June 15, 1863

Robert M. Preston

This article was written in 1989 by Emmitsburg’s then-Mayor for the Emmitsburg Chronicle’s Town of Emmitsburg 1989 Directory & Map. It is printed here with permission from Robert M. Preston and family.

As one looks at the beauty of downtown Emmitsburg today, try to picture the Square area 125 years ago {from 1989}. The view a couple of weeks before the Battle of Gettysburg was not that of a quaint little town, but instead of a raging fire, consuming 3/4 of the town’s downtown buildings. A hundred and twenty-five years ago, this town experienced the Great Fire of Emmitsburg.

The fire started at the loft of the Beam and Guthrie Livery Stable (behind today’s Palms Restaurant on West Main Street.) About 11 o’clock on Monday night, 15 June 1863, according to town gossip, the fire was started by the “mean devil” Eli Smith. The fire swept eastward to the square (Crouse’s Store), leaped North Seton, and burned through many of the buildings along East Main Street between the Square (Village Liquor) and the location today of the Radio Shack. It then crossed East Main Street and burned westward, consuming some of the buildings along the south side of East Main Street until finally the hotel (Stavros) on the Square was consumed by flames.

The hotel on the Square was the town’s largest. This hotel, along with a few other inns in Emmitsburg, were integral parts of the town’s economy. Emmitsburg, a north central Maryland town, was situated along one of the main commercial arteries between the growing industrial city of Baltimore and Pittsburgh, one of America’s getaways to the agricultural west. Many wagons from the east and west stopped at Emmitsburg. Of the 168 skilled and semi-skilled workers in Emmitsburg in 1860, thirty-two or nineteen percent, were employed in transportation as wagon makers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, saddlers, and drivers.

Not only did the fire interrupt the economic life of the town, but its effect on individuals was awesome. One hundred eighty-nine persons, or about twenty percent of the town’s population, were victimized by the fire through loss of homes, furnishings, farm animals, business inventories, or business establishments. Forty-two fire victims who were property owners suffered losses totaling almost $82,000 or twenty-two percent of the value of all the property (real and personal) owned by citizens of Emmitsburg in 1860.

After raging all night, the fire was finally brought under control after dawn with the help of the townspeople and students from nearby Mount Saint Mary’s College and Seminary. The placement of wet blankets on the roof of the building on the corner, only corner of the Square (Ott House) that did not burn was credited with the containment of the fire.

The Great Fire had caused much destruction, but towns people rebuilt their buildings and lives. The quality of the reconstruction work can be appreciated today while standing in our Town’s Square.

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