York, NE Fire, Nov 1887

Opera House, York, NE 1900s - saved in the 1887 fire, photo from familyoldphotos.com West Side of the Square - Lincoln Avenue, early 1900s, photo from familyoldphotos.com

The citizens of York were awakened from their slumbers at seven o'clock on Sunday morning by an alarm of fire. The blaze was discovered to be in the billiard hall next to the postoffice owned by Daniel Smick. When the hook and ladder company arrived on the scene and broke open the front doors of the billiard hail the whole interior of the room was found to be a seething mass of flame and entirely beyond the control of any available means at hand to extinguish it. The Lincoln department was at once telegraphed for but did not arrive until eleven o'clock when the Union and Masonic blocks were both in ashes and the fire under control. The Lincoln boys were under command of Chief Newbury and brought with them the steamer T. P. Quick. The water in the cisterns back of Grippen's and Chilcote's was utilized and a stream turned on the raging fire in the basements of the destroyed buildings and what remained of York's greatest conflagration was soon drowned out of existence. The origin of the fire is and will probably remain a mystery. Doctor Farley reports that he was going home between four and half past four on Sunday morning and saw four or five men in the billiard hall with a light and were apparently scuffling about the room. The generally accepted theory is that these men either accidentally dropped a lamp or a lighted cigar or else fired the building purposely. The firemen all agree that the room burned when the doors were burst open as if the floor and walls were saturated with oil. Postmaster Whedon organized a gang of men and proceeded to remove everything from the postoffice and succeeded in getting every piece of mail matter and everything of value out of the building before the fire entered the room. Mr. Whedon deserves great credit for the presence of mind displayed in securing the contents of the office with so little damage. The large crowd fell to work with a will and removed the stocks of Carl Zimmerer, Baer Bros., Vail & Greene, Singer Manufacturing Co., Ewen & Butler, and Coles & Thomas. The goods were piled promiscuously in the square and streets and a. considerable amount was carried off. The occupants of the upper rooms removed such of their property as they could. The Masonic hall was broken open and nearly all the valuable carpets, furniture and paraphernalia saved, but the beautiful hall, which was the pride of the Masonic fraternity was doomed to destruction. The York Times office was directly over the billiard hall and was lost, everything being destroyed including subscription lists, flies, books and accounts, not a scrap of anything being saved.

The firemen and citizens were as well organized as was possible under the circumstances and fought the fire every inch. The Opera Block appeared to be sure to go with the Masonic hall but after one of the severest fights ever made by a body of men with nothing to work with, was saved. The county officers moved out all the records and all occupants of rooms on the second floor moved out their property.

W. K. Williams, Reader Bros. & Co., Ira A. Smith, John S. Gardner and the Citizens State Bank also moved out everything into the street. The Democrat office on the west side of Lincoln Avenue and Bagnell Bros. were prepared for the worst and had moved out nearly everything before the flames were under control. The property destroyed consisted of two of the finest business blocks in the city or in central Nebraska and comprised seven fine store rooms each 100 feet deep. The losses as compiled by the Democrat and received from the losers themselves amount to about $96,000 and is divided as follows:


C. J. Nobes, $13,000, insurance $6,000; damage on Opera House $500, fully insured.
M. D. Einsel, Postoffice Block, $7,500; insurance $2,500.
Anton Zimmerer, Union Block, $10,000; insurance $5,000.
Hamlin Bros. Masonic Block, $15,000 insurance $8,000 and loss on furniture and fixtures $2,000; no insurance.


Carl Zimmerer, general merchandise damage to goods and fixtures moved into the streets and partially burned, $6,000; insured.
W. K. Williams, clothing damaged by water and removal and goods missing, $1,500; insured.
Reader Bros. & Co., confectioners, damage to stock and fixtures $500; insured except $125 destroyed in postoffice room.
Ira A. Smith, jeweler, damaged, lost and stolen $300; no insurance.
M. C. Frank, postoffice news stand $700; insured.
Citizens State Bank, damage to fixtures by removal, $50; no insurance.
York Times, power press, engine, printing material of all kinds, large stock of paper goods, subscription list, accounts, $9,000; insurance $3,200.
W. M. Cowell, law office, $300; insured.
Masonic Temple, blue lodge, $1,500; chapter, $ 1,000; commandery $500, making a total of $3,000 with a partial insurance.
Baer Bros., furniture and undertakers, loss and damage. $6,000; insurance, $3,000.
Coles & Thomas, groceries and queensware, loss and damage, $4,500; insurance, $3,500.
Jasper Huffman, real estate and insurance office, $25; no insurance.
Mrs. R. L. Snodgrass, dressmaker, lost all her furniture, together with models, sewing machine and fixtures of the shop, and nearly all her clothing, $400; no insurance.
John S. Gardner, billiard hall, damage to tables and fixtures, $100; no insurance.
Vail & Greene, boots and shoes, loss and damage, $3,000; fully insured.
Ewen & Butler, dry goods, loss and damage $7,000; fully insured.
F. L. Whedon, postmaster, loss and damage to postoffice property and fixtures, $1,200; insurance $1,000.
Singer Manufacturing Co., loss and damage on sewing machines and stock, $600; no insurance.
Joseph Keilbert, tailor, $25, no insurance.
Fritz Garternicht, room furniture, $25; no insurance.
Nebraska Telephone Co., damage to central office, poles and wires, $100; no insurance.
Daniel Smick, billiard hall where the fire started, entire loss $3,000; no insurance.
Mrs. Sarah W. Clark, room furniture and clothing $100; no insurance.
B. W. Hacker, all his furniture and family clothing, $300; no insurance.
Sheriff's office, loss and damage to office fixtures, $50; no insurance.
County judge's office, $25; no insurance.

The calamity falls very heavy on some of the most public spirited and enterprising men of our city and as such is a loss which affects the entire community and becomes a public disaster. Some of the men who are now nearly ruined have done much to make York the city it is today. This disastrous sequel to the water works agitation is something that the Democrat has held up to the view of the citizens and taxpayers of this city for the last three years. It will be remembered that the Democrat has fought and begged for some kind of fire protection for the past two or three years. If the water works had been in operation, one stream of water would have saved everything on the south side except the billiard hail and that building would not have burned down. The smoldering pile of brick and mortar stands as a monument to the shortsighted, rule or ruin policy of certain men who have been hitherto prominent in city affairs. The lesson which has been learned may last the people of this city a lifetime. The price which was paid on Sunday morning for this costly lesson was large enough to justify leaving an impression never to be forgotten.

York County, Nebraska and Its People : together with a condensed history of the state, Chicago: S.J. Clarke Pub. Co., 1921, pages 422-424