The Bradford (Pa.) Era, Friday, May 1, 1903, pg. 1


Much Property Destroyed in This Vicinity


It Forced the Fire to Move Rapidly Upon Its Devastating Course - Could Not Be Checked.


It Was a Day of Stress and Turmoil In the Oil Districts of the Big Level - Rescue Trains Conveyed People

From Their Threatened Homes - Oil Well Owners and Chemical Companies Heavy Losers.

The forest fires that ravaged McKean and adjoining counties, yesterday, were record-breaking conflagrations of their kind. They had for days been threatened. The warm spring winds of the past week had dried out the dead leaves and grass and conditions were extremely favorable for the coming of the consuming element. Yesterday morning an accelerated breeze soon developed into a steady and forceful gale. The smoke that hung in the valleys became denser. And as the day wore on it seemed to fill the whole sky, obscuring the sun until the solar orb became a wine-red globe in a yellowish, hazy firmament. Lights were necessary in Bradford buildings in the afternoon and each flaming jet seemed strangely white in the atmospheric conditions that had developed. There was a peculiar depression produced by the smoky darkness of the day which affected everybody.

Out in the forest where the oil wells are located and where valuable property was being transformed into the smoke which filled the atmosphere, exciting scenes were being enacted. To the South of the city, over a wide area, it was a day of alarm, turmoil, suffering and loss, to many people.

In desperate energy men struggled to rake leaves away from the path of the flames so as to save property, but the wind easily lifted the seething masses of fire from place to place and the efforts of the fire fighters were without avail. The flames did their work with a fury indescribable. They rolled as high as the tops of derricks and trees. They had the speed of the wind to back them. When an oil rig was enmeshed in the fiery overflow, there was a mighty roar as the flames shot upward and the volatile contents of the tanks added energy to the fire fiend’s pastimes. An occasional bursting boiler gave side effects that were startling. And people who found themselves in front of the onrushing flames knew that in speedy flight was their only hope of escape.

It is actually marvelous in view of the extent of the fires and the quickness with which they leaped and tumbled from point to point, that some of the hundreds of men who were striving to save property were not cremated. But so far as can be learned, there was no loss of life.

As to the total losses, estimates are all that can be used at present. One guess as to the aggregate of losses is $800,000. Other estimates are more conservative. But it will be found when the total counting of the cost is done, that the figures will be extremely large, whatever the actual sums may be. In the evening the wind, which had been blowing from the Southeast, shifted to an opposite direction and then the temperature fell and later there was rain, followed during the night by snow. Never was moisture from the clouds more welcome. It extinguished the fires and stopped their havoc.


Telephone connection with the Klondike-Watsonville district, in which are 189 oil rigs belonging to the South Penn Oil Co., and 50 wells owned by L.E. Mallory & Co., was lost shortly after 3 o’clock yesterday afternoon and the fate of the inhabitants of the little village of Klondike and the oil property, was unknown until 11 o’clock last night when word was received to the effect that everything was safe, the only loss being that of two derricks owned by Mallory & Co. The district was almost completely surrounded by fire and all efforts to send relief to the place proved fruitless, the men being compelled to turn back after reaching the scene of destruction.

The losses to oil property, according to the most authentic information obtainable late last night, will reach a grand total of 711 derricks, as follows: South Penn oil company, 205; Associated Producers company, 125; R.J. Straight, 62; E.A. Boyne, 20; McKeown Estate, 107; Bartley & Co., 12; Emery Oil company, 40: Mallory & Co, 2; Clough & Davis; 16; Newton Hunter, 40; A.C. Hawkins, 17; G. Fessenden, 2; George Kabor, 2: _Anderson, 12; C.P. Byron, 49.


The forest fires were of double origin, one starting in the vicinity of Nansen, Glen Hazel and McCray in Forest county, and extended northeast to Kushequa, Hutchins and Mt. Jewett. Reports were current that Nansen and McCray were destroyed, involving the destruction of about 300 dwellings, and millions of feet of valuable timber. No loss of life was reported.

The second fire covered a section of the county extending from Marshburg eastward, to Big Shanty, Dents, Bingham, Cyclone, Simpson, Watsonville, Ormsby, Davis, Van Vleck and intermediate sections.

Incipient fires had been in evidence for several days and every preparation had been made by the operators in the various districts for a material conflagration. The pipe line companies had been working night and day running oil and the employees in the threatened districts suspended pumping operations and devoted their energies to fighting fire. Yesterday morning the wind blew a strong, steady gale and within a few hours the entire region was a mass of flame and smoke.

Dispatches were sent to Bradford for relief and all the available men in the city, numbering about 300, were sent into the woods to assist in saving the threatened property. The Bingham tract which proved a prey to the forest fires in 1900, was again visited and the flames swept over thousands of acres of land with unheard of fury, burning derricks, steam boxes, boiler houses, tanks, cord wood and trees like tinder. The hurricane gale made the work of the emergency rescue corps entirely fruitless in nearly every instance, and at several places the men had considerable difficulty in saving their own lives, being practically caught in traps, in consequence of the antics of the shifting winds. The flames presented a magnificent spectacle, rushing through the woods, to the height of the trees and derricks, carrying complete desolation and destruction before them, with a fury which no human hand could stay.


The lumbermen and chemical factories lost heavily, thousands of cords of cut wood being burned in addition to the destruction of valuable timber tracts. The heaviest losers are as follows: John Bartley, near Bingham, 5,000 cords; R.J. Gates at Marshburg, 7,000 cords; Greenewald & Co, 7,000 cords; Lewis Run Manufacturing Co., 3,000 cords; Lafayette Chemical Co., 2,000 cords; W. Lynch, 1,000 cords; W.A. Percival, 4,000 cords; W.W. Smith and Nusbaum & Co., 5,000 cords. Small jobbers in various parts of the county lost their entire output of chemical wood. The Gates and Percival lumber camps in the Marshburg district were completely destroyed and the employees and their families were compelled to seek refuge at Marshburg and Hazelton’s mill, the flight being so sudden that but little of their personal belongings or household furnishings were saved from the flames.

The school building and the residence of George Gillette, at Bingham, and two small dwellings near Simpson, owned by men named Ward and Johnson, were also wiped out by the fire, the loss being entire.


At noon the destruction of Simpson was imminent, and Supt. O.F. Thompson of the Associated Producers Company, telegraphed to Supt. Campbell of the B.,B.&K. railway, for a special train to transport the residents to a place of safety. Conductor Brenneman, with three coaches, was immediately sent to the stricken village and 125 persons were placed aboard the cars and brought to Bradford and intermediate places. The scenes attending the leaving of the homes were pitiful in the extreme. In the excitement and bustle some of the women and children left their domiciles poorly clad and many pathetic scenes were enacted, under the supposition that they were departing from their homes for the last time. The town was nearly hemmed in by fire and the smoke had become so dense that it was almost suffocating. In the distance huge flames, reaching to the tree tops, could be seen darting fiery tongues skyward, through the black clouds of smoke, the blaze slowly and threateningly working its way toward the little village. Conductor Bogart’s train, enroute from Bradford to Mt. Jewett, was stopped at Ormsby, as reports had been received that it would be impossible to reach the mountain borough, in consequence of the forest fires. The train was subsequently returned to Simpson, and three trips were made between the latter place and Aiken, for the benefit of the residents, carrying them away to places of safety. At times the smoke was so dense that it was impossible to see five feet ahead and at various periods the impression was rife that the train was enmeshed in the blaze, owing to the nearness of the flames from either side of the tracks, and the intense heat resulting. A number refused to leave their homes, vowing to perish with them rather than be beggared, and others remained in the belief that the destruction of the town could be averted. Fortunately their efforts were successful, and aided by the rain which set in about 7 o’clock, the entire village was saved with the exception of a barn.


It was feared at noon that the entire West Branch district, which includes holdings of about 25 individual operators, in addition to the lumber interests involved, was doomed to destruction. A large force of men as at once dispatched to the section and by prompt and well directed efforts the flames were confined to the timber lands. It is not believed that a single derrick was burned in that district. The men employed in fighting the fire returned to Bradford last night, as the rain had overcome the danger for the present.

In the vicinity of Bingham, on the B.R.&P., the forest fire raged with terrible fury throughout the day, threatening the station there and also at Boyer, with destruction. B.R.&P. trains were unable to use the tracks between Bingham and Mt. Jewett, and the company’s traffic was diverted to the Erie lines, between the latter place and Howard Junction. The South Penn Oil company lost 100 rigs in the Davis-Simpson section and late last night the local officials were apprised of the loss of 25 derricks at Ormsby. E.A. Boyne, George Kabor, and Clough & Davis also lost heavily in the Davis district. Near Song Bird, the Hawkins lease was overrun by fire shortly before noon, and within an hour 17 rigs were burned to the ground. In the Riderville and Big Shanty fields, R.J. Straight, the McKeown estate, Emery Oil Company, John Bartley, and the South Penn lost nearly their entire possessions in those districts. Big Shanty and P.C.L. town were almost completely surrounded by fire and the residents worked like Trojans to save their houses from destruction. Several times houses in both towns became ignited, but the owners succeeded in quenching the flames.


The task of fighting the fire had about become a hopeless one, last evening, and the operators had abandoned all hopes of saving their property when a light rain set it, subsequently developing into a steady downpour of material proportions. It was sufficient, however, to stay the progress of the flames and at a late hour last night reports received from various parts of the county stated that the fires were under control and that no additional damage was apprehended. But for the rain, the doom of several towns was sealed, as it would have been impossible to have remained in the villages another 12 hours, owing to the smoke alone, and in the cases of Big Shanty, P.C.L. Town, Bingham, Simpson and Klondike, the flames had about surrounded the places and were destroying property at the very doorsteps of the residences.

At Lafayette the flames did but little damages aside from destroying timber lands. Near Enterprise the South Penn Oil company lost 600 feet of steam boxes, but no derricks were burned.

The Kushequa valley is being devastated by the forest fires, which are causing more destruction than in years previous to the present conflagration. Between Ormsby and Smethport the hills are covered with flames and smoke, and the B.,B.&K. trestle has been damaged so badly that traffic over it will have to be suspended pending needed repairs. Nansen, McCray and Marienville are reported as being totally destroyed, and a telegram from Glen Hazel states that the town is nearly surrounded by fire and that two houses had been burned on Straight Creek, near the latter town. Straights was also in danger of destruction and the lumber interests in the vicinity of these places suffered heavy losses.


“The fury of the fire at about 4:30 o’clock in the vicinity of the B.,B.&K. road beyond Davis City, was indescribable,” said Charles P. Byron, who was a passenger on the special rescue train. “We desired to get as far as Simpson, but it was then too late. The fire threatened to do harm to whatever crossed its path and it was necessary to keep the train at a reasonable distance. The air was full of choking smoke. The locomotive whistle kept blowing to attract possible sufferers who might be groping about in the woods. The roaring of the flames as they seized upon the oil soaked derricks and swirled upward or burst from tanks in fierce masses was unnerving. And added to the din was the occasional explosion of a boiler. People were panic-stricken and no wonder. Women and children who were forced to leave their homes behind them were pitiable to behold. At that time it was expected that there would not be a house left in Simpson.

“Supt. Campbell of the B.,B.&K., and his assistants, did splendid work in aiding the people to get out of danger and cannot be praised too highly. “It was a trip into a burning mountain and I must say that I for one do not desire to repeat the journey.”

Bradford was never “smoked up” so thoroughly as it was yesterday.

Several Italian families living at Minard Run, were burned out.

Mrs. Scott, whose home is on a lease in the vicinity of Big Shanty, was alone with her little daughter when the flames threatened her home with destruction. She called by telephone, for help and there were rumors that she had perished. Fortunately the rumors were not true.

Teams were in demand at Lewis Run yesterday evening to take fire fighters to the scenes of their labors, but no teams were at hand. Several had gone up the road and were unable to return. The flames had stopped traffic.

Efforts made to communicate last night, with Mt. Jewett, were unavailing. Various rumors were afloat about the fire there, but details could not be obtained. Mt. Alton reported that two buildings had been burned at Mt. Jewett and that by good work of firemen further losses were averted.

The fire was near to Mt. Alton, but was prevented from doing any damage there.

The glycerine factory beyond Custer City was in danger of destruction during the afternoon and there was a general preparation for trouble by removing goods from houses and taking other precautions. But the fire did not reach the plant and there was no disaster there such as was anticipated.

Conductor Bogart said that in all his experience in the section traversed by the B.B.&K. road, he never witnessed so fierce a fire as that of yesterday. Supt. McKinney and his able assistant, Bert Sage, of the South Penn Oil company, were busy men yesterday. And there were others.

Mrs. McIntyre, of Simpson, would not leave her home when others were getting out of town on the B.B.&K. relief train. She said she would stay there and keep the house from burning and kept her word.

Supt. John O’Brien of the National Transit Company, received a message last night from Colegrove, stating that the iron storage tanks at that place were surrounded by fire. A force of men was then employed in protecting the property and unless the wind shifted and resumed its hurricane demeanor, it was not believed that the tanks would be lost. At Routlette in Potter county, millions of feet of lumber and bark were destroyed and the flames, according to a telegram received from there, had entered new timber lands and were destroying thousands of dollars worth of property.

At midnight a report was received stating that at Portland Mills, near Ridgway, a tannery, sawmill, kindling-wood factory and six dwellings were destroyed by forest fires, entailing a loss upwards of $100,000, and throwing about 100 men out of employment.