Litchfield, CT, Court House and Other Buildings Fire, Jun 1886

Litchfield CT Courthouse and other buildings, 1867




LITCHFIELD, Conn., June 11.----This famous Summer resort, the queen of all Connecticut towns, presents anything but an attractive appearance this afternoon with its business block gone and the smoke still rising from the ruins of some of its finest buildings. At 1:30 o'clock this morning fire broke out in Moore & Maddern's general store on West-street, next to the Mansion House, and four hours later the danger was over, because the flames had consumed everything within their reach. The business portion of the town is simply cleaned out. Besides its national reputation as a resort, Litchfield has a local fame as the county seat and as the depot of supplies for all the neighboring towns. The building in which the fire started was right in the heart of the village, and the flames spread rapidly, there being no adequate means of fighting them. The Mansion House was soon on fire, and it was evident that the building could not be saved. It stood on the corner of West and South streets, facing the Green. It was a large, old-fashioned structure, and, although the season has not yet fairly begun, it contained a number of guests. In spite of the speed with which the fire advanced the occupants of the hotel succeeded in saving most of their effects. One of the boarders, however, Attorney Henry Prescott, of Litchfield, had a narrow escape. He was almost suffocated by the smoke and was taken out just in time. Between Moore & Maddern's store and the Court House on West-street was a block known as "Lord's" and containing three stores and a number of offices. The building was of wood and the flames began to eat into it in no time. Some of the tenants had been warned in time to save their valuable papers, but all of them lost heavily.

Next to the block stood the Court House, a big building also of wood, and its turn came next. The townsmen could do nothing to save it, and it burned down before their eyes, but the county records were saved. Close to the Court House there was the only brick building in that part of the town and it proved an effective barrier, the Court House being the last building on West-street to be destroyed. From the Mansion House the fire working its way around the corner swept down South-street. First the bottling establishment of Eugene Phelps, from which most of Litchfield County's thirsty citizens get their comforts of life, went up in smoke and flames. Then ex-Representative Frank A. Shepard's jewelry store caught fire, and, with the offices above it, was destroyed. The public reading room and Mrs. McDonald's bakery were burned. Wessels & Smith's clothing store was the last building burned on South-street. The upper stories of the houses were used as offices and shops.

These are the losers on West-street; R.V. Cooley, proprietor of the Mansion House, which was remolded a few years ago at heavy expense; Moore & Maddern, who carried a large stock; D. C. Kilbourn, lawyer; Coe & Marsh, butchers; F. D. McNeill & Co., general store; C. B. Bishop, general store; Litchfield Enquirer newspaper and job printing office; R. Hall, E. B. Peck, offices, and the County Court House.

On South-street were Dr. Cook, Fred Koehler, barber; Wessels & Smith, clothiers; Benedict, photographer; Mrs. McDonald, bakery; H. P. Graves, law office; Phelps, bottling establishment. The Mansion House, stables, and several barns and other small wooden buildings in the rear of the business block were all destroyed, together with much of their contents.

During the fire the town was wild with excitement. Men, women, and children thronged the streets, but after the first building was destroyed it was evident that nothing could be done. With nothing better than buckets a battle with the fire was hopeless, and realizing this the people watched the flames pass from house to house and prayed that the whole town might not be destroyed. The aggregate loss will amount to $200,000, on which there is believed to be from $75,000 to $100,000 insurance. Much of the loss can never be made good.

Among the property destroyed was Lawyer H. B. Graves's library, which contained many rare and valuable works, and D. C. Kilbourn's historical library. Mr. Graves's office was occupied by John C. Calhoun when he was a student at the old Litchfield Law School. The origin of the fire is uncertain, but incendiaries are generally believed to have been at the bottom of it. Owing to the number of wooden buildings so close together and the absence of any protection against fire, the town has for years been in fear of just such a conflagration as came to-day. It is fortunate that the blaze did not occur during the height of the season, when it would have certainly been accompanied by serious loss of life.

The New York Times, New York, NY 12 Jun 1886