Monday marks the 100th anniversary of what has become known as the “The Great Aberdeen Fire of 1918,” which destroyed most of the buildings in the heart of Aberdeen on Feb. 5, 1918.
In marking the anniversary, the city’s weekly online e-newsletter notes:
“During the morning of February 5, 1918, fire broke out on Bel Air Avenue when an oil stove exploded in the Adams and Rigdon Grocery Store and Butcher Shop,” which was along Bel Air Avenue near the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks (today’s Amtrak).
“The fire quickly spread to neighboring buildings. Unfortunately, the public water system and hydrants were frozen from intense cold.”
According to a retrospective published in the Aberdeen Museum ReView in 2014:
“It was an exceptionally frigid day, and the stove had been left burning to prevent the water pipes from freezing. Fanned by high winds, the fire quickly spread to the adjoining frame buildings on Bel Air Avenue.
“The wood structures were rapidly consumed like kindling, and the fire grew to major proportions.”
“Normally, the public water system and hydrants that were installed in 1897 would have eased the work of bringing water to the fire scene – rather than having to rely on the old-fashioned “bucket brigade” method from the nearest stream. However, because of the intense cold, water in the fire plugs and hoses froze,” explains the retrospective in the review, published by the Aberdeen Room Archives and Museum.
Fire companies responded from Aberdeen and Aberdeen Proving Ground, the latter just a few months old. Their first efforts involved lighting fires around the hydrants to thaw them. Aberdeen fledgling public water system was supplied by wells.
According to the city’s e-newsletter and the museum review, on the east side of the downtown area, along Front Street (today’s norbound lanes of Route 40, or Philadelphia Boulevard, at the Amtrak station parking lot), firemen dried to douse flames coming from Hunway & Gibson’s Mercantile general store with snow and chunks of ice.
Hunway & Gibson’s was next door to Rigdon’s where the fire started, and flames from the latter. At this point, the fire was still relatively small, according to the museum retrospective, but then fate intervened in a not-so-kind manner.
A thawed hydrant was found beyond the tracks, so a hose was stretched across the tracks to the burning buildings, only to have a Pennsylvania Railroad train pass and shred the hose before the water could be turned on.
“The hose was spliced back together as much as it could be and small amounts of water started to pour,” according to the e-newsletter account. “Unbelievably, another train came past and the hose was cut once more.
“One of the stores under fire was Tarring's Hardware, which stocked dynamite. Once the sparks reached it, there was an explosion, which spread flames to other buildings, some of which exploded from intense heat.”
The fire was finally brought under control; however, according to the Aberdeen Museum ReView account, every building along the south side of Bel Air Avenue from the train station to the location of today’s post office was destroyed, some 10 structures in all.
The fire was so hot at one point, according to the review, that a safe inside Strasbaugh & Silver Brokerage exploded, according to the review. Miraculously, there was no loss of life nor serious personal injury reported.
Damage from the fire was estimated at $100,000, a significant amount at the time, according to the review.
Two structures to the east of Rigdon’s where the fire originated, a coal yard and the PRR station, did not catch fire.
According to the account in the museum review, the railroad’s station agent at Aberdeen had advised the railroad of the situation, but for reasons not clear, the trains continued to run through the town.
Hunway’s sued the railroad, claiming the damage to the fire hoses by passing trains and led to destruction of its building, but the sut went for naught. According to the review, the railroad claimed, successfully in the eyes of the court, that the station agent in Aberdeen had no authority to stop trains. Neither Hunway’s or Rigdon’s was rebuilt.
But rebuilding started almost immediately to the west of Front Street, according to the review.
In 1919, an Odd Fellows Hall was the first structure to be completed, which housed meeting rooms for the Odd Fellows and Masons on the top two floors and a general store and post office on the first floor, according to the review. Ironically, that brick and block building would be destroyed by a fire in January 1976.
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Other new structures in the burned out part of town followed, but it wouldn’t be until 1927 that the area was fully rebuilt.