’s undertaking and furniture store at the hour mentioned above. They ran to Catoonah Street shouting fire, and were joined by Dr. W. E. Weed, who heard the alarm. Dr. Weed rushed upon the piazza of D. Francis Bedient’s residence and rang the bell vigorously, which brought Mr. Bedient to the door.
“You’re needed over to your store,” quietly announced the doctor. “'There’s something wrong.”
Mr. Bedient took in the situation, hastily put on his shoes — for he was just preparing to retire — and hurried to the scene of the fire. He opened the front double doors of the store with his keys, and endeavored to enter the burning building, but was immediately driven back by clouds of smoke and the intense heat. He immediately closed the door, remarking to a few people who had gathered that it was practically impossible to enter, and followed by Joseph Hartmann and others he went to the rear of the store, finally gaining entrance through a cellar door, at great peril, as a dense cloud of smoke rendered it almost impossible to grope his way about the dingy place.
Joseph Hartmann followed carrying a lantern. By aid of this light, Mr. Bedient found a hitching post with which he forced open a door to the stairs leading to the main store. On the stairway the draught had carried the smoke above, thus giving Mr. Bedient a brief respite from the suffocating heat and smoke and enabling him to reach the upper floor.
There he saw the fire burning naturally in the stove, and no flames near it, proving that the source of the fire was not the stove. Glancing hastily about, he discovered the stairway directly above the northeast corner of the store, adjacent to the wing of the building occupied by the Western Union Telegraph ofﬁce. He gathered together a couple dozen pails and handed them outside to others, and ordered them to be filled. He secured enough water to quench the flames on the railing of the upper stairway, but the fire was gaining headway so rapidly beyond, he realized that such slight efforts to save the building would prove futile.
Almost exhausted, he managed to get outside the cellar door. By this time a large number of people had been attracted to the scene, and efforts were made to secure a number of ladders stored in the front of the cellar.
Mr. Bedient, Mr. Joseph Hartmann, and another man, whose name we failed to learn, crawled under the front porch. and succeeded in getting about a dozen ladders. Mr. Hartmann lost his way, groping blindly about, when Mr. Bedient went to his rescue, leading him to the door and into the open air, nearly exhausted from inhaling the hot air and thick smoke.
No further attempts were made to get into the building, with the exception of saving some oil barrels, tools, and a few other things near the door in the rear of the cellar.
By this time flames were issuing from the building, and in a few moments the whole block was enveloped in a mass of seething flames. It was less than half an hour later that the Western Union Telegraph office and Barhite & Valden’s big general store adjoining were burning fiercely.
Efforts were then directed toward saving the dwelling house occupied by Robert Wilson,
adjoining Barhite & Valden’s, and the wind favoring, this was accomplished, but not without strenuous labor and remarkable courage on the part of several impromptu fire fighters.
Never before had Ridgeﬁeld experienced a bonfire so enormous or so destructive of property. The flames now wildly swept the entire row of frame structures, including Barhite & Valden’s, the telegraph office, and Bedient & Mead’s store, and onlookers held their breath as they saw that the loss of the Town Hall was inevitable.
The large frame block on the north side of Bailey Street occupied by Peter McGlynn, the hardware dealer, and Mrs. Susan Canfield, and George Rich above as a dwelling, was now in imminent danger. Almost simultaneously this building and the Town Hall caught fire, and the people were too dumbfounded to realize the awful ending of it all.
It was not later than ten o’clock when it was clear to everybody that the conflagration would last all night. Nothing could be done to save the buildings already on fire, and efforts were at once directed towards saving property of a portable nature in other buildings in imminent danger.
The Masonic Hall, occupied on the first floor by the office and plant of The Ridgefield Press and by the barber shop of E. S. Reynolds, and on the upper floor by the Masonic and Odd Fellows’ lodges, was only a few feet south of the Town Hall, and everything was carried from this structure possible to secure until the rescuers were driven away by the fierce heart.
The weight of the printing machinery, engine, and boiler, as well as the type was so great that it was impossible to save more than the desk, books, some of the newspaper ﬁles, the mailing list, and a few cases of type from the printing office, and as has already been mentioned elsewhere, we decided that it would be very disappointing to our readers did we fail to issue a paper this week with the full particulars. So all day Monday we telephoned, telegraphed, and planned to meet the emergency. Later in the day we were ﬂooded with letters and telegrams of sympathy from our generous newspaper brethren, with offers of substantial aid, the result being a full account of the ﬁre and on the day of publication. A history of our personal woes, with acknowledgments of kindness. appears elsewhere.
But to go on with the story proper. E.S. Reynolds, the barber succeeded in saving some of his stock, and number of lodge men carried valuables from the lodge rooms above to places of safety.
When the flames shot up over the Masonic Hall, someone thought of using dynamite to blow up this large building, hoping thus to collapse the structure and check the conflagration southward.
In the meantime the fire was making serious headway down the north side of Bailey Street, the blaze furiously consuming the McGlynn building and leaping across the street to the livery stable occupied by Hiram K. Scott, Jr., besides imperiling the low building in which is located the hardware store of J. W. Fogarty. The latter building was its own protection, inasmuch as the roof was tin and but one story high, consequently the flames rose high above, and the main danger was from sparks which constantly kept falling. Mr. Fogarty and his men watched carefully these flying pieces of fire, and with dippers of water were able to subdue them before great damage was done.
To save the Scott stable was not a task so easy. There were two high towers on either end to the front, and the building was so high throughout that it required the most heroic effort of all concerned to save the building from general ruin. It caught fire several times, and once it seemed almost impossible to check the blaze, but it was finally out of danger.
To return to the progress of the fire on Main Street. When the use of dynamite was suggested, persons were dispatched for the dangerous explosive, about a mile away from the disaster. On their return, the dynamite was found to be frozen, and before this could be thawed out the Masonic Hall was nearly in ruins.
Nevertheless, under the management of Ebenezer W. Keeler, the fuses were laid and the explosive sounded with a tremendous noise and effect, what remained of the burning building being blown into kindling wood. Visitors from 20 miles around, the following day, said they could hear this and the subsequent reports like a rumbling earthquake.
Notwithstanding this plan, the fire continued to rage and it was finally decided to blow up the residence of E.W. Hibbart’s next door to the south. Had this been done before the structure was in flames, it is generally believed that the buildings below could have been saved. But, of course, it was a serious question to settle, and no one would think of attaching the blame to those who had the matter in charge.
Mr. Hibbart’s house caught about 11 o'clock and then it was realized that nothing could save the adjoining market building, occupied by Hibbart & Sherwood, fish and vegetable dealers, Willis S. Gilbert, cigars and confectionery, and the central office of the Southern New England Telephone Company on the first floor, and Louis Joffee, the tailor, and Conrad Rockelein, the barber, on the second ﬂoor.
Everyone was breathlessly awaiting the arrival of the steam fire engine from Danbury at this
time, but it failed to put in an appearance, though a message had been sent by telephone between 9 and 10 o’clock for assistance from the Danbury fire department. It was afterwards learned that the firemen would have started immediately for Ridgefield, but before the engine and hose could be taken from the city, it was necessary to receive permission from Mayor Rundle, and other preliminaries were imperative, besides the ordering of a special train through Superintendent Payne. This action consumed so much time that it was nearly 3 o’clock Monday morning before the special train carrying the firemen steamed into Ridgefield station, too late, of course, to be of service.
When the Hibbert & Sherwood block caught fire, the anxiety of the people lining the streets reached its highest tension, many gazing with tears glistening in their eyes, and wringing their hands in despair.
During the progress of the conflagration, sparks were flying across the street so thickly that it required constant vigilance to shield the hundreds of pieces of furniture and other goods which had been removed to the lawn of St. Stephen’s rectory, besides endangering many buildings on the west side of the street.
At this point in the disastrous progress of the fire, someone suggested that the little south wing, one story high, of Col. Hiram K. Scott’s block, used as the office of the town clerk, judge and clerk of probate, be torn down before the Scott building caught, thus securing if possible the limit of the conflagration southward with Col. Scott’s block. Willing hands were soon at work at this destruction, which was done in time to accomplish the desired object, but not until the main structure was enveloped in a mad blaze.
It was generally conceded that the fire raged more furiously on the Scott building than previously, but the wind had commenced to blow steadily from the northeast, and the impression became general that the probate office being razed, the end of the dreadful night’s havoc was in sight at last.
It was now nearly midnight, and the Scott building was a mass of flames, and men were fighting furiously to save the barns of E.W. Hibbart and Col. Scott, keeping the fire as far away as possible from the group of buildings to the southeast on Governor Street, including the Loder House, while other men were working vigorously in the attempt to save the Gage block adjacent to the Scott property, which constantly caught fire on the roof and under the eaves, great lurid flames shooting far over the endangered building.
This courageous action checked the destruction of property southward, but it was morning before the flames from the Hibbart & Sherwood and Scott buildings began to smoulder.
On the north side of the lower floor of the latter structure was located the pharmacy of Harvey P. Bissell, who also dwelt in the apartments above. He succeeded in saving a greater portion of his household effects, but lost his stock of goods.
As has been mentioned, in the south wing was the office of Town Clerk Scott. This having been demolished, the huge safe of the town was saved, and the furnishings, valuable papers, etc., were taken out. Col. Scott’s dwelling house adjoined his store directly in the rear. Besides himself and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Hiram K. Scott, Jr. occupied the house, but all were successful in saving the main portion of their furniture and other goods.
It was not till 3 o'clock that the people realized it was safe to depart to their homes to gain a few hours’ sleep, and indeed, many stayed about the dying fire during the entire night, watching the goods that had been rescued from the flames, in order not only to save them from the sparks, but also from the hands of the petty thieves who were discovered pilfering small articles of value, and even large pieces of house furnishings. It will certainly go hard with these despicable creatures if caught by indignant citizens.
From two reliable sources we glean valuable information which would indicate that the origin of the fire may have been incendiary.
Among the first to discover smoke issuing from the Gage Block were James Halpin, John Quinlan, George Lane, Charles G. Fairchild, and Eli Burr. These were at the scene in time to notice the fire breaking out of the new bay window on the south, which Mr. Gage, had just had built in the room upstairs, used so long as a hall. James Halpin and Eli Burr broke in the side door leading upstairs to this hall, and discovered great volumes of smoke and flames burning in the room above, far away from any chimney stove, leading them to believe that the blaze was started either by a match thrown carelessly into some papers or shavings, or else it had been wilfully set afire. In conformation of the latter theory, a window was open on the north side of the building, near the rear of the telegraph office, which easily could have given admission to anyone villainously inclined, and diligent detective work will be done to ferret the the criminal — if such there be.
These young men did all they could to check the first ﬂames but they found it impossible to check the rapid spread of the fire.
For a distance of nearly 1,000 feet in the heart of Main Street, and many feet east of Bailey and Catoonah Streets, the frame structures were constantly threatened with destruction. Among these were the Methodist parsonage and church, Henry Mead’s store, which caught fire at once; his barns; St. Mary's Church and sheds, the latter blazing at one time; M. B. Whitlock’s livery stable, which was on fire twice; the rectory, church, and barns of St. Stephen’s parish, all of which caught but were discovered in time; and it might be remarked here that possibly the entire west side of Main Street might also have been in ashes now, had it not been for the timely discovery of the venerable Mr. Brown, the father of Mrs. Ely. He found some inflammable articles blazing away in that outbuilding at a great rate and succeeded in extinguishing the ﬂames.
Other houses and buildings menaced were the dwelling on the northeast corner of Main and Governor Street, occupied by Leonard L. Beckwith; the house next door to the east, in which lives Samuel Nicholas with his family; the Ridgefield library, the Loder house, already mentioned; the house owned by L. Beckwith and occupied by Nathan L. Rockwell and family; and the residence adjoining owned by William H. Beers.
There was little danger to the wooden store occupied by Frank S. Hurlbutt as a shoe store, and J. W. Benedict as a bakery. Neither of these thought it worth while to move out their stock of goods, though E. S. Reynolds, William Wilkinson, and J. W. Benedict, who lived with their families in the building, prepared for an emergency by packing up their household effects to be moved at short notice.
Monday morning dawned raw and cold, but this did not deter hundreds of people living in surrounding places from visiting the scene of the disaster, and relic hunters were anxious to secure mementoes of the fire. There were visitors present from Norwalk, Danbury, Bridgeport, and as far away as Stamford and New York to gaze on the ruins.
Besides these curious people, the town has been filled since Monday with drummers [salesmen], insurance adjusters, and all sorts of travelling men, called here in connection with the resumption of business.
In the meantime, the stores which are still in-tact are doing a rushing business, and everyone who was burned out has been eagerly looking for a suitable temporary shelter. For some time this has been a very difficult matter, but last night nearly every business concern was temporarily housed, or, had plans for continuing their business once more.