Northeast Pennylvania Forest Fires, May 1880



MILFORD, Penn., May 13.----The forest fires continue to rage to an alarming extent in portions of Pike, Monroe, and Wayne Counties, Penn., notwithstanding hundreds of men are fighting the flames day and night. In the north-western districts of Pike County several dwellings and hundreds of acres of valuable timber and other property have been destroyed. Reports from Monroe County say that the Pocono Mountains were ablaze for many miles, and one or two settlements are in danger. Thousands of acres of valuable timber have already been burned, besides a vast quantity of cord-wood, bark, and other property. At Wilsonville, Wayne County, Collingwood & Co., lose over 1,000,000 feet in logs ready for the mills.

ALTOONA, Penn., May 13.---Fire is burning steadily through the Clearfield region, destroying much timber land, but very little other property as yet. A small bridge on the Moshannon branch, near Houtzdale, has been damaged by the fire.

The New York Times, New York, NY 14 May 1880




MILFORD, Penn., May 17.---The forest fires still continue to sweep through the forests of Pike and Monroe Counties, Penn., notwithstanding large forces are fighting the flames day and night. In Delaware Township, Pike County, the woods were fired, about noon yesterday, by a boy who was driving his father's cattle home. He said he thought he could put the fire out, but, as a high wind prevailed, the flames spread at an alarming pace, and in a short time a large territory was in flames. Several buildings were in great danger of being destroyed. The farmers turned their horses and cattle out of the stables, and drove them into the cleared fields for safety. A high wind if blowing from the north-west, and the fires are being driven toward the Delaware River. In Porter Township fires are still burning, and several buildings, and a large amount of timber and other property, have been consumed. It is estimated that from 10,000,000 to 18,000,000 feet of lumber, in logs, has been burned. The fire that had been raging within a mile of this place, at one time assuming a threatening aspect, is out. It is impossible to estimate the loss caused by the fires, but it is very great. There are no signs of rain.

The New York Times, New York, NY 18 May 1880





BRADFORD, Penn., may 18.----The forest fires of the last 10 days have swept over an area of country about 30 miles in length, and of an average width of three miles, in the Bradford oil region, and destructive flames are still raging in various places. Not a day has passed since May 6 that the loss of oil "rigs," engine houses, pumping machinery, and tanks, has not been reported. Since that date Rew City, Rixford, Oil Centre, Otter City, Morrisburg, and Middaughville, important petroleum centres, have been entirely destroyed, leaving 1,500 persons homeless, consuming about 300,000 barrels of oil, 700 oil "rigs," with their engines, boilers, and expensive machinery, and thousands of acres of valuable timber. The heaviest fires were on May 6, 8, and 11, but others have been breaking out daily in all directions. A fire of undoubtedly incendiary origin was started in the woods at the head of Harrisburg Run yesterday. It is consumed in its path the rigs and machinery of five producing oil wells, four oil-tanks, containing 1,000 barrels of oil, and is still burning fiercely. Another fire is raging in Murilla brook Valley, and a force of men is fighting it away from the natural gas well of the Bradford Gas Company, which it is threatening with destruction. It will require nearly 10,000,000 feet of lumber to replace the derricks destroyed during the past few days. Besides the buildings destroyed in the villages, scores of houses detached from settlements have been consumed. Tram Hollow was an oil producing locality, where the buildings were scattered about for several miles. The fire swept through this Hollow, and only two buildings were left standing. Not a single derrick escaped. All through this great burned district the fire is still feeding on many of the flowing wells, nothing else being left to burn. As the oil comes in fitful bursts from the ground the flames leap up 50 and even 100 feet in the air, presenting a grand appearance at night.

No one not acquainted with the character of an oil district such as the Bradford region can have any idea of what an oil fire is. The wells are all flowing ones, and are constantly pouring forth streams of the most inflammable material. Networks of pipe-lines conduct the oil in all directions through the field. The ground, the buildings, the trees, fences, and all the surroundings are literally saturated with crude petroleum. The puddles in the roads are but depths of oil. The region is cut up by deep ravines or gulleys, and the wells cover the sides of steep and lofty hills as well as every available rod in the valleys. Rapid streams course the valleys and tumble down the mountain sides. The oil towns are compact collections of frame buildings, constructed without any regard to the contiguity of the wells. Derricks rise from the very door-yards, on the streets, and tower above the buildings on every side. In the midst of this inflammable mass of oil wells, surroundings saturated with oil and tinder-box buildings, railroads with locomotives scattering showers of sparks every hour in the day penetrate all parts of the region. Natural gas is conducted from wells to the towns, is used in all the houses for light and fuel, and at the oil wells as fuel, and from pipes set at intervals in the ground emits pillars of flame 20 feet and more in height. Nitro-glycerine factories are erected at convenient points in the region, and this destructive agent is daily transported on wagons through the oil districts for use in newly-drilled wells for starting the oil. Tanks, holding from 1,000 to 25,000 barrels of petroleum each, abound in every district. The premature explosion of a nitro-glycerine torpedo, the alighting of a spark from a locomotive, or imprudent lighting of the natural gas in some one of the tinder-boxes called dwellings, is sufficient to turn the whole country for miles around into a sea of flame in an incredibly short time. A torpedo exploded near Rew City on May 6, and in a few hours 10 miles of territory was swept by fire, more than 300 oil wells, 100,000 barrels of oil, and the whole of Rew City being consumed. Two days later a woman was lighting the gas in her store at Rixford. The city was destroyed, with a large number of wells, and 110,000 barrels of oil were consumed. Three days afterward a spark from a locomotive started a fire in Tram Hollow Otter City, Morrisburg, Oil Centre, and Middaugville, 200 oil wells, and 80,000 barrels of oil were consumed.

During the fire in the vicinity of Rew City, James Rathburn, Walter Dye, and John Hutchinson attempted to save a house belonging to the latter. It was situated on the Van Schaick lease. There was an 800-barrel tank of oil on one side of the house, a 600-barrel tank on the other, and derricks in every direction. The fire was in the woods 500 feet away, but a strong wind was blowing it toward the house. From a spring a short distance from the house the men collected several barrels of water, and were trying to keep the fire in check. Suddenly the wind changed, and carried a tongue of flame against the 600-barrel tank, and almost instantly it was in flames. Then the other tank caught fire, and simultaneously several of the derricks were wrapped in flames. The men were surrounded by flames, and almost suffocated by the heat. There was no escape through the circle of fire. Hutchinson had plowed his garden that day, and the only thing he and his companions could think of doing was to crawl to that fresh-turned plot of ground, and lie with their faces against it. This they did. Three feet above them the air was thick with heated smoke, and the flames that roared on all sides of them were scorching. Hutchinson's barn caught on fire, and that being close to the men, made the heat almost unbearable. They buried themselves as well as they could with their hands beneath the cold, moist earth, and there they remained, with only a small portion of their faces exposed, from 2 o'clock in the afternoon until 8 o'clock in the evening. Fortunately for them, the oil-tanks were built on ground that had a rather steep decline from where the men lay. When the oil boiled over and flowed out to the ground in liquid fire, its course was necessarily away from the three men. When the largest tank exploded, a huge piece of iron was hurled directly over the prostrate men, not more than two feet above them. At 8 o'clock the fury of the fire was spent, and Hutchinson and his companions were enabled to drag themselves away in search of assistance. Their faces were so badly burned that they were blistered, and they were nearly blind. It is thought that Rathburn will lose his sight entirely. The men say that they breathed with comparative ease with their faces in the damp earth, but that about 4 o'clock the heat was so intense that they bade each other good-bye, thinking that they could not survive the torture long.

The Kendall and Eddred Railroad crosses a deep gulley on a trestle at a point where the great oil fire of May 12 was raging fiercely. The fire was all about the trestle, and it was not considered safe. A passenger train stopped on one side of the trestle to allow the passengers to get out and cross the gulley on foot. There were about 50 passengers. Some distance above the trestle a seven-thousand-barrel oil-tank was burning. Just as the passengers had reached the bottom of the gulley, which was about 20 feet deep and 50 feet wide, with sloping sides, the top of the tank fell in, and the oil poured over the edge in one mass of flame. Hundreds of barrels of oil came rushing down the gulley. The flame was 30 feet high, and roared like a hurricane. The alarm was given to the people who were in its path below, and by a great effort they all succeeded in reaching the summit on the other side as the stream of fire swept by. Fortunately there were no women or children among them, or the consequences would have been terrible, as it was a narrow escape for the men, all of them active oil-producers, used to the dangers of an oil fire. The train was across the trestle when the fire struck it and licked it up in a [a] short time.

The rapid streams in the Bradford oil-fields are fatal conductors of burning oil. The vast tanks are many of them close to streams. When a tank catches fire, the oil in it burns for a long time before any disastrous consequences ensue. The tanks are made of iron, and are so strongly constructed that they withstand the intense heat of thousands of barrels of oil burning within them for hours. Finally the iron glares with a white heat, the heavy top falls in, and the liquid fire boils over and seeks its level, no matter what stands in its way. Finally, the great iron bands about tank separate with a crash, and then the tank is twisted apart, and its entire contents rush on their work of destruction. Dams are thrown up and trenches dug in the probable course of burning oil from an exploding tank, in hope of withholding it in check. Often thousands of dollars' worth of property are saved by this means. Stopped by the dams, the flowing oil becomes a lake of fire, the flames leaping hundreds of feet into the air, while the oil seethes and boils, and throws off dense clouds of smoke as thick and black as tar. When a creek lies in the way of a stream of this blazing oil escaping from a tank, the danger is increased, for it pours in upon the surface of the water, and is borne along with the current, carrying destruction to places far from the scene of the original conflagration.

During the Rew City fire, a tank was burning fiercely near the railroad, throwing up a mass of smoke and flame 100 feet high. The wind was blowing stiffly, being characterized by sudden, strong gusts and whirlwinds. One of these latter caught the fire at the tank, separated flame and smoke in a body from it, and carried the great cloud of fire upward into the air for 200 feet, and then it was caught by a current that hurled it westward for three-quarters of a mile. In its flight it descended rapidly toward the earth firing six oil derricks, a house belonging to a man named Conners, a barn, a 1,000-barrel tank of oil, and, alighting in the woods, started a terrible conflagration in a district that was considered removed from all danger. The flying fire leaped over a space of half a mile without communicating flames to anything in that area, confining its work of destruction to the last quarter of a mile of its flight. Hundreds of people are now living in the woods, awaiting the replacing of their burned dwellings. Several deaths have occurred among then from fright and overexertion. Several women have given birth to children in the woods. Great suffering exits, but everything that it is possible to do is being done to alleviate it.

The New York Times, New York, NY 19 May 1880




MILFORD, Penn., May. 18.----At last the forest fires that have raged so alarmingly for the past week in the forests of Monroe and Pike Counties and other portions of Northern Pennsylvania, destroying several hundred thousand acres of valuable young timber and thousands of dollars' worth of other property, including buildings, cordwood, bark, railroad ties, &c., are about under control on most places, and the worst fears are realized. In Shohola, Lackawaxen, and Delaware Townships, in Pike County, the fires are still burning slowly, but as no wind has prevailed to-day, it is thought the large forces that are fighting the flames will have them under complete control before morning. The atmosphere is so smoky that it is impossible to see more than half a mile. Many farmers in the remote districts, who have been unceasing in their efforts to save their homes during the past week, are now utterly exhausted. Many lost buildings and everything they possessed. The burned districts present a desolated appearance. What a week ago were the finest and most valuable young timber tracts in Northern Pennsylvania are now blackened and worthless. It is estimated that the recent fires have resulted in a far greater loss than all the fires combined for the past 10 years. It is impossible to estimate the loss, but it is very great, and it will be many years before the unfortunate ones will retrieve their losses. For the first time since the fires have been raging, there are strong indications of rain.

The New York Times, New York, NY 19 May 1880