The Vagabond – 4th of July fire of 1883

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By Danny Crownover

The first special edition ever issued by a local Gadsden newspaper rolled off the presses on the morning of July 4, 1883, almost 140 years ago. It was a four-page, five-column edition printed for a Fourth of July celebration planned for that day. A program outlined all of the day’s activities.
Advertisers in that first special newspaper edition were R.L. Lindsey, general merchandise; L. M. Price, general merchandise; R.B. Kyle & Company, general merchandise; Tolson & Fontain, general merchandise; Gus Young, groceries; Herzberg & Company; W.R. Williams & Company, dry goods; W.L. Aycock, groceries; John S. Paden, general merchandise; A.J. Douthit, drugs; Joseph Bevins, drugs; O.B. Ralls & company, drugs; W.S. Standifer, furniture; W.L. Fullington, harness and saddles; Mac Commins, barber shop; Rogers & Company, farm machinery; J.W. Carlin, Wood Work and Novelty Shop; Southern Lumber Company, lumber; General D.C. Turrentine, fire insurance; Paschal & Midgely, grocers; Burger & Adler, jewelry shop; Charlie Hawkins & Company, junk; T.J. Carson, meat market; Bank Of Gadsden; and J.B. Roden, bookstore.
According to the program, the one of the day’s main events was to be the parade of the Etowah County Horse Swappers. Downtown wa-gon yards and hitching pla-ces were open early in the morning to take care of all visitors from the country. Vacant lots at the southwest corner of 4th and Chestnut streets were made available for swapping stock.
Festivities began daylight when The Horribles started off the parade as a sort of curtain raiser for the main show. The paraders were decked out in all sorts of outlandish costumes. The parade started in front of the courthouse and moved along Broad Street to Seventh Street, to Walnut Street, to Fifth Street, to Broad Street to First Street, to Locust Street to Fourth Street and back to Broad Street, where rank was broken in front of the courthouse.
At 11 a.m., the Etowah Rifles paraded and drilled on Broad Street in full dress uniform. The company did most of its maneuvering in the rear of the courthouse.
The alarm of fire was sounded at about 12 p.m. shortly after W.H. Denson had begun his patriotic address at the courthouse. The alarm emptied the courtroom. A fire broke out at Charlie Hawkins’s Junk House at the corner of Broad and Third streets where The American National Bank once stood.
The July 4 celebration was quickly called off, and citizens and visiting celebrants shucked their coats and did their best to save the town. Before the day was over, the fire destroyed 26 downtown buildings.
Volunteer firefighters were to stage a parade with their old hand-pumped fire engine. The hook and ladder truck, the first that the city ever owned, was to be a part of the parade. It carried on each side a few leather buckets that were more effective than both machines when the bucket brigade took over. The plan was to have the engine throw water to the top of nearby building from a well in the middle of the intersection of Broad and Fourth streets.
When the fire broke out, the engine was hustled to the well at the intersection of Third and Broad, where it looked as if contact with water in the well and the cistern would never be made. In fact, the outfit quickly retreated to Fourth and Broad where the well and cistern were soon emptied.
A last stand was made at Fifth and Broad, where the apparatus was seized by a drunken mob that had to be driven off at the point of a pistol by town marshal John Hughes. The only thing that saved the town was the firewall at the Kyle Opera House.

The Vagabond may be contacted at dkcrown@bellsouth.net.

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