Fire! Fire! Fire

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Fire! Fire! Fire


The large fires which in recent years have destroyed buildings in the downtown business section of Richmond have caused some interest in major fires in the history of this city. During most of the 19th Century the ringing of the courthouse bell to sound the alarm was particularly dreaded because a bucket brigade and water from wells and cisterns was all that Richmond had available to prevent disaster. With the continual use of open fireplaces, candles, kerosene lamps, and wood, and coal-burning stoves, the possibility of uncontrollable fire was ever-present. It's a wonder that our forefathers didn't set the town on fire more often than they did.

One very destructive conflagration occurred on October 8, 1884. About 7 o'clock that evening fire broke out in the C. Stafford Planning Mill on Irvine Street, between North Collins and B Streets. The mill and the yard were both full of stacks of wood which fed the fire so quickly that it soon became too large to control. Just south of the planing mill facing Main Street were the W.N. Potts & Son Bonanza Mills (later known as Zaring's Mill) and grain elevators and the city gas works. A strong wind out of the North soon swept the flames of these buildings and to several small houses and the Richmond Marble Works situated near the gas works.

Many persons were attracted to the place of the fire which was known as Powell's Valley, but since at that time there was no city fire-fighting equipment, efforts were limited to poorly organized efforts at throwing buckets of water drawn from nearby wells and cisterns. The gas was released from the gas works tank to avoid an explosion. Word was sent to Lexington for one of its horse-drawn fire engines, but it arrived several hours later when the fire had about ran its course. Miraculously, only one firefighter M.K. Barlow, owner of the Barlow Mills was injured.

When the ruins were inspected the next day, the losses seemed staggering. The Stafford mill and all the lumber were destroyed at a loss of $35,000 with only $6,000 insurance. Potts' loss of the grain elevators, the wheat stored in them, the stable, the flour ready for shipment, and damage to the mill itself amounted to $66,000, with only $10,000 insurance. Several Madison County farmers, Sam H. Stone, Sam Deatherage, Wn. Crutcher, and Turley and Walker, each lost over 1,000 bushels of wheat in the elevators.

The damage to the Richmond Gas Co., which was chiefly owned by Wm. Tarr of Bourbon County, was $15,000. The Richmond Marble Works, owned by W.F. Francis, was damaged $2,000. Nine houses were partially or wholly destroyed, representing losses of from $400 to $2,000 each. Owners were Ed. Powell, Caroline Karris, W. Farley, C. Stanford, Owen McKee, and others. The total loss for the whole disaster was estimated at $125,000, a tremendous amount of money in those days.

About six years later, in 1890, Potts' Bonanza Mills and several houses across Main Street where Canfield Motor Co. now stands suffered a $60,000 fire.

Other large fires in Richmond's history include one in 1887 when Greene's Opera House, the New Opera House, Covington & Arnold Grocery, and Shackelford & Gentry Hardware Co. on Main Street sustained a loss of $60,000. A $90,000 fire occurred in 1874 when the block below First Street and half of the block between First and Second on Main was destroyed. Almost exactly one hundred years ago, in 1871, one of the earliest fires of great proportion in Richmond consumed all the buildings in the entire block on Main Street between Second and Third, inflicting $100,000 damage.


Dr. Robert Grise




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Dr. Robert Grise, “Fire! Fire! Fire,” Madison's Heritage Online, accessed March 3, 2024,