Growing Up In Waterford, PA


Waterford's fires
by the late Herb Walden

Fort LeBoeuf Class of 1956

Historically, March has not been a good month for Waterford. Two devastating fires nearly destroyed the town back in the 1800's. On March 5, 1865, (just about six weeks before President Lincoln's assassination, to put it in perspective), fire erupted in one of the stores on the west side of High Street. It consumed almost all the buildings between 1st and 2nd Streets. The cause of the fire has been lost in the depths of antiquity.

Of course, the buildings that were lost were replace with wooden-frame buildings, the same as their predecessors.

Almost 30 years later in the wee hours of the morning of March 3, 1895, fire broke out again in the same area.

I'm sure quite a few of us remember Frank Phelps and his grocery store, which became Doolittle's when we were kids. Well, Frank Phelps' father, F. L. Phelps, purchased a meat market in January, 1895. It was located approximately where Holman's clothing store was. There is where the fire originated. In preparing a coal stove for the night, someone carelessly discarded some hot ashes. Within a few hours, the ashes ignited the building.

I know a little more about this fire because my grandmother, who was nearly 11 years old at the time, lived upstairs with her sister and parents --- upstairs over the meat market!

When Grandma and her family were awakened, they only had time to get out. There was no chance to save anything except a child's rocking chair which Grandma grabbed in panic on the way out! I still have the little rocker.

The fire spread in both directions and jumped 2nd Alley. In a few hours, all of the buildings between 1st and 2nd Streets were burned to the ground!

The fire was fought largely by bucket-brigade. I remember of Grandma telling about a boy grabbing a bucket of water and throwing it on the fire. Except that it wasn't water; it was coal-oil!

Beginning at 1st Street, the businesses lost were:

Ensworth Hardware
Benson's Bank
Cook's Shoe Store
Phelps' Meat Market (Where the fire started.)
Nickles & McClure Feed Store
Hull's Grocery
(2nd Alley)
Judson Millinery
Phillips' Barber Shop (Where my great grand father worked.)
Johnson Jewelry
Benson Meat Market
Whitney Grocery
Ward's Millinery
Patten's Grocery

That is a total of 14 stores that were reduced to ashes, and the dollar-loss was placed at $50,000! Miraculously, there was no loss of life nor serious injury.

On March 11, the town council passed an ordinance prohibiting wooden buildings in the business district.

The first store rebuilt opened in April, and what seems to me most amazing, the rest of the buildings were up and running by mid-November! They are the stores we see in Waterford today.

Florence (Cole) Walker
History of Erie County (1884)
Waterford Leader (January 1896)

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