Civil War Blog

A project of PA Historian

Harrisburg Burning

Posted By on March 20, 2014


The skies of Harrisburg lit up on the morning of 15 June 1865.  A fire had broken out in coach-maker J. R. Fleming‘s two-story building at Third Street and Strawberry Alley.  It quickly spread to several other buildings.  The investigation quickly concluded that the fire was set by arsonists.

The Philadelphia Inquirer of 16 June 1865 reported the headlines:

HARRISBURG.  A Very Destructive Fire.  The Centre of the City in Flames.  It is the Work of Incendiaries.  The Loss $34,000.  Insurance $7500.  PRINTING OFFICE BURNED OUT.  Coach Factory Destroyed.  Explosion of a Bomb-Shell – The Alarm.

A fire broke out here this morning , at about half-past two o’clock, in the coach manufactory of J. R. Fleming, corner of Third Street and Strawberry Alley.  When discovered, the fire was burning at three different places in the establishment.  It was, no doubt, the work of incendiaries.  Everybody was in such confusion of mind at the time that before anything could be done the fire had spread to the adjoining buildings. The coaching establishment was very large, and built entirely of wood, two stories high.  The material in the shops, and the building itself, were, of course, very inflammable.  The surrounding buildings were also frame.

The Scene.

Before many minutes had elapsed five houses were in flames.  The lurid glare of the fire was terrible in the dark night.  The people assembled slowly.  The town was hard to awaken at that hour, consequently no property was saved from the burning elements.  In the rear of the coach establishment was a billiard saloon and ten-pin alley, three stories, owned by Mr. Joseph Poulton.  This caught fire immediately.  There were four or five billiard tables and other furniture of value, in this establishment.  Nothing was saved.  In the rear of this was a tenement house, occupied by an invalid widow lady named Welshhaus and her daughter, who were awakened and rescue while the home was burning.  She lost everything she had on earth.  In the rear of these was the prison wall, against and over which the raging flames lapped their fiery tongues in perfect fury.  Fortunately the prison roof was metallic, otherwise it would have been destroyed in the flames that played over it.

To the left of the coach establishment, on Third Street, was the news agency of Mr. H. J. Hess, which caught with the rest. Further to the left was the plumber and gas-fitting establishment of Mr. J. Parkhill and the residence of his son, William.  Nothing was saved in any of these buildings.

The Inquirer then described the arrival of the firemen:

It was not until about half-past three o’clock that the steam and hand engines could be brought into play.  The flames had then reached the printing establishment of the Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, a three-story brick building.  Huge fire brands were carried to roofs for squares around.  Several buildings, two and three squares away were on fire —–.  The Harris House, Brant’s City Hall, Mrs. Bank’s row and several other houses, all of brick, and adjoining the burning district, were considerably damaged.

The Alarm.

The people in the vicinity were terribly alarmed.  Men and women ran hither and thither, while furniture, household articles, and merchandise were thrown around in —–, as is generally the case on occasions like this.

A bomb shell taken from the Battlefield of Gettysburg, which was lying in Mr. Parkhill’s yard, exploded at a time when the fire was making terrible headway.  A portion of the shell was carried as far as South Street, a distance of some five squares, striking the ground near Huber’s Meat Shop.

The Surrounding Property.

As soon as the firemen arrived on the ground and got their machines to work, they bent all their energies to saving the surrounding property.  Streams of water were kept playing on the buildings in the vicinity.  The roof of the printing office was now in full blaze.  It was evident that if the fire got beyond this building the whole square would go, with, perhaps, many valuable building beyond.  Fortunately the flames were conquered here, not, however, before the upper story was entirely burned out.  In this story all the newspaper type were destroyed. All the type on the third floor and in the attic was melted, and the machinery, furniture, and cetera, burned.  The jobbing and press-rooms and the editorial and reporters’ departments, on the first and second floors, though flooded with water, were not seriously damaged.

The photograph (above) of the second steam fire engine which had arrived in Harrisburg for the Hope Engine Company earlier in 1865 is from the Facebook page of the Pennsylvania National Fire Museum.  It is probably one of the engines that was used to put out the fire.

The Inquirer article continued:

Much credit is due an old Philadelphia fireman, Archibald Battis, who was the first to ascend a building in the vicinity with a stream from the Hope Engine, and by his gallantry and presence of mind, no doubt did valuable service in arresting the flames at the printing office.

The Damage and Loss.

The dwelling houses, the coach factory, the billiard saloon and news agency were entirely destroyed, together with one story of the printing office.  Three buildings were damaged….

A table then followed indicating the specific loss of each of the parties and the amount of insurance.  The total loss after insurance was about $26,000.

The “Telegraph.”

New Types have been ordered from Philadelphia for the Telegraph and the steam press will soon be put in order, so that in a few days the paper will again be issued.

Mr. Fleming’s Loss.

Is a total one.  It is not covered by one cent of insurance, and embraces his whole fortune.  He cannot aassign any reason for this work on the part of the indendiaries.  He cannot of course trace it to any particular person or persons.  Mr. Gross, who first discovered it, knows nothing of the origination of the fire. When he was endeavoring to gain admission to the building to extinguish the flames, he saw two men, evidently intoxicated, standing on the corner, who refused to assist him, and shortly afterwards they disappeared.

This Morning.

Crowds of people collected around the burned district, which embraces about half the square.  The charred and blackened mas of rubbish and ruin makes a gash in the very heart of the city.  In its immediate vicinity are many of the most costly structures, so that had the flames spread further, say two squared further on either side, four hundred thousand dollars would not have covered the loss.

Ironically, the 103rd Pennsylvania Infantry, Second Company G, from the Lykens Valley, which had left Harrisburg amid the Great Flood which had occurred in March 1865, were scheduled to be discharged at New Bern, North Carolina, on 25 June 1865 and then return to Harrisburg to receive their final pay.



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