Historic Fires in American Small Towns Were Big Disasters


Learn about historic fire disasters in American small towns, why these towns were at a disadvantage, and how the residents coped after a great fire.

Much has been written and told about the historic Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the San Francisco earthquake fire of 1906, and other large U.S. fires of the past two centuries. But these famous fires represent only part of American fire disaster history. Many small towns in America suffered fire devastation, too, sometimes far worse than the large cities did. Even more remarkable is how the residents found strength and hope in the midst of these historic, small town disasters.

American Fire Disaster History – Small Towns at a Disadvantage

One reason many towns in America didn’t fare as well as larger cities during a fire disaster is because their firefighting equipment was often not adequate. The Peshtigo Fire of 1871, a massive fire than killed over a thousand people, is a perfect example. A small frontier town in the woods, Peshtigo, Wisconsin, had nothing more than a single horse-drawn steam pumper to fight fires – which was of little use given the magnitude of this great fire.

Other towns were better equipped but lacked a sophisticated emergency system. Fargo, North Dakota, a booming town thanks to its railroads and wheat crop, boasted two well-equipped fire stations and three fire companies in 1893. But on June 7, the day of Fargo’s great fire, the key to the fire alarm box couldn’t be located. The key was kept in a jewelry store, where the clerk on duty knew nothing of the key’s whereabouts. Without the alarm, the fire companies didn’t know the exact location of the fire. Many blame the delay in ringing the alarm for Fargo’s fire disaster.

Another disadvantage to small towns was merely their size. A fire didn’t take long to sweep through a small town, toppling everything in its path. On windy, hot days especially, a fire could grow rapidly out of control. Further, firefighters in small towns were largely volunteers, who had other jobs and responsibilities. When a fire broke out, many of them weren’t immediately available to respond.

Oftentimes, several factors came together at once to put small towns at a disadvantage for handling a massive fire. New Bern, North Carolina, for one, blames its great fire of 1922 on faulty equipment, a reduced number of firefighters (many had boarded the train to Raleigh for a football game just hours before the fire disaster), high winds, and wooden houses with wooden shingles.

The Positive Side of a Fire Disaster in Small Towns

Despite the great loss of property and lives as a result of many small town fires in America, some good came from these disasters, too. After the New Bern fire, for example, the black and white communities – even some Ku Klux Klan groups – joined together to help victims and provide shelter for the 3,000 homeless. The historic Hinckley, Minnesota, fire, which destroyed over 300,000 acres of land and killed hundreds, resulted in many acts of heroism, including people crouching in a mud-filled lake for survival and trains arriving during the fire to help evacuate victims.

The residents of Fargo saw their great fire as a blessing in disguise. It gave them the opportunity to rebuild their town bigger and better than before. Little time was wasted mourning losses. Instead, cleanup and planning began immediately and within years, Fargo had become a thriving, modern community, complete with fireproof buildings, concrete sidewalks, and improved water systems.

Even the fire disaster in Peshtigo didn’t doom the town. Though the scars ran deep for survivors, they were determined to rebuild – and they did. Today, Peshtigo is a vibrant community and the second largest city in its county.

From Wallace, Idaho, to Blackville, South Carolina, many more small towns across the United States suffered a great fire disaster. The expense and damage to these communities, many of which didn’t have the resources to bounce back like large cities did, could nearly have done them in. But the courage and determination of the residents kept the towns alive – and serve as a testament to the spirit of small town America.