It was the night Longview burned down.

Contemporary newspapers told the sad story of the 1877 fire in downtown Longview:


Disastrous Conflagration

25 Business Houses Consumed

There wasn’t much to Longview, a village of some 1,000 residents. A large cotton compress operated in town, and a number of rough frame buildings stretched along Tyler Avenue (today called Tyler Street).

It was a little after 2 a.m. Oct. 4 that the early morning stillness was broken by the cries of a resident: “Fire! Fire!” The first flames had been spotted from Maddin’s Restaurant.

Sleepy-eyed Longviewites, some still in their nightclothes, converged downtown to battle the blaze, which quickly engulfed a drugstore, grocery and dry goods store.

It was too little, too late. Fanned by strong winds, Maddin’s Restaurant became a burned-out shell and the other wooden structures fell victim one by one. “The residents formed bucket brigades,” the Texas New Era reported, and “by great efforts the (Texas and Pacific) depot and houses south of the square were saved.”

But there was little they could do about the businesses along Tyler Avenue.

“Over half the business part of the town was burned to the ground,” said the Texas New Era. “Twenty-five buildings burned with content. No goods of consequence were saved on account of the briskness of the blaze, helped by a strong wind. In a short time the entire row of wooden buildings was reduced to ashes.”

In all, losses amounted to more than $100,000. That’s a huge loss even by today’s inflated values, but it was astronomical when you consider that the 1877 total assessed value in all of Gregg County was only $1 million.

Biggest monetary loss was A. Bernstein Dry Goods, with losses reported at $35,000. Other businesses destroyed or heavily damaged included W.A. Williams’ grocery, C.F. Witherspoon’s drug store, M.F. Capps’ bookstore, Joe Newman’s grocery store, Dold’s jewelry store, W.F. Perry’s grocery and the aforementioned Maddin’s.

Most of the firms had little if any insurance. Exact cause of the fire was impossible to determine, however some suspected arson.

But while the smell of smoke was still strong, the merchants began clearing away the charred remains of what had been downtown Longview. Several, but not all, of the burned structures soon were replaced with larger, improved brick and stone buildings.

Another blaze

Seven years later, in early January 1884, a second major downtown blaze broke out. The Longview Democrat called it “the most destructive fire that has been in Longview since the fire of 1877.”

Destroyed was the N.H. Killingsworth Grocery as well as Dr. J.N. Allison’s Drug Store. Other stores were damaged, including the Dock and Olive Pegues Dry Goods House.

But good came out of that 1884 fire. In 1885, the Longview Volunteer Fire Company was organized with 35 members. The fire company’s motto was “Ever Ready.”

The city of Longview built a downtown fire station-City Hall and bought a horse-drawn hose cart and $6,000 steam pumper. The latter was called “Dollie” in honor of Dollie Northcutt, the daughter of volunteer firefighter W.G. Northcutt. Miss Northcutt later married S.C. Forman, a Texas and Pacific railroad agent also active with the volunteer department.

When G.A. Bodenheim was elected mayor in 1902, he set about modernizing the fire department. One of his first official acts was to buy a two-wheeled chemical engine and a hook and ladder truck. About 1912, Longview purchased what reportedly was Texas’ first automobile pumper from the American LaFrance Fire Engine Co. in New York.

— Van “Fire Bell” Craddock’s latest book is “East Texas Tales, Book 2,” available at Barron’s and the Gregg County Historical Museum. His column appears Sunday. Email .