The 1878 Fire Burns Main Street Businesses
Spartansburg has suffered three major fires in the town business district. The first fire occurred in 1878 and destroyed homes and businesses on both side of Main Street.
The downtown of Spartansburg had been growing and many businesses and residences above stores had been built. Among those businesses was Jacobs and Goldman Dry Goods store. Grocers, hardware dealers, shoe stores, a hotel, drug stores, milliners and doctors lost buildings in the fire. The fire was suspicious to folks in town from the beginning and it later proved that their instincts were correct.
The sound of “Fire!” was heard and the alarm given just after midnight on March 7, 1878. Fire was spotted in the basement of a dry goods store, operated by William M. Jacobs in a building owned by L Jacobsen of Corry on the corner of Main and Mechanic Streets. Mr. Goldman, the store clerk, lived in a room at the back of the first floor sales area. When he was awakened by smoke, he threw some of his belongings out the back of the store before running upstairs to tell Mr. Jacobs. Mr. Jacobs’ family lived in the upstairs apartment. Jacobs dressed quickly and and with haste his wife, child and hired girl were taken to stay at the Hewell House. They remained at the Hewell House after the first fire because Mrs. Jacobs was ill.
With assistance from neighbors, the fire was quickly extinguished and the basement and first floor area were investigated to verify that no other fire spots remained. Since there was some possibility that the fire would rekindle, some men offered to stay and watch throughout the night. Mr. Jacobs declined, stating that he and Mr. Goldman, his clerk, could handle that job.
About 4:30 AM the call of “Fire!” once again was heard. Rushing to the building, townsfolk found flames shooting from the windows on the top floor of the same store. No sign of fire appeared on the lower floors or basement. This time the fire had progressed too far to be extinguished and the wind sent flames to catch other buildings on the same side of the street. Several businesses and homes were caught in the fire which found its way across Main Street to businesses and homes there as well.
Spartansburg had no fire department or equipment and the residents battled bravely with buckets. A telegraph was sent to Corry asking for help from their firemen. A special train was readied to carry the men and equipment, but the Mayor of Corry refused to permit it. Some of the fire fighters came to aid without the equipment and were a great help in arresting the fire and moving belongings from effected buildings. A huge gathering of furniture, store goods and personal belongings were stacked on the east side of the dam and mill., but many merchants and families escaped the fire with very little.
By 6:00 AM the entire Main Street Business district was in flames and by 7:00 AM, all that was left was ashes. The last building to be destroyed was the train depot, which was pulled down to stop the fire’s progress on the northeast side of Main Street. The Hewell House Hotel, on the northwest side of Main and Water streets was saved by quick thinking of the owner and fire fighters. Blankets and rugs were saturated with water and covered the side exposed to the fire. These were kept wet as the fire blazed across the street.
According to reports that followed the fire, fifteen families lost homes and more than 22 buildings were destroyed including businesses, barns, sheds and houses. Distressed and angry people, tired from fighting the blazes, distraught from loss of property and possibly emboldened by alcohol wandered the streets. Thankfully, only minor injuries were sustained during the event.
Several angry residents accused Jacobs of purposefully starting the fires in his store. Tempers being raised, the possibility of vigilante justice was high. Mr. Jacobs fled and sought shelter from Squire William Major, Justice of the Peace. He was confined and guarded in a room at the Hewell House. A short time later, a prosecutor was named and charges brought against Jacobs and Goldman who pleaded not guilty. No bail was set and both were returned to the Hewell House until they could acquire a defense attorney.
Accounts in newspapers listed the loss of property and insurance coverage.
Venia Blair who lived on Davenport Street wrote a letter to her aunt the week following the fire in which she shared a description, partly in her own words borrowing from the news articles that followed the fire.
The following day, a hearing was held and it was determined that the men should stand trial. They remained in jail until the trial was held in April of the same year.
Many people from Spartansburg and surrounding area appeared as witnesses at the trial. Reports were given of the events that occurred that night during the first fire, the findings of the reported fire in the basement area, comments made by Jacobs and Goldman, and of the happenings during the second fire. Several customers of the store reported that it seemed that the inventory in the store was less than normal but others argued that it seemed to be about the same as usual. It was also testified that additional insurance had been added to the store and personal belonging in the year prior to the fire.
The Titusville Herald reported on the trial over a period of two days.Witness testimonies were included and the names of those chosen to be on the jury were listed.
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The jury deliberations occurred during several hours with two votes being taken. The first vote was 11 to 1 to find them guilty. The second vote taken that same day found them guilty.
Jacobs and Goldman were sentenced to 10 years each of imprisonment for arson. They were granted a pardon by the Pardon Board in Harrisburg in 1881, having served only two years of their sentence. Their pardon may have been secured partially based on petitions for their release which contained the names of some of the people who had suffered loss during the fire.
The merchants and property owners of Spartansburg quickly began to rebuild the downtown area. Many of the replacement buildings were constructed from brick. Although Insurance covered only a small portion of the loss many of the businessmen were well-established and able to absorb the difference and move ahead.
An article printed shortly after the fire recounts the progress in rebuilding the business district