UNPRECEDENTED LAFOLLETTE FIRE OF 1904 LEFT 31 BUSINESSES, 10 SALOONS, IN ASHES
By Dallas Bogan
Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. This article was published in the LaFollette Press.
A fire unprecedented in the village of LaFollette took place in late May of 1904. Total dollar amount was estimated at $200,000, leaving thirty-one businesses and ten saloon buildings completely left in ashes. The entire business section, extending from Central Avenue to the LaFollette Times on Tennessee Avenue, was totally wiped out. Everything was so completely destroyed that many residents said it was hard to realize the magnitude of damage left by the fire.
The fire started under the main stairway of the Cumberland Inn. It commenced in the front of the building where oil used in the building and other rubbish was gathered. It was stated that the original fire was a minor blaze, and if any type of fire preventive apparatus, such as a fire extinguisher or water had been handy, the fire would have been extinguished immediately.
One of the first men on the scene was W.F. Burnett who called in urgency for a bucket of water. However, no means of extinguishing the fire was available, and so the whole lobby soon became engulfed in flames. The hotel was described as a roaring furnace with the main exits cut off.
The hour was 5:30 in the morning and everyone who was awake at this time was in complete disarray. Many guests were still in bed with the hotel corridor besieged in smoke. The uproar of the awakened guests screaming in fear tended to rouse the sleeping guests that had no idea of what was going on. There were many exhilarating and close escapes that were recorded. Half-dressed men and scantily dressed women jumped from the windows to escape the raging fire and massive plumes of smoke.
One narrow escape was recorded by Clarence Burchfield, conductor on the Southern passenger train. He was dressing for his morning run when the alarm was sounded. He immediately seized his oldest child and started for the stairs and was quickly followed by his wife carrying the baby clutched to her body. They were among the last of the guests to escape over the burning stairway. Burchfield's eyebrows, eyelashes and mustache were singed by the intense heat.
Fred Hall was badly burned and overcome by smoke during the ordeal. A railroad man, Edward Wells, ran to Hall's room and rescued him, both escaping by jumping down the elevator chamber. Wells was badly burned about the face and hands.
Dr. W.C. Adams became a near tragedy of the fire. Dr. Adams' apartments were located on the third floor of the Cumberland Inn. He was completely cut off by the flames and was forced to break out his window and jump through a wire screen to the street below. The flames followed the doctor to the pavement below where he fell with his clothing engulfed in the flames. After striking the ground, Egbert Wallin, LaFollette policeman, rushed in, and, with assistance from others, carried Dr. Adams safely away. The hospital report stated that Dr. Adams had suffered a broken hip and was severely burned about the face and body. He was cared for at the hospital and his chances for recovery were reported as good.
The second building to catch on fire was the Commercial Hotel, a three story wooden structure on Central Avenue. The larger part of the mail and post office furnishings, located in Winkler's Drug store, were destroyed.
It was reported that dynamite was used in the wooden structure next to the Cumberland Inn on Tennessee Avenue. These dwellings were located opposite the large brick metal front building occupied by the LaFollette State Bank, the Co-operative Store Company, and the offices of the LaFollette Coal, Iron & Railroad Company.
The explosive effect of the fire broke the glass in the windows of the LaFollette company's building, and the fire was soon rampant on both sides of Tennessee Avenue. The wind lay quite calm which was a God-send. The small town of LaFollette had no means of fighting a fire; no extinguishers nor bucket brigades existed.
The good folks of LaFollette all lent a hand assisting the merchants in the rescue of their goods from the doomed buildings. However, the fire raged on and every building on Tennessee Avenue, between Central Avenue and that occupied by the LaFollette Times, were completely wiped out.
As the fire raced up Tennessee Avenue the first store destroyed was that of Hollingsworth & Robinson. However, quickened by their instincts, they managed to save most of their stock.
Located on the right hand side of the avenue the Blue Grass Saloon was destroyed, with the proprietor saving a large inventory of his stock. Jim Cornwell's saloon was next to be burned with not a trace of its contents to be found. The LaFollette Jewelry Company, along with Smith's Saloon, were totally destroyed. Located inside Smith's saloon was the dry goods and grocery store of Smith & Sharp, it too being leveled.
Dr. Riggs' three-story brick building and Hatmaker's saloon were next on the fire's list of devastation. The Ogg Brothers store was next swallowed up and following in order were the Nelson Bargain House, Cooper Dry Goods Store, John Brown's Saloon, Miller Bros, Johnson's livery stable, Mrs. Lee's boarding house, Chadwell Bros. grocery house, a restaurant, and Tashman's clothing store.
Included on the left side of the road at the beginning of the fire was Cornwell's large building, which housed a saloon and the opera house. Following this order of the fire were the W.G. Bradford's Saloon, Fashion Store, Baker's Meat Shop, Hart's Saloon,
Carden's Saloon, Talbott's Store, Model Bakery, and a new building which was vacant.
An obvious notation concerning the fire was that it wiped out every saloon in the village except for one which stood on the outer edge of town.)
The 1904 fire at LaFollette in a way created an avenue in which to rebuild the small town into a more substantial municipality, ultimately constructing an all brick structural system and make it the leading town in Campbell County.
(Information for this article was found in the archives of the Campbell County Historical Society.)
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