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Nov 17

The Night Madison Burned

Posted on November 17, 2015 at 5:21 PM by Ken Kocher

As with many things, events, sometimes calamitous ones, point to necessity. This was the case on April 8, 1869, when Madison’s need for a Fire Department was thrown into stark relief. Around 9:30 that evening, as many of the town’s citizens were exiting the Methodist Church following a sermon given by Bishop Beckwith, the fire bell sounded. At this time Madison had no fire apparatus NYT 1869or even an organized fire department. The task of dowsing the flames fell to the townspeople. Accounts of the fire state that people were running over each other to get to the fire and help in any way they could. 

The initial source fire was in the vicinity of Peacock’s Store and Mr. Shaw’s furniture rooms on Main Street. By the time help arrived, both buildings were fully ablaze. Nearly all buildings in Madison at the time, including downtown, were wood frame construction. Due to this fact, the fire consumed the whole side of this block in a short period of time. A shift in winds spread the fire across the street to the Courthouse side. Reports mention that a well-organized force prevented the Courthouse, then in the center of the square, from burning. 

Goods and furniture were hastily removed from businesses and homes and placed in the streets only to become a part of the problem. The heat of the conflagration was so intense that these rescued items caught fire as well. A total of 42 buildings over a five acre area were on fire at once in a very short period. As the fire spread items such as gun powder kegs began to explode and kerosene tanks blew up into the night sky. In a period of 2-1/2 hours, much of Main Street Madison was gone. By midnight, 75 buildings including Town Hall had been destroyed or damaged by fire. Loss estimates were anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million. 

Many thought the fire was intentionally set, although during this era there was no true understanding of fire cause nor was there any type of investigation conducted. Over the next few days, many of the remaining goods placed in the streets were taken by looters, many of whom were apprehended and jailed. Athens, Augusta, and Atlanta gave assistance to Madison by raising money and sending needed supplies.
One reaction to the devastation was to implement prevention measures to prevent such a disaster in the future. Buildings constructed following this fire were built mainly of brick . More than one news editor across the state pointed to Madison as an example of what could happen when a town was without proper fire protection. Madisonians agreed and efforts began to form an organized fire company. More on this in future installments.

Madison Moments, a weekly blog highlighting Madison's rich history, is a creation of the Madison Historic Preservation Commission in collaboration with other City Boards and Departments. This installment was contributed by the Madison Fire Department and written by Gene Porter, Fire Marshal. This volunteer department works to safeguard the lives and property and enhance the quality of life of the people and patrons alike of Madison.


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