The Big Pawnee City Fire

    Never before the year 1880 had Pawnee City experienced such a surge of growth. Around 40 new family dwellings were started and some of them completed before the end of the year, with an approximated expenditure of $20,000. Most occurred during the last half of the year. Walker's restaurant was built during 1880, as was E. & J. Duer's hardware, Frank Goodridge's livery barn, White Lake Lumber Company's office, Jones & Magee's office, Rigby & Wing's hardware, C. B. Haas' bakery, A. O. Kohn's tailoring shop, and Black & Rogers' hotel.

    Additions were made to Shellhorn & Davis' building, Sawyer & Linn's harness shop, and J. R. Turnbull's harness shop. The estimated cost for these business improvements was also around $20,000. There was still room for more commercial opportunity in Pawnee City while further construction continued into 1881.

    16 years had passed since the tragic murder of the beloved Abraham Lincoln. Right after mid-year of 1881, honorable citizens of Pawnee City were again astounded at the news of a July 2nd assassination attempt on the life of their recently-inaugurated President, who was a former Civil War General, professor, and congressman. But another even more-alarming catastrophe would soon surprise the progressive Nebraska town.

    49-year-old James Abram Garfield, who had successfully survived bloody military skirmishes at Middle Creek and Pound Gap, Ky., and the fierce major battles of Shiloh and Chickamauga, was seriously wounded from a pistol-shot fired by a "hare-brained fanatic" in Washington, D. C. Charles Jules Guiteau, a disturbed lawyer upset at being refused a government job, had ambushed the chief executive at the Baltimore and Potomac Railway Station. And on that terrible Saturday morning, the maimed American leader began a 79-day effort to regain his vitality while doctors probed for the imbedded bullet with unsterilized instruments.

    While the weakened President was straining to recuperate in the sultry summer of 1881 at Elberon, N. J., the evening of August the 8th was typically calm in the quietly reposing county-seat hamlet of Pawnee City, and late into that Monday night most of the good residents and their dogs were peacefully snoozing. But after the hands of every functioning clock in the tranquil town had ticked past midnight, an imperceptible wisp of smoke, originating in the rear of Reeder's Drugstore, wafted up into the dark night sky.

    As the moments passed, a haziness drifting out of the pharmacy intensified, and by 12:30 an overwhelming blaze was sweeping the thriving business district. The clouded atmosphere of downtown's fiery glow, pungently permeated with the harsh odor of smoke, cast its flickering illumination throughout an aroused village. Sleepy townspeople awakened to the unforeseen emergency, and, excited with a determined sense of urgency, quickly rallied to contend with the startling predicament.

    Coaxed by a southwest breeze, roaring flames were devouring the Pawnee Republican office while the businesses of the Duer Brothers Agricultural Implements, Shellhorn & Davis' store, Hassler & Nichols Drugstore, and the C. T. Edee & Co. Bank were being reduced to smoldering embers. The Joy, Eckman & David banking firm was destroyed amidst all the hectic commotion, along with the structures of Little & Ryburn's furniture store, Dobbs & Rogers' marbleworks, Stewart & Vanderpool's business house, and those of several other merchants.

    The raging conflagration was denied by the impervious iron roof of Captain G. M. Humphrey's law office; and upon the top of the Arlington House hotel and stagecoach station, further advance of the crisis was finally arrested by gallant firefighters using buckets and empty water-soaked bags to stubbornly contest the fiery incursion.

    Three wearisome hours of toil and dismay after the unexpected holocaust had first begun, over half the Pawnee City businesses were lost, 26 shops burned into puny grey heaps of charcoal and ashes. Destruction was estimated at $50,000, with perhaps only a quarter of the damaged property insured.

    When the sun arose on the eastern horizon that Tuesday morning, both the recently-wounded President Garfield and local resident William Wishart lay incapacitated, each hopefully bidding to recover his full health. Having bravely battled the calamitous inferno in Pawnee City, young Wishart, who had barely escaped the great Chicago fire of ten years earlier, was unfortunately overcome by fire and smoke during the preceding frantic early hours of August 9th, 1881.

    Weeks later, on Monday, September 19, the enfeebled President James Garfield who had been transported to Elberon ultimately lost his critical struggle for life. The murdered American leader was succeeded in the executive office by the Vice-President, Chester A. Arthur.

    By December, Pawnee City had a brand-new railroad depot, and the first steam locomotive serving Pawnee City was rolling over the shiny iron rails of the Republican Valley Road's Wymore branch. Local merchants had quickly rebuilt their businesses with improved stone and brick structures, and the quarter-century-old city of 1500 citizens resumed a more rapid growth of prosperity than ever before. Pawnee City was doing very well, and many residents afterward considered the August fire to have been an uninvited blessing in disguise.

    The quiet winter peacefulness in Pawnee City's cemetery placidly enveloped gentle slopes of dormant grass hidden beneath a snowy sheath. A serene whiteness enhancing the tranquil graveyard had spread over the Miller family plot where 72-year-old Scottish immigrant William Miller was solemnly buried three years earlier in 1877, and where the deceased infant daughter of George and Margaret (Wishart) Miller lay underground since 1878.

    Under a wintry Nebraska sky, the snow-covered Miller plot also contained remains of the youthful William T. Wishart since early autumn. The stalwart 24-year-old Scottish immigrant had forfeited his short life futilely trying to rescue some of Pawnee City's downtown business places, and now his body reposed near that of his little cousin.

    After suffering through the 66 days following the major fire, the valiant young defender had succumbed back on Friday, October 14, and was soon carried to the cemetery on the west edge of town. Like the martyred George Wishart, his Reformationist countryman of the same surname, William Wishart also had become a fatalistic victim of fire.

© Oldtime Nebraska, 2000 -- Big Pawnee City Fire -- submitted by Dick Taylor, September 1998