Thursday, December 12, 2013

It All Went Like Tinder: Fire Destroys First Presbyterian Church 1883

The total destruction of the First Presbyterian church by fire last night is a heavy loss to the entire Presbyterian element in this city, and is a matter of general and sincere regret.  It is the more distressing because there is very little insurance.  There are a number of wealthy members in the church, but still it will be a heavy undertaking to restore the building.  Other churches and denominations, and the general public will no doubt contribute liberally toward the rebuilding of the edifice.  It is very surprising that business men, who manage the secular affairs of the church, would carry so little insurance.  Perhaps some will say in a spirit of levity or thoughtlessness that church officers trust to the Lord; but it is a practical fact that the Lord seems to give the preference to those who make a proper effort to take care of themselves.  Much church property might be classified as extra hazardous, the same as cotton gins, from the fact that at the end of services, night or day, the church is instantly emptied and left in charge of a janitor, who is usually a negro, often sleepy headed and always on small pay.  In this particular instance we are informed that a large fire was made in the furnace Saturday evening, so as to have the whole house comfortable by Sunday.  This fire was replenished and kept up all day yesterday, so that when some of the dry woodwork happened to take fire it all went like tinder.  Had there been a big congregation in the church at the time it caught there might have been a large loss of life.  Very few church officers make it their duty to remain after congregations disperse even though there is a roaring fire in the furnace or stoves.  We sincerely sympathize with Rev. Dr. Daniels and the members of his church, but hope they will be able to rebuild without great delay or inconvenience.
Originally posted in the Public Ledger January 15, 1883, page 1

In Ruins
Burning of the First Presbyterian Church Last Night
Public Ledger, Jan 15 1883


The First Presbyterian church, situated on the northwest corner of Third and Poplar streets was totally destroyed by fire, between nine and ten o'clock, last night.

It was but a few moments after the pastor, the Rev. Eugene Daniels, had dismissed his congregation, and while the gas lights were in progress of extinguishment by the sexton, that the fire was discovered, and the alarm sounded.  The wooden portion of the edifice was exceedingly dry and the flames made rapid headway, so that by the time the fire engines arrived, the upper portion of the structure was all ablaze.

An immense crowd of people gathered in the vicinity of the conflagration.  Third street, for more than three squares, was thronged, while Poplar street a crowd so dense that persons found it difficult to make a passage through, except in the vicinity of the fire, where the heat was too intense to be withstood.  The firemen worked with their accustomed energy and celerity, but the combustible nature of the material in the church was such that nothing could be done toward suppressing the flames until everything, save a few charred timbers was converted into ashes.  The organ, a favorite and very valuable instrument to which the congregation was very much attached, and situated in the basement of the church, together with all the furniture, books and other fixtures was totally destroyed.

The two towers situated at the front of the structure, one of which served as a belfry, seemed to act like the chimney or smoke stacks of a foundry, and a strong current of air passing up the massive flues, carried sparks and cinders high toward the skies, to be scattered in myriads upon the houses, the streets and the people as they descended, and affording a spectacle to be remembered by those who witnessed it.

The origin of the fire was supposed to be the furnace used to warm up the building.  The severity of the weather had caused orders to be given to the man in charge to have the church well warmed.  with this object he kept the furnaces in operation during Saturday evening and night.  Last evening the congregation met for worship at half-past seven, and the pastor, Mr. Daniel concluded an hour later, dismissing his audience.  A moment after he reached his residence next door, the sexton ran to him and said something over at the church was burning.  The Rev. Mr. Daniel, with the sexton at once ran to the rear door at the church, by which they entered the furnace room, and found a streak of fire above the brick work of the furnace.  The sexton hastened at the top of his speed to the Adams street enginehouse, and in a few minutes the apparatus arrived at the spot, but it was too late, and by nine o'clock the flames, which fanned by a brisk norther-east wind, made short its work of destruction.  the firemen did excellent and manful service, without avail.  The manse, or pastor's residence, next door, and other buildings in the vicinity all escaped uninjured. 

The First Presbyterian Church was a fine structure for devotional purposes, and was built nearly thirty years ago, either in '53 or '54, at a cost of something like thirty thousand dollars.  It has been kept in good repair all the time since then except for a short period, in 1873, when the inside ceiling tumbled down, a few minutes after holding the funeral services over the remains of its lamented pastor, the Rev. Mr. Bowman, who fell a victim to the scourge of '73 while administering comfort to the suffering and dying of that terrible period.  The pastor of the church preceeding Mr. Bowman was the Rev. M. Steadman.  After Mr. Bowman's death the church had no pastor for some time, but since 1875 the present talented and much respected pastor, the Rev. Eugene Daniel, has occupied the pulpit.

The estimated loss by last night's fire is $25,000 or $30,000, unless the brick walls, which are yet standing can be utilized in rebuilding, in which case perhaps $15,000 or $20,000 would replace it.  There was but $3,000 insurance on the church, all laid in the Manchester (England) Company, of which C.B. Welford & Co. are agents.  The congregation of the First Presbyterian Church is known as containing many of the wealthiest people in the community, and it is probable that the work of rebuilding the edifice will not be long delayed.  The church was free from debt, and the financial condition of the worshipers is such that they will not be without a church very long.
Originally posted in the Public Ledger Jan. 15 1883, page 4.

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