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The fire that left its mark

Museum looks back at Carbon Hill’s historic fire of 1913

CARBON HILL — The Carbon Hill School Museum invites one and all to learn about the historic fire that destroyed the town of Carbon Hill 100 years ago.

During the week of Carbon Hill Homecoming week, June 19-23, visitors can see a map of the fire and read eye witness accounts and newspaper feature stories of the fire. Visitors can also browse the many displays in the classroom and  the village room.

The museum will be open 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 19 through Saturday, June 22. The museum will be open Sunday, June 23, from noon until the parade starts, and it will then reopen after the parade until the fireworks show. At 4 p.m, the museum will celebrate Bob Novy as Grand Marshall with a program and refreshments.

Old timers in Carbon Hill spoke often of the disastrous fire of 1913, voices filled with both excitement and sadness. Fire was common in that era of wooden buildings and fire was no stranger to Carbon Hill. Various saloons, houses, businesses and barns had burned over the years, one by one; other homes or businesses were literally moved out of town when the people left.

Following the April, 1912 tornado and the closing of the tipple, the town lost its vitality and miners had to move on for work. Some took their houses with them while others abandoned their little homes, not seeing any value in paying for the move.

They often let a neighbor take the house, connect it to his home both to increase living space and garden space. The 50-foot lot that each house sat on was more valuable than the house with no heat, electricity or plumbing. At any rate, business really slowed down in Carbon Hill after that tornado, making it no surprise that the little company town’s insured wooden buildings would be destined for a serious fire.  

And sure enough on Friday, June 13, 1913, on a dry, windy, hot summer day, a fire broke out in a vacant storeroom of Gallo’s Hall — the two story opera hall which was vacant at the time, making it easy for a tossed cigar to get a good start with little notice. The fire spread north from Gallo’s up 3rd Street to take out Isaac Bull’s butcher shop, the post office, a dry goods store and a confectionary, leaving only the brick coal company store at the north end of the block. All of the businesses on the block were lost to the fire except for the brick company store.

The fire also spread south and east. Gallo’s Hall sat on the northeast corner of 3rd and Lacey at the center of Carbon Hill’s business district. From where the fire started on the Lacey Street side of Gallo’s Hall to the south was the two story hotel with 25 bedrooms housing mostly Elgin, Joliet and Eastern railroad workers. The hotel had a kitchen, a dining hall and the office where miners and railroad men collected their pay.

The hotel burnt to the ground. The fire moved south to Squire Henderson’s little Justice of the Peace office, and it also went up in flames.

One block east of the hotel at the corner of 2nd and Lacey Street was the Methodist church on one corner and the Knights of Pythias Hall on the other. They both burned to the ground.

The fire moved rapidly. A volunteer bucket brigade could not halt it in spite of the work of David Wharrie, an expert with pumps, who worked the system for the volunteer firefighters.Top priority was to save the schoolhouse on 2nd street. The volunteers salted the schoolhouse roof and this building lived to tell the tale.

Directly west of Gallo’s Hall was the village park and the water tower. At Trotter’s Store, south of the water tower on Lacey St, people shoveled loads of salt on the roof of the store to prevent the fire from spreading any further. This act saved Trotter’s, the cigar and candy store next door and the barber shop next to that.

Young Frances Veronda was in charge of the post office that day because her father was out of town. She was quick enough to rescue everything there. Despite these heroic efforts, the scene on the street was in a shambles.

Annie Martinec and her young friends were working at the clothing factory in Suffernville that day and were just eating lunch outside, sitting under the trees, trying not to think about the heat, when they saw smoke to the west. Running home breathless, they arrived to find their town was gone!  

Trotter’s stayed open into the 1920s. A second post office was built next door to Trotter’s and also lasted into the 20s. A new Knights of Pythias Hall was built and served as the village social center until about 1940, when it was sold for $401, torn down by its new owner and its lumber used to build a little home in Coal City.

The well cared for park remains the town’s treasure and the scene of weekly social events. The schoolhouse was modified to a one-story building in the WPA years and still stands today as a public museum dedicated to the coal miners, their immigrant families and all the children who came to school in Carbon Hill.

For more information, call Michele at (815) 634-4213.


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