While organizing my paper files and records this weekend, I found a gem that I had previously overlooked: a photocopy of a newspaper article from 1899 describing a heroic act by one of my ancestors.
According to my mother and my uncle, my maternal great-grandfather, Joseph R. “Pappa Joe” Allen (born about 1866) was the auditor for the city of Columbia, South Carolina in the 1890s and a Major in the South Carolina Militia (which later became the National Guard). A fire on the evening of 30 March 1899 destroyed the city hall, but Pappa Joe went into the burning building and risked his own life to retrieve valuable city records. To see a photo of Columbia’s Main Street as it appeared some time before 1900, with the old city hall in the background, click here. The explanatory notes accompanying the photograph mention the fire that destroyed the old city hall. The image is part of the Richland County (SC) Public Library Flickr stream and Local History Digital Library. I’d like to thank Debbie Bloom, Manager of the Walker Local History Room at RCPL for being so courteous and enthusiastic in granting permission to post the link. You can find her blog, “The Dead Librarian,” newly added to the blogroll over there on the right
In 1999, my uncle Eddie sent me a photocopy of the original newspaper story about the fire (probably from a microfilm reel) as reported by The State, Columbia’s leading newspaper, in their morning edition of 31 March 1899. I found the photocopy hard to read, so I put it aside and largely forgot about it—until Sunday
I still found the photocopy hard to read for a variety of reasons: parts of it were illegible, and the original newspaper broadsheet must have been much wider than standard, U. S. letter sized sheets of paper, making it difficult to copy the story legibly. I decided to read and transcribe as much of the article as I could, and once I started, I found it a fascinating and sometimes unintentionally amusing piece of cultural history. Even though the events it described were tragic, the highly overwrought, florid, and sentimental 19th century language and writing style sometimes make it hard for a modern reader to take the story seriously. Here, for example, are the original headlines and the opening three paragraphs. I retained the original spelling and punctuation:
FLAMES SPREAD WITH SPEED OF PRAIRIE FIRE.–Columbia’s City Hall and Opera House Totally Destroyed–DARING CITY OFFICIALS SAVE SOME OF THE VALUABLE RECORDS–Telegraphic Communication Cut Off for Several Hours—Firemen’s Splendid Work Prevents a General Conflagration in the Heart of the City—The Complete Story.Columbia is today and for the time being a city without her electric fire alarm and police headquarters, fire alarm bell, opera house, Postal Telegraph office, armory, veterans headquarters, lodge rooms, public library and police courtrooms, not to mention the business houses lost. For a time last night it looked as if the most important section of the business centre [sic] of the city was to be laid in ashes despite the heroic and untiring efforts of the firemen to check flames that spread with the startling rapidity of a prairie fire. At times it seemed inevitable that hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property was going to ascend in smoke, for the wind blew strong south by southwest and the shower of red hot embers was continuous and alarming.Not since the historic visitation of Sherman to Columbia has the capital of South Carolina seen such a conflagration as that which cast a lurid glare over the heavens for two hours last evening and sent millions of glowing embers hundreds of feet into the smoke-filled air, only to descend with the picturesqueness of one of Pain’s most beautiful fiery showers. There have been fires here, perhaps resulting in as great a money loss, but none have equalled [sic] the display of last evening.Columbia’s city hall building at the corner of Main and Washington streets has been completely destroyed by fire: it is now a great heap of ruins and in the smouldering [sic] pile are the ashes of many valuable records and plenty of other costly property, including a collection of theatrical scenery that it has taken years to accumulate. As a result the city is temporarily without her fire and police systems and many other inconveniences to the public will result.
The article goes on at great length to explain the history and condition of the building, and the way the fire was detected and fought, but only much later does the writer explain that the cause of the fire was unknown:
It may have been a cigarette stump thrown down by some of the stage hands, or it may have been a defective electric wire, or a match nibbled by a rat. No effort to ascertain the origin has been of any avail.
The difficult problem was the saving of the absolutely necessary city rec[ords?] . . . auditor deserves the thanks of the city. Mr. Allen got to the building before any water was thrown and immediately entered the auditor’s office, got all of the auditor’s books and papers and all of the city clerk’s that were not in the safe, the tax books and minute books running back for a period of 10 or 11 years, carried them to the front of the building and threw them through a window of the council chamber. While there the smoke was almost stifling and the heavy weights from the bell tower fell tumbling within 10 feet of him, but nothing daunted he remained long enough to accomplish his purpose and crawled out the building on a ladder placed over McKay’s back door. He was repeatedly urged to come down but he remained long enough to finish throwing the balance of the books out of the back window. But for Mr. Allen a great many valuable records would have been lost.