Headlines read: "Loss is Nearly $65,000 -- Strong Probability of the Fire Being the Work of an Incendiary -- Rain All That Saved South Side From Burning"
Between 2 and 3 o’clock Tuesday morning, October 4, 1898, our citizens were aroused from their peaceful slumbers by the cry of fire. There is pretty strong evidence that the fire was work of an incendiary, as the fire was first discovered under the hardware store of Haskins and Brannon about 2 a.m. by Paul Mahler who, with the assistance of Amos Wagin, put it out.
Mr. Mahler informed Hiram Haskin, who came down and concluded to stay and watch his store and went to inform his wife of his intention. On returning downtown and when approaching Water’s Drug Store he discovered fire in Dr. Bacon’s barn in the rear of Water’s store. He ran to the rear and found the barn all afire. His next move was to arouse the marshal and ring the fire bell. [The bell did not work.] Our people turned out in great numbers and did all they could to subdue the flames, but still they went on, one building after another being licked up by the fiery elements until the Gregory Block was reached, [the northeast corner Mill St. and Commercial Ave.] whose friendly walls assisted in checking the onward march of the destroyer.
The rain, which at times came down in torrents, was a Godsend, as by its kindly assistance the south side of Commercial Avenue was saved from sharing the same fate as the north side.
That the fire was the work of an arsonist was proven by the fact that shaved wood was found and that the fire began in three places many rods apart. Lowell’s water system was not yet completed and no fire hydrants were available so the main water supply came from the windmill at the Bacon house and from wells from nearby homes. The fire burned westward from Dr. Bacon’s barns (near Fremont St.) and was checked at the "Gregory Block" building, built of bricks and stone in 1894 at the northeast corner of Mill Street and Commercial Ave.
Several stories about the big fire of 1898 have appeared in the "Pioneer History" column in past decades . During those decades the writer has researched and found additional information from many sources about Lowell’s largest fire:
Dr. Bacon’s large home at the northwest corner of Fremont Street and Commercial Ave. was saved from the flames by his windmill and water supply, but they were unable to save the doctor’s two barns. One of the barns, behind the present Colfax Lodge building, was one of the three places where the arsonist lit the fire. The other barn was west of the doctor’s home. Dr. Bacon (1840-1906), who came to Lowell in 1866, was at his studies in Chicago and witnessed the big Chicago Fire of 1871. The two barns were worth $1000. The home is now the Cornerstone Mansion Restaurant.
To the west the next frame building to go up in flames was a drug store owned by George Waters (1842-1902) with the meeting rooms of the Grand Army of the Republic (Union Veterans) on the upper story. During earlier years Dr. E.R. Bacon was a druggist in the building. The loss was estimated at $4000. Waters was the first to rebuild, finishing a two story masonry building before the end of the year of 1898!! A stone on the façade of the present Colfax Lodge building tells the proof: "George W. Waters, 1898."
John Caster’s (or Castor’s) Hall, next door, west of the Water’s store, was also caught in the flames that caused a loss of $1200. A reunion of Civil War veterans was held there a few weeks before the fire.
West of the hall the big fire burned a store building and a barn owned by the "Miller family heirs," a loss of $1000. Lizzie Davis Millinery was in that building, suffered a fire loss of $1500, then moved to the present site of the Davis Store at 402 East Commercial Ave.
Next-door west was a saloon owned by Nolan and Reiser, devoured by the flames causing $2000 in damage.
Lew Wood’s tailor shop and his living quarters above were the next to go up in flames at a loss of $1000.
J.M.Castle suffered a loss of $4000 when his large, three story frame building (northeast corner Commercial Ave. and Clark St.) also became victim of the flames. The building was built in the 1850’s by John W. Viant. At the time of the fire the first floor was occupied in part by the implement shop of W.W. Ackerman, whose loss was $800. Also on the lower level was the jewelry store owned by E.J. Pixley, a loss of $1200. Mr. Pixley reopened his shop on the south side of the street soon after the fire. Also on that first floor was the Nichols and Wheeler barber shop (loss of $200) and the Record Printing Shop with a loss of $2000.
The second floor of the Castle building was occupied by the Trump and Atwood office ($75) and the Hayward Photograph Gallery ($200). The Colfax Lodge, which occupied the third floor, sustained a loss of $1300.
Two more nearby structures burned: the barn of Henry C. Taylor (1860-1919) at a loss of $500 and a vacant building owned by Allen Gragg, a $200 loss.
The frame building that was at the northwest corner of Clark Street and Commercial Ave. also burned to the foundation with a loss of $9000 for the owner, George M. Death (1841-1911), who had come to Lowell in 1862. Death clerked in a dry goods store until 1865, then went into a partnership with C.C. Sanger until 1875, when he moved to the corner building vacated by storekeeper Ward Price. Mr. Death's new brick building was built by Albert Webb, known for winning a historic running race July 4, 1881, at Lowell.
Another frame building burned at the present site of the Lowell Carpet Store. George Heilig (1855-1938) moved to Lowell in 1897 to start his bakery and confectionery in the "Gregg Building" then owned by Perry Clark, son of 1837 Lowell pioneer Jabez Clark. Heilig’s business burned on his birthday, and landlord Perry Clark (Clark Brick Yard, north of the corner of Main and Liberty Streets) ) soon became very busy supplying materials for all the new buildings including his own and the long masonry building to the rear. Loss to both Heilig and Clark was $1000 each. Grant Brothers Department Store became the owner soon after the building was rebuilt.
Research from history books and photographs has proved that the empty space west of the present carpet store was never built upon. In the 1860’s William Sigler (1822-1902) built a large general store at the northeast corner of Commercial Ave. and Wall Street, then left Lowell in 1879. Mortimer Castle became the owner of the store and the Lowell Post Office in 1889 with total losses of $800 from the fire. The State National Bank building was finished in 1900 on the site.
Lowell’s first storekeeper, Jonah Thorn (1813-1899), closed his mill district general store on Main Street in 1855 and built a frame hardware store at the northwest corner of Commercial Ave. and Wall Street. In 1898 the building was known as the "John Lynch building" (loss of $2000) that housed two stores: the Haskins & Brannon Hardware (a loss of $4000) and Spindler & Pletcher Dry Goods (a $10,000 loss). The corner remained an empty lot until the Roberts Law Office was built in the 1940’s.
North on Wall Street the Amos Wagin saloon and home suffered a loss of $300.
The "Gregory Opera House Building," erected in 1894 at the northeast corner of Commercial Ave. and Mill Street by John Stringer and Gene Mafus, was soon sold to J.M. Castle, and survived the big fire due to the masonry construction, heavy rains, and the quick work of the firemen and townspeople. Losses, however, totaled $1000. The building survived another large fire in 1902 and stood proudly on the corner for decades until destroyed by flames in 1976.
The stores on the south side of downtown Commercial Ave., then a mixture of both frame and masonry buildings, also suffered broken windows and water damage from the fire. A few of the losses on a long list included John Hack’s Block in the present 400 east block, $700; the nearby telephone company, $150; Burnham Brothers Hardware, $50; Mrs. Martin Schur, Undertaker, $250 (sold to Mr. Sheets); Hago Carstens Harness Shop, $150; Lowell Tribune, 318 East Commercial, $50; and William Grant, barber, $15.
After the heavy smoke finally cleared on the north side of Commercial Ave., there was nothing remaining but piles of brick and rubble in the blocks between the two surviving buildings, the Bacon mansion on the east and the Opera House on the west. Including three ice houses that were torn down, a total of twenty buildings were destroyed, and scores of stores and living areas were damaged by the "Big Fire of 1898," still a topic of conversation in 2006.
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