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Fire destroyed Wrightsville’s riverfront a year before the bridge burning repeated it

Painting of the burning of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge. (Scott Mingus photo. Painting at the Columbia Historical Society.)

Many Cannonball readers are well aware of the June 28, 1863, destruction of the Columbia-Wrightsville covered bridge. The winds shifted and lumberyards and houses along the riverfront also caught on fire. Confederate soldiers formed a bucket brigade and passed water up from the Susquehanna River and the nearby canal. They doused flaming embers on rooftops that threatened more of the town of 1,000 people. I document this in great detail in my book, Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Confederate Expedition to the Susquehanna River, June 1863. Other authors have also dealt with the topic to various degrees.

But, did you know that much of the riverfront area, particularly the vulnerable lumberyards, had been rebuilt and restocked with inventory after a disastrous fire on the night of August 28-29, 1862, that swept through much of the same area? In that case, the winds were favorable and spared the old bridge, granting it almost a year’s more usage before a team of Columbia citizens applied the torch (under army orders) during the Rebel invasion of York County.

Here is the story of the widespread destruction caused by the earlier conflagration, as taken from the August 30, 1862, Baltimore Sun.

19th-century depiction of the bridge on fire in 1863. A year earlier, the bridge had escaped destruction during a riverfront fire. (Author’s collection)

“The most destructive conflagration that has ever visited this place occurred during last night. It was discovered about eleven o’clock among some lumber, owned by Messrs. Weiser & Thomas, the former of York and the latter of Hanover. Their loss is estimated at $5,000. The flames soon spread to the yard of Messrs. Beidler & Gohn, completely destroying their stock, valued at $10,000, insured for $6,000. The fire also consumed several lots of lumber owned by non-residents, among whom were Messrs. Meixell & Orndorff, of Westminster, Md., whose loss is $1,000; Shaw & Hildebrieder, of Union Bridge, Md., loss $600; Mr. H. Merryman, of Elmira, N.Y., and Mr. Waybright, of Littlestown, Pa., and Messrs. Grove & Smuck [Schmuck], of Hanover, Pa., also lost small lots of lumber.

Detail of the area along the river north of the bridge where much of the destruction took place in the August 1862 lumberyard fire. This is the Front Street / Locust / Walnut area. From the 1860 Shearer & Lake Map of York County, Pa. (PHMC)

“From the lumber it extended to the large frame warehouse, corner of Walnut and Front, occupied by Messrs. Smalls & Thomas, of York, for the packing and storage of tobacco. The building and contents are a total loss. The stock of tobacco was valued at from $25,000 to $35,000. A frame warehouse on Front street, occupied by Mr. [William] McConkey, of this place, and Mr. Abbott, of Baltimore, for the storage of grain, was also consumed. They lost 2,500 bushels of corn and 500 bushels of wheat. The storehouse, corner of Locust and Front, occupied by Wm. S. Boyd & Co., as a store, and Chihuahua Lodge of I.O.O.F. [International Order of Odd Fellow] also fell a prey to the devouring element. The residence of Mr. Wilton, on Front street, was slightly damaged, and only saved by great exertion. The warehouse of H. Kauffelt, on Locust street, was on fire, but was saved by great exertion. [Henry Kauffelt would lose this same warehouse entirely in the fire the next summer during the Rebel invasion].

“Great fears were entertained for the safety of the Columbia Bridge, but as the wind was favorable it escaped.

“Great praise is due to the firemen and citizens of Columbia for their aid in arresting the flames. But for their assistance the loss would have been much greater. Mr. William Sutton, who rode over to Columbia to give the alarm, and with his mule dragged one of the engines to the fire, is also deserving of great praise.

“As usual on such occasions the ladies were on hand with a bountiful supply of hot coffee and eatables. — J.B.D.”

John Stoner Beidler, one of the lumber merchants victimized by the fire, was able to salvage some of his inventory. According to his 1862 diary, in December he sold some flooring, “not charred,” to Mike Rudy. Beidler and most of the other dealers rebuilt, only to see their businesses again destroyed less than a year later. Undaunted, he rebuilt a third time and continued his business for many more years.

The Schmuck Lumber Company of Hanover, established in 1852, is still in business today and is still family owned and operated.