CARLISLE — There was fear that morning the fire that was consuming local government could also wipe out the entire southeast quadrant of Carlisle.
Flames set by the mysterious arsonist had fully engulfed the town hall on the Square, which housed the only fire apparatus readily available for volunteers to use.
The sparks touched off a blaze in the Cumberland County courthouse next door, setting in motion a mad dash by civilians to enter every office and save every record possible before that building also collapsed in a smoldering heap of ash.
It was March 24, 1845, and town residents were in a fight for survival brought on by an assailant whose true identity may never be known. Local newspapers covered the disaster.
The struggle began after midnight when citizens were roused from slumber by shouts of “Fire!” “On repairing to the spot about 20 minutes to one, we discovered the Town Hall enveloped in flames,” The Pennsylvania Statesman reported.
A dozen men were hard at work trying to remove fire apparatus from storage on the first floor, but they were stymied by “the perpetrator of this dark deed of villainy,” The Carlisle Herald said. The newspaper explained that with “deliberate coolness,” the arsonist had foiled the initial response by securely lashing tightly together all the carriages of the apparatus.
“Those who were the first to discover and reach the fire tried to rescue them in vain from the flames!” The Herald said. “It was found impossible to get out more than one engine and this in a condition so damaged as to be unfit for use.” Hose carriages were also lost in the fire.
Carlisle in 1845 encompassed mostly the center part of town bordered by North, South, East and West streets, said Randy Watts, of Boiling Springs. “It was not industrialized and had no water system.”
A retired safety consultant for the insurance industry, Watts has experience as a volunteer firefighter and wrote a recent history on the Union Fire Company. Both the Union and Cumberland fire companies had two engines each in the town hall the morning of the fire.
Back then, the principal method of firefighting was by a bucket brigade serving an engine, Watts said. Well water collected from the chain of buckets was emptied into a tub and then pumped by hand onto the fire at a pressure greater than what could be achieved by buckets alone.
The seals on the piston pump serving the pressure chamber were typically made of leather and vulnerable to excessive heat or flame, Watts said. He believes the seals might have been damaged on the one engine that survived.
Even if local firefighters had access to the apparatus, the fire in the town hall had too much of a head start for the technology of the time, Watts said. He added the arsonist probably used straw, hay and kindling from a wood storage area on the first floor to lay down a bed of fuel for the flames.
Saving the town
Back then, buildings had less furniture and clutter so the rate of fire development within a structure tended to be slower, Watts said. He added the absence of plastic products meant there was no toxic smoke so it was safer for residents to enter and exit the courthouse to retrieve records.
Docket books, papers and documents recovered from the courthouse were taken to nearby homes for safekeeping as residents formed bucket brigades to fight the fire rapidly spreading from the northwest. The community effort was the only hope Carlisle had in the midst of desperation.
“The air was filled with burning cinders and flakes of flame, which a violent wind was carrying in dense masses over adjoining dwellings,” The Herald reported. “The scene now presented an appalling prospect — with no fire apparatus, no means of arresting the mad career of the devouring element, the full destruction of the whole southeastern portion of the town seemed inevitable.”
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Residents used buckets and wet blankets to dampen the roofs of buildings in the path of the wind. Several fires were reported at stores, homes and stables but were quickly put out. The southeast quadrant was also saved by the timely arrival of a fire apparatus operated by a federal artillery unit stationed at Carlisle Barracks.
The Herald, in its coverage, praised the citizenry for their “unremitting exertions and watchfulness” over the three-hour-long struggle to subdue the flames. “The preservation of a large and flourishing portion of our town seems almost miraculous,” the newspaper reported.
By 4 a.m., the danger had passed with much of the damage contained to the completely destroyed town hall and county courthouse, according to the American Volunteer, a Carlisle newspaper. Local journalists reported how the fire cost Carlisle and Cumberland County $35,000 to $40,000 or the modern equivalent of about $877,000 to $1 million based on the inflation calculator at www.westegg.com.
The Volunteer like every other newspaper in town responded with outrage. “A more atrocious act of villainy was never perpetrated in any community. What could have been the motive that actuated the infamous wretch, it is impossible to know; the great day of final account will, in all probability, only expose the wickedness that prompted this terrible deed.”
Watts has a theory the mystery arsonist may have been a prominent local attorney who was disbarred by a county judge after being arrested and charged with illegally printing money. This man was suspected in a November 1843 arson fire set in the judge’s chambers that was extinguished before it could cause major damage.
“I have a hunch it was him,” said Watts, who would not identify the suspect saying there are still distant relatives with the same family name living in the Carlisle area. He added it would be unfair to mention the person because the evidence linking the man to the arson is purely circumstantial.
In 1888, historian Frederick Harris wrote a series of columns about the Union Fire Company that was published in a local newspaper, Watts said. In one installment, Harris wrote that suspicion for the courthouse and town hall arson “always hung to the skirts of a well-known citizen of that time, and followed him to the grave.”
Harris believed there was conclusive evidence the perpetrator of this crime was left-handed based on the way the knots were tied in the rope that lashed the carriages together. Though the citizen had motive, there was not enough proof to bring the man up on charges. When the citizen died, he was buried in the Old Graveyard on East South Street.
The attorney suspected in the November 1843 arson was left-handed and is buried in the Old Graveyard, Watts said. He added a grand jury that convened after the March 1845 arson called on the testimony of about 18 local men, but resulted in no charges being filed.
No records or transcripts exist detailing the grand jury testimony, Watts said. He added while the newspapers of the time wrote about the fire shortly after it happened, there was no follow-up on the investigation nor mention of a criminal case. The only written record of a possible suspect was what Harris wrote 43 years after the fact.
Whoever committed the crime may have timed the March 1845 arson to a dispute taking place at the time among the volunteer firefighters in the borough, Watts said. There were two main fire companies in operation in the borough — Union and Cumberland.
The Alert Fire Company was formed in 1841 by younger men from the blue collar neighborhood of northeast Carlisle, Watts said. This new company once had an engine on loan from Cumberland but had recently experienced a falling out with the older company amid an atmosphere of tension. Alert was in merger talks with Union when someone set the fire that destroyed virtually all the apparatus owned by Union and Cumberland.
The fact the arsonist tied together the apparatus would suggest a member from the Alert Fire Company had a personal grudge against not only Union and Cumberland, but the borough for providing an annual contribution to both fire companies, but not to Alert, Watts said. He added, under this scenario, the torching of the courthouse may have been an unintended consequence.
The Carlisle community rallied together following the March 1845 arson to raise money to purchase new equipment for both fire companies, Watts said. The Cumberland fire engine that was damaged in the fire was back in service by June replacing an engine the borough had borrowed from Harrisburg.
The courthouse that was destroyed faced present-day West High Street. The building which replaced it faces South Hanover Street and is known to locals as the “Old Courthouse.” Separate fire halls were built to house the two fire companies.