<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=192888919167017&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
Saturday,  July 20 , 2024

Linkedin Pinterest
News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: 1907 La Center fire

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: August 19, 2023, 6:06am

In the wee hours of Sept. 26, 1907, horse hooves clomped across the La Center bridge. The noise awakened one nearby resident. Had he arisen from bed, his curiosity may have kept the village from burning. Instead, he rolled over and fell back asleep. He didn’t realize that two noisy criminals had just cut the town’s phone line and would attempt a double robbery that would burn the town down.

The pair dismounted, secured their horses, and went different ways. One headed for the back door of Robbins Saloon, while the other crept to the Kane Brother’s Store, breaking the front door lock before entering. A midweek robbery wouldn’t have yielded the outlaws much. But there they were, drilling into two safes, preparing to blow them simultaneously — and imagining themselves flush with cash.

Then a fire broke out. No one is sure how. After the fire, it was clear that both safes had been drilled. One still held a fuse. The contents of each safe remained intact, although slightly singed. When a boom awakened D.H. Shintaffer, who roomed in the Titus family’s home behind Kane’s Store, the unexpected fire frighted off the incompetent burglars.

Later, Shintaffer wasn’t sure whether he heard an explosion or a loud noise as he burst shoeless onto the street and noticed the fire through the rear window of the store. He circled the building and entered through the front, seeing what looked like an oil lamp fire in the telephone office that housed the large safe. He grabbed a half-bucket of water nearby and flung it reactively at the fire before scurrying barefooted to sound the alarm.

La Center lacked a fire department, so locals formed a bucket brigade to quash the fire. The Kane Store, however, was beyond saving. As La Center folks turned to other buildings, the saloon and the post office caught fire, then a warehouse. Next, the bridge the criminals crossed caught fire, followed by a warehouse and the dock.

The town’s blazing heat cut off the brigade’s path to the river. They carried water from the Palace Hotel and any other place they could find to dose the expanding inferno. The Titus home caught fire next, then the Headley warehouse. Men climbed atop the iron-roofed Headley blacksmith shop and were finally able to check the fire’s advance. It was a heroic effort but still cost the town most of its businesses, which included four warehouses, the store, the barbershop, the post office and the Titus house. After nearly $23,000 in damage, all that remained was the Headley blacksmith shop.

Before Sheriff W.D. Sappington arrived, the safecrackers fled, dropping a half-full bottle of Robbins Saloon liquor while crossing the bridge. They inexpertly drilled the vaults and intended to use nitroglycerine to crack them. Nitro, notoriously unstable if not properly handled, may have been the cause of the boom Shintaffer heard. Perhaps a nervous burglar’s reckless handling caused a small burst knocking over the oil lamp that fueled the store fire and burned out La Center. The town lost its oldest building, the post office, but the insured Kane brothers vowed to rebuild their store.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

Columbian freelance contributor