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Feb. 22, 2020

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1894 Christmas Eve Fire spurred safety legislation

The Columbian
Published:

SILVER LAKE, Ore. — Christmas Eve is usually a night of anticipation and excitement, of big-eyed kids wondering what the morning will bring.

That same sense of anticipation sparkled in the northern Lake County community of Silver Lake in 1894, when nearly 200 people gathered in the J.H. Clayton Hall above the Chrisman Store for a Christmas program. But before the night was over, 40 were dead and 34 others were injured, including three who later died of injuries resulting from a devastating fire.

The 24-by-50-foot hall was used by traveling evangelists, and for dramas and dances. It was reached by a narrow stairway outside the building. Two front windows provided light and ventilation. According to accounts from survivors, the 1894 Christmas Eve audience was seated on long plank benches that faced the stage at the end of the building opposite the door. One survivor wrote that the room was lighted “by one huge brass coal-oil burner slung from the beams near the center of the hall and a small one mounted over the stage.”

The hall that day was made festive by paper chains and a community Christmas tree. Schoolchildren, some outfitted as angels with halos and wings, performed songs, poems, readings and skits and were anticipating the opening of gifts.

The program was nearly over when 18-year-old George Payne stood up, began walking along the benches and accidentally knocked over the brass coal-oil burner lamp.

Coal oil spilled and flared, causing the floor and ceiling to catch fire. Several people attempted to douse the blaze. Store owner Francis Chrisman grabbed the torchlike lamp and tried to carry it to the door, but oil ran down and burned his hand. He dropped the lamp, which was kicked around the floor, leaving behind a trail of oil, flames and smoke. The blaze quickly engulfed the building, causing the crowd to surge toward the door.

When a woman’s dress burst into flame, the fragile calm exploded into terror. A girl stumbled, and when her mother tried to pick her up, she also went down. In the melee, more people tumbled and panicked. The frantic mob crowded the door, which opened inward.

“It was hardly more than two minutes after the lamp fell until the entire building was a roaring conflagration. Everything was in a turmoil of excitement and commotion,” one person later wrote. “Some were rushing hither and thither through the blinding heat and smoke and flame, trying to find some means of escape from the prison flames. Some knelt down and prayed while others, so overcome by the suddenness of the dangerous situation, fainted and fell prostrate in the flames.”

When the door was finally opened, people trying to escape down the stairway were blocked by rescuers trying to rush upstairs. Rescuers briefly used a hose to douse the flames, but the water shut off. Then the overloaded stairs collapsed, and those standing on the balcony fell to the ground. Some people, fearing the smoke and hearing terrified screams, leaped out of the opening.

Other rescuers ran toward the building’s front and raised a ladder to a balcony under the windows. Walter Duncan stood on the porch and helped a few escape. Instead of jumping off, most people stood on the porch until it collapsed.

Several days later, Lake County Judge E.M. Brattain wrote in the Morning Oregonian, “The screams and groans … were heart-rending. Those on the outside were powerless, and were compelled to stand and see their relatives and friends burned to death.”

The fatalities included 19 women, 16 men and eight children.

Even before he knew the extent of the carnage, local cowboy Ed O’Farrell had grabbed a horse and started the 100-mile ride to Lakeview to seek medical help.

“It was a snowy winter, in the middle of the night, country roads were snowed in, and snow was 4 foot deep on the summits,” wrote Reub Long in his book, “The Oregon Desert.” “The temperature was 20 below zero.”

O’Farrell stopped at ranches, pausing long enough to tell his story, trade for a fresh horse, make arrangements to have teams ready for the return ride and gallop on.

Silver Lake’s resident physician, W.M. Thompson, was in the Summer Lake area that night. After he learned of the blaze, he hurried back to begin treatment.

O’Farrell reached Lakeview about 4 p.m. Christmas Day, 15 hours after leaving Silver Lake. Within an hour, Dr. Bernard Daly “had gathered supplies and he was on his way with Willard Duncan in a buggy with the best team in town,” wrote Dorothy Moran in a historical account of the fire. “They pulled into Silver Lake at 6 a.m. (Dec. 26). A saloon had been converted into an emergency hospital.”

Daly’s efforts didn’t end after he tended to the dead and injured. Years after the fire, when he was elected a state senator, one of Daly’s first acts was introducing legislation requiring that doors on public buildings open outward. He wanted to be sure the same mistakes that cost so many lives at Silver Lake would not be repeated.

In 1898, the community erected a 10-foot monument with the names of the 43 victims in Silver Lake Cemetery.

“As long as the fire continues to have meaning within the history of the community, there will be reason to retell the story,” Barbara Allen wrote in “The Story of the Christmas Eve Fire.” “Nearly 100 years after the event, the human dimensions of the fire are particularly clear, for the disaster involved no esoteric technology as in a nuclear plant or space accident, nor was it caused by sabotage or terrorism. It was purely a human tragedy.”

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