The Great 1933 Smethport Fire
return to virtual Main Street

photo credit:  John G. Coleman Collection
Before the FIRE

photo credit:  McKean County Miner
After the FIRE

Fires in Smethport
(Note:  This account of the worst fire in Smethport is taken from the January 27, 1933 McKean County Democrat Newspaper)

The worst fire in Smethport's history which started in the rear of the city Meat Market on West Main Street at midnight last Thursday evening (January 18, 1933) swept two blocks in the central business section, destroying ten Main Street structures and three adjacent garage buildings, causing a loss of nearly $260,000, and for anxious hours menaced the entire town.  Calls for help brought quick and noble response from neighboring cities and seven fire departments with seven powerful pumper trucks from Bradford, Mt. Jewett, Kane, Olean, Eldred, and Port Allegany joined forces with the Smethport Fire Department in a heroic battle which lasted throughout the night and which will live in history as one o he hardest most remarkable fights against the fire demon ever waged in Northwestern Pennsylvania.

A score of firemen and citizens suffered minor injuries, but by seeming miracle no serious casualties occurred.

Fanned by a gales which raged at 60-mile-per-hour velocity, the fire spread with incredible rapidity after discovery and the conflagration in its terribly menacing proportions, if not in devastating final effect when checked, is said by veteran fire-fighters to have been the very worst which has visited this section of the country.

Buildings destroyed were: - 2 two-story wooden frame buildings, owned by R. C.. Gleason, occupied by Charles Lemmler's leather store and Harness shop and the City Meat Market, owned by S. J. Hayes.  Upstairs over Lemmler's was the office of R. C. Gleason, justice of the peace and tax collector.  A two-story wooden frame building, occupied by the McKean County Farm Bureau.  On the second floor was the residence of Miss Ella Parsons.  The Corner Store, owned by J. A. Lindholm.  The Corner Drug Store, owned by W. A. Ostrander, occupying a two-story frame building.

The large two-story brick block, owned by J. A. Lindholm, containing his grocery store on the ground floor and his residence upstairs.  The one story building occupied by E. O. Gaskin's barber shop, owned by J. A. Lindholm.

The Hamlin block, a two-story brick structure owned by W. O. Hamlin and occupied by C. W. Masser Hardware store on the first floor and by G. A. Richards and family occupying the second floor apartment.

The Imperial block, a four story brick and frame structure owned by Burgess Daniel Bacon containing a news agency owned by John G. Saulpaugh on the first floor with Burgess Bacon and daughter, Miss Margaret, Mrs. Mary Hussey, and Mrs. Audene and family occupying the apartment above.  The two story frame building of N. D. and Louis Raymer, occupied by the Spinning Wheel Restaurant of Mr. and Mrs. James Larson with their living apartment on the second floor.

The two story frame building of Charles Infantino, the first floor occupied by his shoe repair establishment and the balance of the structure used as his residence.  A large steel sheeted wooden building formerly a blacksmith shop owned in the rear of this building.  The structure contained his Studebaker Sedan, which was destroyed.  A garage owned by Daniel Bacon, in the rear of the Imperial block.

The Fry Company building containing one of McKean County's finest department stores and also several apartments and Mrs. Kathryn Hungiville's beauty parlor, did not ignite but the interior and stock were badly damaged by smoke and water.  At one time a core of buildings on Main Street and adjacent there to were on fire simultaneously but these fires were extinguished by workers on roofs with pails of water and chemical extinguishers, while the light motor chemical trucks of the local department darted here and there with effective results.

Had it not been for the timely arrival of help from the nearby towns it is safe to say that 200 buildings in the Eastern part of Smethport who have been destroyed.  The terrifying roar of the conflagration after it had jumped one block to communicate to the massive Imperial block and adjacent structures on the opposite side of Main Street, could be heard for a long distance.  Pillars of flames leaped hundreds of feet in the air and at times were forced to the tops of other buildings for two blocks distance, making the position of firemen working on the roofs most precarious at times.

A dense hail of blazing embers and sparks showered over the eastern part of town and hundreds of inhabitants were prepared to flee from their homes at one time with no thought of saving any worldly possessions except what clothing they could carry.   It was during these critical hours that reports were sent to the outside world which were published in early Friday morning editions of metropolitan newspapers and were broadcast over the radio.  The reports were not exaggerated in the least.  The actual spectacle of horror bears description.  By 4:00 o'clock on Friday morning firemen after directing twelve powerful streams on the flames for hours got a break when the gale abated somewhat and by 7:00 o'clock had the fire under control.  By 9:00 o'clock the last out of town fire department had left for home.


The fire was discovered a few moments after midnight Thursday night, seemingly by a number of people simultaneously.  Residents of the nearby Lindholm apartment sent in the fire call to the local telephone exchange, which relayed the alarm to the fire station.  Whether the blaze originated in the rear of the City Meat Market or outside in the area-way between the meat market and Lemmler store building is hard to determine, so rapidly did the fire burst forth in menacing proportions.

Those first on the scene believe that it started outside, stating that at the very instant the fire alarm siren sent out its piercing wail, the rear ends of both wooden buildings were afire from ground to roof.  S. J. Hayes, Proprietor of City Meat Market, was inside the store fifteen or twenty minutes before the fire was discovered and at that time there was not signs of a blaze.  The ugly glare of the fire could be seen in the heaven for a radius of fifty miles from Smethport.


The fire was less than one block from the local hose house and the fire department trucks were immediately on the scene.  The Stewart-Buffalo pumper was placed in operation at a closely situated hydrant in front of the Smethport Garage on West Main Street and soon throwing two powerful streams on the fire.

The department's other powerful Packard-Buffalo pumper truck was placed at the standpipe connected directly back of the burning structures and two lines of hose were run to the rear of the burning area, but when the pump was started the clutch failed to work and the apparatus was rendered useless.  The failure ot get streams on the rear of the burning buildings where they were needed the most was calamitous.  Had these lines been in operation at the outset the fire would have been easily convened to the two Gleason buildings and the Farm Bureau building with timely arrival of relief from nearby towns.

As it was the fire roared beyond control and the two streams of water, powerful as they were, proved totally inadequate to check its spread.  At the first alarm the gravity of the situation was realized and calls for help had been sent to nearby towns.  In a half-hour's time the Mt. Jewett and Bradford Fire Departments arrived almost simultaneously after record breaking runs with their pumper trucks followed closely by Kane firemen with their pumper.

By this time the fire had communicated from the two Gleason buildings to the Ostrander structures and the four wooden buildings burning like tinder, were a roaring furnace.  The Lindholm block was ablaze and the towering Imperial Structure a block distant had caught fire on the top story and despite heroic efforts of firemen with hand extinguishers was clearly doomed.  The Bradford and Kane pumpers were placed in operation at the dike of Hamlin Lake at the foot of Union Street and the Mt. Jewett pumper was placed at a city water  main hydrant at the back school house square of the Imperial block.

Howard Denning, chief of the Smethport Fire Department, soon had three veteran fire chiefs working with him.  Chief Larkin of the Bradford Department, David Dane, chief of the Mt. Jewett Department and Chief John Valentour of the Kane Department.  About this time the Eldred and Olean Fire Department details arrive with their pumpers.  The Olean brigade ws under command of that splendid fire fighter, Captain John O'Hara.  Shortly thereafter the Port Allegany and Coudersport Fire Departments arrived with their pumpers.  The huge Olean and Coudersport pumpers were placed along side Hamlin Lake on the Shawmut railroad right of way a short distance above the dike.  The Eldred pumper was stationed at the stand pipe of the Backus Novelty factory and the Port Allegany pumper was placed at the bridge on Mechanic Street next the the Holmes and Gilfillan plant.

In the meantime the flames kept up their furious sweep.  The interior of the brick Lindholm building despite the firemen's grim battle became a mass of flames from cellar to roof and finally seemed to literally explode.  The heavy brick walls, the floors and roof seemed to melt to ashes in a n incredibly short time.  The staunch brick Hamlin building containing the Masser Hardware was next to fall prey after the Lindholm block and here the firemen made their heroic stand, holding the flames inch by inch throughout the night and held them when the brick 3 story Fry Department store building, the 3 story Hungiville and Monheimer building, both brick seemed doomed.  While the full sweep of the fire in this block was underway the huge Imperial block on the upper side of Main Street a block distant became a mass of flames.  This building the first story of which was brick with three upper stories of wooden frame construction burned entirely.  the tower in the front top of the structure loomed nearly one hundred feet above Main Street and the fire burning from the roof downward, presented spectacular features.  The huge building was reduced to ashes.

The Spinning Wheel Restaurant adjoining was likewise completely destroyed.  the fire next communicated to the Infantio building and here firemen, directed by Captain O'Hara of Olean made a last desperate and successful stand saving the two story wooden building of John Karlan, closely adjoining and McCarthy's Meat Market building and the large tourist hotel of J. J. Johnston, the latter wood structures.  A barn in the rear of the residence of Mrs. H. W. Rubin ignited and was burning fiercely when a hose was placed in operation there.  when this strenuous battle ended, the wooden front and one side wall of the Infatino building remained standing, although the building at one time was a mass of flames.  Firemen then moved their lines of hose up the street to the Masser store building and joined in the hard battle there.  Due to the huge hardwood stock, one of the largest in McKean County, in the basement and first floor of the fire progressed in a manner which was difficult to combat.  The large stock of highly inflammable paints, varnishes, and oils in the building provided frequent explosions while the firefighters were repeatedly menaced by exploding cartridges of the large quantity of ammunition carried in the big store.  Finally the firefighters were directing ten high pressure streams of water at the Masser store from the front and rear of the building and from the top of the Fry building.  when the flames were subdued the front walls and part of the east wall of the building were still standing,  At one time the fire threatened to communicate to other buildings in the area and several suffered considerable damage.  The plate glass front of the McKean County Miner office building opposite the City Meat Market was destroyed by the heat.  Plate glass windows were broken in the Hamlin Bank Trust Company building and the Irene Gabriel store opposite the Imperial block.  In addition to these structures the fire also directly menaced the Grange Bank, the Rubin, Odd Fellows and Post Office buildings opposite the Masser Hardware - Ostrander burned area and the Keenan residence and office and Market Basket, Gregory O'Connell and Geary buildings opposite the Imperial block, while it took strenuous efforts to save several other adjourning structures.

Aside from a few articles owned by Charles Lemmler, which were removed from his store when the fire first started and two barber chairs taken from the Gaskin barber shop nothing was saved from any of the burned stores or residences, indicating how rapidly the fire spread.  At one time the Wright House on lower Main Street and the big American Legion Lyceum on King Street both situated some distance from the burning area, caught fire and were threatened with destruction.  A. A. Hazen distinguished himself by getting onto the high roof of the Wright House and extinguishing a fire which started from sparks and menaced the big structure.

The roofs of several stores on lower Main Street and of several buildings in the rear were blazing at one time, while serious fire started in the roof of a big barn owned by L. N. Munn, back of his brick block building on lower Main Street, but all were extinguished. One detail of the Port Allegany Fire Department performed splendid work with one line of hose on lower Main Street extinguishing fires nearly every Main Street building.  Throughout the entire eastern section of town workers were similarly engaged in extinguishing fires with chemical grenades, garden hose, or pails of water.  Houses on East Street and across Hamlin Lake on the south side, repeatedly ignited from sparks and in East Smethport a mile away the McKennza residence caught fire.

By 4:00 o'clock Friday morning an anxious citizenry knew that a general evacuation of the town would not be necessary thanks to the unselfish and noble cooperation of the firemen of our neighboring towns who battled tirelessly through the night to conquer the devouring element.  Too much cannot be said in praise of these brave boys and the debt which every man, woman, and child of Smethport owes them can never be repaid.  the battery of powerful pumpers along Hamlin Lake actually make the earth tremble.

The fact was frequently commented upon that Hamlin Lake's water which were cruel the previous Monday night in taking the lives of two skaters, Miss Elouis Hazen and Klas Anderson, popular local young people, saved Smethport from destruction just three nights later.

photo credit:  Don and Deenie Johnson Collection

photo credit:  John G. Coleman Collection



on to Summer of 1933: Building of the Ostrander Building
Back to the last page
Back to Imperial page
Back to Main Street