Richard D. L. Fulton
“The home of the Sisters of Charity… came very near being destroyed by fire today.” – The Baltimore Sun, issue of March 21, 1885 (the story was actually filed the day before).
Much of Emmitsburg’s remarkable history lies among the piles of old, long-forgotten newspapers, one of these stories being the Saint Joseph’s Academy fire of 1885.
The incident commenced around noon on March 20, 1885, when someone in the town noticed the flames rising over one of the academy buildings – in particular. The Baltimore Sun reported on the following day, “The sisters were at dinner, when a telephone message came from Emmitsburg inquiring if they knew the roof of the building in which they were sitting was in a blaze.”
The dining area was located in a dormitory (also then referred to as the Gothic Building).The kitchen was contained in a separate structure but attached to the dormitory. In addition to the kitchen and the dining room-containing dormitory, the academy also had several other structures as part of their overall complex at the time, including another dormitory, an “out-building,” a “main building,” and the church. At the time, the buildings and ground were said to be worth more than $1 million.
The revelation that a fire might be in the making had actually already been detected, although the source remained at that point unknown. The Baltimore Sun reported that several sisters in a different part of the dormitory had stated they could smell smoke and had begun to spread the word of a possible fire.
One might have expected a case of ensuing panic setting in, but that was not the case, as a number of sisters had calmed the others, and orders were given by Mother Euphemia to look out for the welfare of the pupils over and above concerning themselves with the fire.
Within minutes, the sisters had made contact with the institution’s 75 students and told the girls what was then transpiring, and “told them to get their wraps together,” and then had them assemble in the “exhibition hall,” in preparation for an evacuation, if proved as being necessary.
According to The Baltimore Sun, “The sisters say the girls were not frightened and even relished in the excitement, though of course they were distressed at the damage that was being done to one of the buildings.”
There were, at the time of the fire, about 200 sisters on the property, and they began to help move furniture and other property into other academy buildings, in spite of the building being on fire from which the property was being relocated.
As the two buildings (kitchen and dormitory) burned, the Emmitsburg Hose Company responded with their single fire engine. The Baltimore Sun reported, “The only obstacle that confronted the advance of the fire was gallant effort on the part of the Emmitsburg Hose Company,” adding, “The men worked with all their might and would have subdued the fire, had not the wind been so varying… nearly the whole town of Emmitsburg turned out to assist their fire company.”
Although the fire seemed contained and appeared to be that it would not spread to any of the other buildings, a call for additional firefighting assistance to completely extinguish the flames was sent out, and within 15 minutes, James McSherry, commissioner of the Frederick and Pennsylvania Line Railroad, reacted, and had a special train set-up at the Frederick depot which consisted of a steam engine, a passenger car, gondola and boxcar, according to Frederick’s The Daily News, March 21 issue.
Its load consisted of the Junior Hook and Ladder truck, a steam-powered firefighting engine of the Frederick Independent Fire Company, and a reel of additional hoses of the United Fire Company.
The Daily News reported on March 20, further stating in their March 21 edition, that the complement also included 60 firemen and 30 civilians, and that, “The scene at the depot at the starting of the train was a very lively one. Men boarded the moving train and crowded at every quarter, eager to accompany the firemen, and willing to lend their aid in subduing the flames.”
The train was dispatched from the depot at exactly 2:25 p.m., two and a half hours after the academy blaze had been discovered and made the 11-mile trek into Woodsboro within 12 minutes. At Bruceville, the train cars were turned over to a waiting Western Maryland Railroad engine.
By 2:00 p.m., The Daily News reported on March 20, “The roof and walls of the new (dormitory) building have fallen in, and the flames are extending to other parts of the structure.”
Around 2:30 p.m., The Daily News noted, as did The Baltimore Sun, that a wire was sent requesting that fire engines from Baltimore be dispatched. While the requested fire engines were never sent, the newspaper noted that the Baltimore papers “monopolized” all the telegraph lines covering the story, making it difficult for other papers to get their stories through. The Daily News commented in their March 23 issue, “The Baltimore folks spun out yards of type and blew gusts of sympathy over the Emmitsburg fire, but they left Emmitsburg and Frederick boys to put the fire out.”
In all fairness, it was noted that it would take a “fire train” four hours to get from Baltimore to Emmitsburg, which would have conceivably been too late to have been of any worthwhile assistance.
By 2:45 p.m., it was believed that the fire would not spread beyond the building that had already been largely consumed.
Upon reaching Rocky Ridge, the railroad cars were then coupled to an Emmitsburg Railroad engine and taken to Emmitsburg. The loaded train then arrived in Emmitsburg at 4:30 p.m., according to The Daily News.
The incoming firemen and equipment were immediately faced with a couple of challenges as they deployed. First, the water in the boiler of the Independent Fire Company apparatus had frozen during the trip and had to be thawed out.”
Then Isaac Annan, of the Emmitsburg Water Company, was found sitting astride one of the water company’s hydrants, refusing to allow the Independent Fire Company firemen to hook up to it.
The Daily News reported that “after a consultation” involving Annan, the Commissioner of the Frederick and Pennsylvania Line Railroad, James McSherry, L. Victor Baughman, then managing editor of the Frederick Citizen, and a director of Saint Joseph’s (who was not identified), Annan “reluctantly gave his permission” to use the hydrant. One can only imagine the ensuing conversation that resulted in Annan surrendering the hydrant.
The Baltimore Sun reported that, as day became night, “At night flames shot upward spasmodically against the dark background of the mountains, illuminating the locality so plainly that different buildings could be clearly seen at a distance,” adding that around 9 p.m., the fire was finally “fully under control.” although portions (hot spots) continued to burn.
By 1:00 a.m., The Daily News reported that the fire was completely extinguished, and that the Frederick firefighters were sent home, arriving in Frederick around 3:30 a.m.
As a result of the determined effort of the firefighters, the academy only lost its kitchen and the dormitory, although a stable had also caught fire which was quickly extinguished and saved.
The numbers of firemen involved in fighting the flames may never be precisely known, but the sisters ordered that 125 suppers be prepared at a local hotel for those present at the scene of the fire.
The monetary loss of the two buildings was estimated at between $50,000 and $60,000. The fire was determined to have originated in the kitchen.