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.