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The Great Fire of Emmitsburg

Robert M. Preston

A host of social historians in the last couple of decades have studied the social, economic, and geographical mobility of Americans in the latter part of the nineteenth century.’ Most of these studies have centered on growing industrial urban centers with massive immigrant populations. As Richard Jensen pointed out at the 1976 Organization of American Historians Convention, historians are perhaps Concentrating a disproportional amount of time, energy, and attention on a very small segment of the population.

The cities of Philadelphia, Salem, Kingston, Pittsburgh and Poughkeepsie have all been scrutinized in major studies that have contributed much to our knowledge of nineteenth century urban life. But each of these cities had an 1860 population of 13,000 or more, and each was among the seventy-five largest cities in America. The problem with concentrating upon such populous areas is that less than fifteen percent of the population in 1860 lived in such places.

If historians are to understand America in the twentieth century, the appreciation of the urban-experience is imperative. And thus to study such cities is important. But to understand the experience of the majority of the American population in the late nineteenth century, to understand the many and not just the few, one must study small towns—towns with populations below 2,500. Eighty percent of Americans lived in such areas or towns. Emmitsburg, Maryland was such a town.

Emmitsburg was a small, rural, pre-industrial town in 1860 with a population of 973 persons, ninety-seven percent of whom were native-born. This study of Emmitsburg measures the effect of the same social and economic factors, such as familial, occupational, and property ownership status, on mobility that social historians have analyzed in their work with nineteenth century large, industrial, immigrant crowded cities. In addition to this, however, the factor of a catastrophic event, such as the Great Fire of Emmitsburg, is considered in relation to mobility.

The Great Fire of Emmitsburg started in the loft of the Beam and Guthrie Livery Stable about eleven o’clock on Monday night, 15 June 1863. According to town gossip, the fire was the work of an arsonist, the "mean devil" Eli Smith.’ The fire spread eastward along Main Street until it reached the town’s Square and then continued for two blocks, jumped Main Street and then burned westward toward the Square again. This left three of the four corners of the town’s Square blackened by fire. In all, twenty-eight houses and nine business establishments were damaged or destroyed. 

The last structure to burn was the town’s largest hotel. 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 gateways to the agricultural west. Many wagons from 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 markers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, saddlers, and drivers.

Not only did the fire interrupt this economic life of the town, but it's effect on individuals was awesome. One hundred and eighty-nine persons, or about twenty percent of the town's population, were victimized by the fire through the loss of homes, furnishing, 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 ranging 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 only corner of the Square that did not burn was credited with the containment of the fire.

The great fires of history in ancient Rome, in Civil War Atlanta, in Chicago, and in hundreds of other towns and cities have destroyed lives, properties, and hopes. But until social historians developed in the last decade and a half the method of analyzing mobility, the study of the effects of catastrophic events on the victims could not be easily accomplished. Indeed, the discovery of the massive 1860’s migration from Emmitsburg alone could easily lead one-to conclude that the catastrophic Great Fire caused this migration. However, after applying the same mobility methodology to the study of Emmitsburg in the 1860’s that other historians have applied to the analysis of mobility in cities, such as Pittsburgh, Salem, Boston, Northampton, etc., it becomes obvious that social and economic factors, rather than the Great Fire, were the dominant causes of geographical mobility in Emmitsburg in the 1860s.

Migration from Emmitsburg caused the town’s population to fall twenty-seven percent from 983 in 1860 to 706 in 1870. That decline represented more than simply 267 persons leaving Emmitsburg in the decade of the 1860’s. By tracing the migration history of the adult males listed in the 1860 Census, we find that. seventy-one percent of them did not reappear in the 1970 Census. If we can assume that the entire population was moving in a manner similar to the adult male population, then we can calculate the minimum number of persons who moved in and out of Emmitsburg in the 1860’s. 

Seventy-one percent of the adult males left Emmitsburg during the 1860’s out of a population of 983. This means that 691 persons left Emmitsburg in the 1860’s and 424 had to move into Emmitsburg for the population to reach 706 by 1870. Thus 1,115 persons moved in and out of Emmitsburg in the decade. This is only an estimated minimum, because those that moved in and out between the census years (as did seven of the property owning fire victims) are not considered.

This massive 1860’s migration of Emmitsburg townspeople, however, included only a minority of those who were directly affected by the Great Fire. Presumably, one would think, since the town experienced a massive migration, the victims of the fire would be numbered among the migrants. After tracing the history of the thirty two families who were present in Emmitsburg in 1860 and who were victimized by the Great Fire, one finds that less than a third (31%) actually left Emmitsburg within seven years after the fire. This is contrasted sharply with the nearly three-quarters (71%) of the town’s adult population as a whole who left.

The sixty-nine percent of the fire victims who remained in Emmitsburg throughout the 1860’s had reported in 1860 that the value of their property was $45,400. In the 1863 fire, they lost $32,900 worth of that property, or seventy-two percent of their 1860 property. Despite the huge loss, though, they remained. Other similar studies may in the future reveal that Emmitsburg is not a unique example of a town that experienced a catastrophe, but that did not see that catastrophe cause a major migration, at least of the catastrophe’s victims.

Beyond this, however, a comparison of the fire victims to the population of the town as a whole suggests that the victims possessed certain social and economic characteristics that may have lead most to see a bright future in Emmitsburg, even while they were standing in the smoldering embers of their ruined past. Numerous studies by social historians have centered on a set of social and economic traits that can be considered to be causes of persistence or migration. Occupation, wealth, and familial status have all previously been identified as characteristics that distinguished those who left a city or town, from those who remained.

During the 1860’s in Emmitsburg there was, first of all, a similarity between the adult male fire victims who remained and the adult males in the town population as a whole who remained. Both a majority of the fire victims and adult males in the town who remained were heads of households and property owners.

There is also similarity between the fire victims who remained and all adult males in the town who remained in regard to occupation classification. Eighty-four percent of the fire victims who remained were professional or skilled workers. There were farmers, doctors, druggists, teachers, justices of the peace, merchants, tavern owners, shoemakers, carpenters, hatters, wheelwrights, plasterers, machinists and blacksmiths among them.

In the town population in general these were the types of workers that produced the highest persistency rates. In fact forty percent of all professionals, merchants, farmers, clerical and skilled workers remained in Emmitsburg in the 1860’s. On the other hand only seventeen percent of the semiskilled and unskilled workers, and unemployed remains. Again the characteristics of the fire victims who remained match those of the adult males in the population as a whole who remained more closely than those of the townspeople who left Emmitsburg.

The minority of fire victims who left within the 1860’s and thus joined the majority of townspeople on the road out of Emmitsburg were in some ways similar to the fire victims who remained. They too were property owners, heads of households, and numbered among the ranks of the skilled craftsmen and professionals. As such it may appear that they "should have" stayed in Emmitsburg, if social and economic factors were dominant, rather than the catastrophic fire, as the cause for migration. But a sampling of the circumstances faced by the fire victims who Left suggests that even strong social and economic factors are occasionally overridden.

Damel Wile, for instance, had been the owner of the large hotel on the Square, the last structure to burn in the fire. If he concluded that Emmitsburg was a jinx for him, most would agree. He, his wife, Mary. and their children, Anna and Henry, moved to Emmitsburg in the 1850’s. His family continued to grow but his luck did not. In 1856 or 1857 Wile purchased the City Hotel. A few days after the purchase, the former owner and he were looking at a gun. The gun accidentally discharged and Wile was shot through the neck. After recovering, he decided to raze the hotel and build a new four-story structure. Four years later the Great Fire of Emmitsburg destroyed it, causing $10,000 worth of damage.

Some fire victims who left, soon returned to Emmitsburg. George Beam, for instance, whose farm animals and horses were destroyed in the stable where the fire started, left Emmitsburg after the fire, but returned during the 1870’s and continued his livery stable business into the twentieth century. Another who returned was William Patterson, a medical doctor whose office was on one of the three corners of the town Square that was destroyed. He was sixty-one at the time of the fire. Soon after leaving Emmitsburg he returned in the 1870’s and died in Emmitsburg in 1876.

Joshua Shorb is counted among those who left after the fire, but more than likely he did not leave because of the fire. He incurred a $4,000 loss when the fire destroyed his machine shop and foundry. But he rebuilt his business and not until 1868, four years after the fire, moved his business to Westminster, a town east of and much larger than Emmitsburg.

Some, like Charles Shorb, did seem to leave town in response to the catastrophe. Charles Shorb was just thirty-one at the time of the fire, but he and his wife had amassed considerable wealth, most of it invested in his store’s inventory. In the fire he lost $12,000, or one half of his 1860 wealth. Shorb and his wife, in fact, lost more than any other fire victim. Possibly this motivated them to leave the town that once gave them a fortune, and then misfortune.

But Charles Shorb and a few others were quite clearly in the minority. Most with social and economic backgrounds similar to Shorb’s remained in town throughout the 1860’s, whether or not they had been fire victims.

There is one possible economic explanation for why certain fire victims left Emmitsburg, and others did not. The type of property lost may account for why some migrated and others remained. While about the same proportion. of those that left lost houses in comparison to those who remained, one half of those who left lost their business establishments and inventories in the fire, as opposed to less than a quarter of those who remained. 

Because so few of the fire victims left, the sample may be too small to draw any definitive conclusions. But attention to such an economic factor as the type of property lost would be wise in other studies of catastrophes. The fact remains, nonetheless, that the majority of fire victims remained and at the same time matched the social and economic characteristics of those in the populations as a whole who remained in Emmitsburg during the 1860’s.

In his dramatic conclusion to his section on the Great Fire, James A. Helman, author of the History of Emmitsburg, Maryland, wrote: "Oh, the desolation a fire makes; most of the people lost their all, and never recovered." Helman was a twenty-three year old resident of Emmitsburg at the time of the Great Fire. It is difficult, and perhaps presumptuous, for an historian over a century after the event to say that an eyewitness was wrong. But such is the arrogance of the historian!

Of the forty-two who lost property in the fire, most lost much, and most recovered. Or at least most of those who remained recovered. By 1870, just seven years after the fire, three-quarters of those who remained were doing as well or better than they were in 1860, according to the value of their property. By 1870 only two who remained seem to have suffered unrecoverable losses. Patrick Kelly, the highly successful tailor who had done much work for the students and teachers at Mount Saint Mary’s College, lost his property in the fire and by 1870, still owned no real estate, although his personal property was valued at $2,000, which made him one of the more successful men in town in 1870. 

Kelly was growing old, and by 1872 would be dead. The other fire victim who did not seem to recover was Francis Smith, a German immigrant who owned King’s Tavern in 1860, but who was property less by 1870. However, while some of his property was lost in the fire, the Tavern had not been destroyed, so apparently he lost it after the fire, and probably unrelated to the fire. Of those who left Emmitsburg, it is difficult to say whether they recovered or not. Some, however, as indicated above, were soon back in business and on the road to recovery.

The personal progress that each fire victim would have experienced in the 1860’s, if the fire had not occurred, can never be known. But with the use of the mobility methodology that social historians have developed in recent decades, the actual progress the fire victims did experience can be known. The Great Fire of Emmitsburg was not a major factor causing migration for fire victims. Instead, as the above evidence indicates, social position, such as one’s position as head of a household, and economic position, such as one’s occupation and status as a property owner, were more important factors in determining whether someone, regardless of whether one has personally suffered the tragedy of a catastrophe, would remain or leave one’s home town.

Richard Jensen’s comments at the 1976 Organization of American Historians’ convention about the need for historians to study small nineteenth century towns are valuable. And possibly they are prophetic. For as this study illustrates, the very factors that were involved in the massive migration from and within large, industrial, immigrant-crowded cities were also operative in at least one small, pre-industrial, rural town, whose population was ninety-seven percent native-born.

And these factors were even operative in the face of a major catastrophe, such as the 1863 Great Fire of Emmitsburg, Maryland.

Read other articles by Bob Preston