Lewisburg Was Aflame 124 Years Ago Today

NASA claims that “On Earth, something is always burning. Wildfires are started by lightning or accidentally by people, and people use controlled fires to manage farmland and pasture, and clear natural vegetation for farmland.”
“Nine new large fires were reported,” by the National Interagency Fire Center as of the morning of Saturday, July 31, and “87 large fires have burned 1,771,933 acres in [the] U.S.”
But the cause of the conflagration that destroyed large sections of downtown Lewisburg 124 years ago today has never been determined, or at least not widely reported.
Lewisburg residents were aroused by a fire warning during the early morning hours of August 3, 1897.
Leah Tuckwiller combed through the archives of The Greenbrier Independent to write the following article for the Friday, August 3, 2018, edition of The West Virginia Daily News:
“Fire! Fire! Fire!” So said the headline of the top local story of The Greenbrier Independent on Thursday, August 5, 1897. “At ten minutes to five o’clock Tuesday morning, the 3rd [of August], the alarming cry of ‘FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!’ rang out upon the still morning air, and soon well nigh the entire population of the town, men and women, had gathered on Main Street to fight the most disastrous fire known in the history of our dear town,” read the opening lines. In Lewisburg, a town of 117 years old and with a Civil War battle already behind it, that was no small thing.
Thirteen buildings were destroyed in the fire, which spread through the town unchecked in the early August morning exactly 121 years ago today [August 3, 2018]. Beginning with the Greenbrier Clothing House on Washington (then Main) Street, the fire spread to D.R. Thomas’ grocery store and J.W.A Ford’s stone storehouse east on Washington Street and the Bank of Greenbrier to the west, before rounding the corner onto Court Street and engulfing the Bank of Lewisburg, John N. Arbuckle’s law office, and the law offices of John W. Harris and James C. McPherson on Court Street.
The heat eventually also set fire to buildings across Washington Street, engulfing the Lewisburg Hotel, a storehouse occupied by a drugstore and the office of Drs. Beard and Beard, a building housing a saddlery and young men’s reading room, William Grow’s shoe store, and a storehouse occupied by businessman R.P. Rittenhouse. The damage and spectacle of the fire were so great that people came to Lewisburg that afternoon “from far and near to view the devastation the flames wrought.”
In the Independent’s original story, no mention is made of how the fire started, but the paper did mention how “strange to relate the flames did not get beyond the hotel on the south side of Main Street, though nothing but a twelve-foot alley separated them” from the building next door, which contained much valuable property belonging to one resident of the town and which was “saved by much hard labor and many buckets of water from neighboring wells and cisterns.” The commentary goes on to note that it was “equally strange” that the Greenbrier Hotel, on the north side of Ford’s store, was also spared by only a single alley.
In the August 12, 1897, edition of The Greenbrier Independent, the following notice was placed:
“$250 Reward.
Whereas many people are of the belief that the fire of Tuesday morning, the 3rd inst., was the work of an incendiary, the Town Council of Lewisburg offers a reward of $250 to any person who will furnish evidence that will lead to the arrest and conviction of the guilty party.
B.F. Harlow,
Mayor of Lewisburg”
In the following three weeks, however, no other mention of any apparent arson was placed amid the notices of relocated businesses, requests for debts previously owed to be paid fire victims, and advertisements for Farmer’s Home Fire Insurance.
“Unfortunately for the town,” the Independent lamented, “we have no fire fighting apparatus and no fire organization, so in this terrible emergency we had to depend on the efforts of boys and men with buckets, wet blankets, etc.” A request for aid was sent to Ronceverte’s fire company, but “owing to some misunderstanding” and a delay in getting the force together and up to Lewisburg, the fire had already demolished the hotel and was spreading by the time the engine arrived.
In 1898, the town established a fire department, which was originally staffed by approximately eight members with limited equipment, according to the “Fire Department” page of the city of Lewisburg’s website. In October 1897, the city voted on and passed an ordinance to issue $13,500 in bonds “for the purpose of procuring a water plant and machinery to supply water to the inhabitants of the Town of Lewisburg and to prevent the destruction of property in said Town by fire.” With such measures in place, a fire department quickly followed.
In 2018, the town has moved past its great fire and into a great future, but in a section of the original Independent article “Echoes From The Great Fire,” much is made of neighbors who came to the rescue:
“Rev. Wm. Mc. White is a wheel horse in a fire. In woolen shirt and with sleeves rolled up the elbows, he was observed of all observers, and many words were spoken on his praise… Mr. Telford and Mr. Martin were also in line doing very effective work – the former handling water buckets like an expert while the latter manipulated a pump with tremendous energy.”
“Aroused from her peaceful slumber by the awful cry, ‘Fire! Fire! Fire!’ a lady living on Jefferson Street sprang for her bed and, forgetful of all else, rushed across the street barefooted and in robe de nuit to give alarm at a neighboring house.”
Remnants of the fire are now increasingly rare; buildings have been rebuilt, expanded and even added into the open spaces as Lewisburg has grown… but this spirit shown by locals endures through fire, flood and time.
Now around 123 years old, the Lewisburg Volunteer Fire Department “serves an area of 67 square miles with a population of 8,400 individuals. The department operates out of two stations and provides fire suppression, high angle rescue, water rescue, hazardous material decontamination and response assistance for traumatic life-threatening emergency medical services to a primarily residential area.”
Growing from the initial eight-member team, LVFD is now comprised of 26 volunteer firefighters, eight career firefighters, and eight volunteer support members.
No longer dependent on bucket brigades, or at the mercy of another town’s fire department (except through the support of mutual aid agreements), LVFD’s current staffing provides four members in-station, 24-hours a day, seven days a week, allowing for the department to achieve the Insurance Standards Office (ISO) rating of 4/4.
As NASA and the National Interagency Fire Center keep abreast of blazes raging elsewhere, LVFD notes that in the 123 years since its formation, “the department consists of 42 members, three fire engines, one water tanker/engine, one 75-foot Quint, one command vehicle, one quick response vehicle, one all-purpose utility vehicle, one technical services trailer (high angle rescue), one de-con trailer (Haz-Mat), two water rescue boats, two fire stations and a training center (burn building, burn pit vehicle extrication pad, vehicle fire prop)” all to better serve Lewisburg and surrounding communities.
The plant and machinery, acquired by the 1897 ordinance, has grown to not only “supply water to the inhabitants of the Town of Lewisburg,” but to other cities such as Fairlea, Maxwelton, Frankford, Renick, Caldwell and Ronceverte.
Proving that time heals all wounds, Lewisburg is now recognized for its diversity, annual festivals, celebratory parades, educational opportunities, and promoters of the arts. What a difference 124 years can make.

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