On Monday March 20, 1882, Columbus Mayor C.E. Dancy received a telegram of distress from the mayor of Aberdeen. Dancy quickly assembled an emergency meeting of the Columbus City Council and informed its members that the mayor of Aberdeen had notified him: “that a destructive and devastating fire is now prevailing in our sister city and has appealed to us to send such aid as we can.” The council immediately authorized the Columbus fire chief to send “the Lurline Steam Fire Company, the Hook and Ladder trucks with a select company of 25 men” to the aid of Aberdeen. The Hook and Ladder Company had navy blue uniforms with gold trim and silver “FD” buttons.
In Aberdeen there had been “three handsome two story brick store houses, built six years ago (1876), upon the ground covered previously by the old Presbyterian church. The center store was that of Eckford & Bro. with the stores of Honea and Elliott on either side.”
Late on Monday, March 20, 1882, R.B. Burdine, an employee of Eckford, went into the store’s cellar in order to get a gallon of varnish from a storage barrel there. Burdine was carrying a lantern, which he set on the floor next to the barrel of varnish. When he tilted the barrel forward, it slipped from his hand pouring varnish on the lantern and the floor. The Aberdeen Weekly reported that “it caught (fire) and burned like August stubble in a gale.”
The fire quickly spread to the adjoining stores of T.G. Elliott and Honea & Son. Within 40 minutes, Eckford’s “was in ruins” and all of downtown was threatened. A strong southerly wind carried burning debris to the north side of the street catching the residence of Mrs. Whitfield, though 100 yards away, on fire.
Miraculously the Aberdeen fire companies, though with “inadequate means” but with the assistance of many Aberdeen citizens, was able after about two hours to contain the fire and prevent it from spreading further. But the toll of the fire was terrible. The Aberdeen Weekly reported “the aggregate loss, over insurance, will foot up from $12,000 to $15,000. A Memphis newspaper put the loss at $15,000. The Weekly went on to say: “Eckford suffers most, Honea next, and other losses distributed to Elliott, Fieldman, Rouselle, Mrs. Gillespie, Kimmell, Weiler, Haas & Kraus and Drs. Green & Sale.”
The Aberdeen “Colored Fire Company” was specifically praised for working “faithfully and bravely” but their equipment was found to have been inadequate. Their “engine is perhaps good of its kind, but the kind is worthless.” The Weekly called for better fire protection for Aberdeen, and because the Colored Company was provided with an inferior engine and hose, a new steam fire engine should be purchased.
The spring of 1882 was a terribly disastrous time for Aberdeen. On the morning of May 9, 1882, another fire swept Aberdeen. It started in the frame kitchen of the European House, and strong winds quickly spread the fire to nearby buildings. Soon, not only the European House but also the store buildings of Oldshue & McMillan, Holliday, and McFarland were in flames and destroyed by the fire. In addition the frame house and shop of Mr. Genevay, a gunsmith, was torn down to stop the spread of the fire.
On May 12, the Aberdeen Weekly reported: “Fires like murders, robberies, and hangings, must be epidemic. Aberdeen has had the fire epidemic badly this year, seven fires since the 1st of January, two of which came nigh destroying the town in toto.”
Rufus Ward is a local historian. Email your questions about local history to him at email@example.com.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.