March 1894 Spring Street Fire Destroyed Three Businesses, Post Office Saved
Over the years, fires have struck downtown Johnson City, leveling some buildings and causing minor damage to others. Perhaps the biggest one occurred in May 1905 and destroyed almost everything within the boundaries of E. Main, S. Roan, Jobe (replaced by State of Franklin Road) and Spring streets. One notable structure, Johnson City's First Baptist Church, known as "The Little White Church," completely escaped the carnage in spite of the fact that it was wooden.
Another terrible flame occurred in March 1894 in the same block, except it was confined to the northeast end of Spring Street in close proximity to E. Main. The location would later become the site of the Sevier Theatre.
That Monday at about 9 p.m., the fire alarm sounded and a black cloud of smoke quickly ascended from the heart of the city, drawing a huge crowd of anxious and curious onlookers. Fortunately, the fire was contained to an area of one-story corrugated iron buildings facing west. Cause of the fire would prove to be a tiny spark in a defective flue.
The smoke became so dense and suffocating that it was impossible to tell where the fire originated. However, it soon was determined that it started in the middle building (3), which was occupied by a bakery. (It should be noted that the date of the fire was 1894 while the attached map was produced in 1891, three years prior).
When the Fire Company arrived on the scene, the hook and ladder crew hastily penetrated the iron structures, opening as many holes as they could. Then, they simultaneously began pouring four or five good streams of water into the three buildings (2,3,4). The heat was so intense that initially little control was gained.
The heavy iron coverings on the three buildings were so stubborn to the fireman's axe and hook that the three businesses were pretty well-gutted before the fire crew could subdue their threatening adversary.
This news meant a change of plans to save the adjoining Post Office (1) or it would have undoubtedly been seriously damaged, if not completely destroyed. Fortunately, an alley/walkway ran along the north side of the Post Office (1), offering a possible shield to those businesses facing E. Main Street.
The three business buildings (2,3,4) were all occupied at the time the fire broke out. When it was assured that the structures could not be rescued from the flames, the dangerous task of removing inventory from them began with limited success.
Building (2) to the right of the Post Office (1) contained the grocery store of Taylor Brothers. They had $600 insurance on their stock and $500 on the building, which also belonged to them. Unfortunately, a comparatively small portion of their goods was saved for a loss of $1,500.
Since the fire was not fully contained, the Taylor Brothers' owners purchased George R. Brown's restaurant across the street and began moving everything they could to the new facility. It was likely empty at the time.
The second room (3) from the Post Office (1) was occupied by Brown & Stinson's Philadelphia Bakery. These unfortunate gentlemen had no insurance and lost everything. They did not know exactly the amount of stock on hand, but they estimated it at $400. This was the property of Adam Bowman, and his allowing his policy to lapse a month or so earlier cost him about $800.
The last building (4) in the ill-fated block was occupied by Webb Brothers Meat Market. They too had no insurance and came out with a loss of $300. They opened up the next morning in the old Ball stand on Public Square.
The fire was fortunately extinguished before it reached the adjoining brick wall of the Post Office or other buildings in the nearby vicinity.
I mentioned the Sevier Theatre. It was located at 113-17 Spring Street. It too met with a damaging fire in the 1960's and was razed... but that is another story.