An old Bible was all that was saved from the ruins of the St. Stephen Lutheran Church in New Kingstown.
Parishioner Charles Hetrick kept the holy text from burning in a 1911 fire some believe was deliberately set by an incendiary, which was then an old term for an arsonist.
One local resident climbed the belfry where he continued to ring the alarm even as flames enveloped the roof. The man escaped after a firefighter notified him of the peril.
While there were no reports of deaths, The Sentinel mentioned that Claster Miller was struck on the head by a brick falling from a crumbling wall of what had been one of the finest country churches in the Cumberland Valley.
The fire had started around 5 p.m. on Saturday, July 15, 1911. By the time it was put out, the blaze had consumed the church, five homes, seven stables, a hog pen and an ice house.
Preliminary estimates put the total loss at $50,000 or roughly $1.2 million in today’s money, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator.
The fire set in motion a chain of events that saw New Kingstown form a volunteer fire company within 11 months, complete with a horse-drawn engine and a new station house.
But first the residents had to endure the agony of loss.
‘A mass of flames’
Effie Frownfelter worked as a housekeeper for George Reed, the town butcher. She was outside feeding her chickens when she discovered a fire in her employer’s stable.
A strong west wind soon carried the burning embers to adjoining buildings to the east, starting with the home of Constable David C. Shank.
The fire soon spread along a 100-foot swath northeast across the street to the shingle roof of the brick church. Built around 1880, this house of worship was one of the largest in that part of the valley, measuring 60 feet high, 50 feet wide and 100 feet long.
“In a few moments the roof of this big building was a mass of flames,” The Sentinel reported. “Shortly afterward, the wind changed to the north and east and carried the fire back in the direction it came.”
Four homes were directly in the path of the flames, including the residence of Shank, which housed a small store and restaurant. He lost everything.
Dr. Frank Ritchie lost not only his home and all its furnishings but also his medical supplies, surgical instruments, books, formulas and valuable papers. His was the largest individual loss at $5,000 back then, or about $123,700 present-day.
When Mrs. Swartz insisted on staying in her home to remove valuables, four men had to come in to drag her to safety. The Sentinel reported that on July 17, 1911, she was exhibiting signs of severe nervous shock from her narrow escape.
Nothing remained of the church except for portions of the brick walls damaged by the extreme heat. “The beautiful pipe organ, practically new, the handsome pews, carpets, etc., all went up in smoke,” the news story reads.
A turn to hope
The Sentinel was not the only paper present.
The Daily Journal of Mechanicsburg reported that West Main Street of New Kingstown was filled with excited people as a bucket brigade was formed to combat the flames. Little progress was made as the air currents shifted and buildings once thought as safe were suddenly in danger.
What followed was utter chaos as firefighters from Carlisle and Mechanicsburg rushed to the scene to render aid with the apparatus of the day.
“The scene was quite distressing when the fire was at its greatest and bade fair to wipe out the town,” the Journal reported. “To see men, women and children running through the streets of the town wringing their hands and uttering their cries of despair.”
But that is where the helplessness ended.
“New Kingstown’s wide awake and progressive citizens are determined to have some kind of fire protection,” the Sentinel reported on Wednesday, July 19. “That’s settled. The town is by far too large to do without it longer. The risks run are too great. There have been too many disastrous fires.”
The Sentinel coverage mentioned that suspected arson fire in New Kingstown in early July destroyed two stables, a butcher shop and two hog pens.
Residents met on July 18, in a local social hall where the Rev. Joel E. Grubb appointed a committee to gather cost estimates on what it would take to purchase fire apparatus and to install a public water supply system using a spring located a quarter mile away.
Five months later, on Dec. 22, 1911, town residents decided to organize and charter the New Kingstown Fire Company, according to its official online history. Starting on Feb. 1, 1912, a 10-day fair was held in the social hall to raise money for the fledgling organization.
That March, fair proceeds were used to purchase the company’s first apparatus: an engine that could be pulled by hand or by horses. Mounted on the engine were two 35-gallon tanks, two small extinguishers and 200 feet of hose.
Three months later, on June 20, 1912, the first New Kingstown firehouse was dedicated at 54 W. Main St. It was used by the company until 1957, when the operation moved to its current location on North Locust Point Road.
What started off as a replacement for a bucket brigade has evolved into an organization that protects not just the village, but helps protect all of Silver Spring Township, along with portions of the townships of Middlesex and Monroe.
While in 1912, this fire company got by with a horse-drawn chemical engine. Today it has two engines, a tanker, a minipumper, a traffic unit, a utility vehicle and a fire chief’s vehicle.