||February 17, 1882
thanks to Harvey Martin, firstname.lastname@example.org, for
scanning and sharing the following account from John E. McDonough's Idyls of the Old South
Ward, © 1932, printed by Chester Times Department of Printing, Chester, PA
THE FATEFUL 1882- THE ACADEMY FIRE -WILLIAM DOLTON
"CURLY" MC NEAL-TONY BARBER-O. C. MC CLURE
WILLIAM COWAN-TOM HIGGINS
And in eighteen hundred and eighty one,
The world and all to end will come.
IT HAS BEEN pretty definitely established that the
foregoing climatic-ending was a forged addition to the famous Mother Shipton prophecy. But
it rhymed so well and seemed such a fitting climax to a morbid declaration more than three
hundred years old that it found a place in most of the unauthentic publications of that
There was an old Yorkshire woman in the Old South Ward preceding the fateful '82 who used
to peddle merchandise about the village and to entertain her customers and her friends
with sidewalk recitations of this ill-boding rhyme. When she came to these last tragic
lines she would utter them with a frenzy which wrought sad havoc with the sensitive nerves
of the old ward. She would tell you she was "daft."
She undertook to cross Lunkhead Bridge (Pennsylvania Railroad
over Chester Creek) one day, was struck by an express train and killed-some said with
intent to suicide-just in time to miss seeing the "world and all" fail "an
end to come" in "eighteen hundred eighty-one."
Much occurred in the early months of the following year to concern many in the old ward,
as to whether or not the old Knaresborough witch wasn't merely mistaken by just one year.
Smallpox broke out in the Old South Ward in January , as did also a well-defined case of
yellow fever, and the authorities were hard pressed locally to control the situation.
The shooting of President Garfield in July, 1881, brought apprehension to many of the
timorous and superstitious, and his death in the following September brought a great deal
The trial of his assassin was barely concluded early in 1882. Chester A. Arthur had become
President of the United States, and this was like handing the administration over to the
Grant-Conklin combine, with whom the "no third-termers" had fought so
desperately and successfully.
Garfield's assassin declared he had been inspired to his bloody deed by the speeches of
some of these same men, and some of the responsible press of the time concurred. In the
county, Judge Clayton was serving the seventh year of his first term. William Armstrong
was Sheriff, and William Ward, father of Mayor Ward, was Congressman from this district.
Jesse M. Baker had been elected District Attorney. A. J. Quinby, of Media, was Coroner.
James Barton, Jr., a South Warder, was Mayor of Chester, having defeated Dr. Forwood, who
was to return the compliment. Mordecai Lewis was perennial City Clerk, and H. B. Black was
president of Council.
Benjamin Blakeley, I. H. Mirkil, George McCall, Henry Palmer, Paul Klotz, Kirk Miller,
James Clough, William J. Fennell, Fred. J. Hinkson, H. B. Baker and John A. Wallace are
Stephen Cloud, the last Burgess of Chester Borough, is president of School Board; H. L.
Donaldson, secretary, and its members are Jonathan Grant, Eber James, John C. Price,
Daniel Robinson and R. E. Ross. George B. Lindsay is Solicitor of the School Board, and
Orlando Harvey, son of Dr. Elwood Harvey, is City Solicitor. Robert Chadwick is in the
Legislature, and Governor Hoyt head of the State Government.
Ed. Kershaw is president, and B. D. Ayars, Jr., secretary of the Franklin Fire Company. Its directors are Joseph DeSilver,
Frank Copple, John Davis, Thomas N. Brooks, A. T. Slawter, who died within the year; Alex.
Phillips, Rudolph Ackerman, William H. Franklin and John Pace, who is the only survivor.
O. C. McClure was Solicitor of the company.
The town is agog over the merits of two speeches, one by Dr. Graham and another by Dr.
Mowry, at the banquet of the Burns' Club. These were the good old days "when men were
men," and the woes of the immortal Robert were appropriately assuaged with plenty of
good old "Glenlivet." William McCallum and Alex. Hart were among the active
participants. Mayor Barton made a very felicitous speech; but modest, mild Mat McKinnel
was not yet on the entertainment committee.
The stage coaches of Chalfont and Souper maintained the transportation to Media, and Broad
Street Station was not yet open, nor was the B. & O.
built through. The only transportation in the town was stage coaches.
Rev. Henry Brown was pastor of St. Paul's P. E. Church, then on
Third Street; Rev. J. W. Paxon, pastor of Madison Street Church.
Rev. Norman Frame was pastor of Trinity Church; Prof. John
R. Sweney was conducting concerts for the benefit of the then new Third
Presbyterian Church; Dr. A. G. Thomas was pastor of the First
Baptist Church; Rev. James Timmins, of St. Michael's R. C.
Church; Rev. Thomas J. McGlynn, of the Immaculate
Heart Church, at Second and Norris Streets; and Rev. Thomas E. Aiken, pastor of
Chester City Presbyterian Church, at Third and Ulrich Streets, had just been received.
L. D. Wheaton was Chief of Police. Bill Blizzard and Ed. Murray were among the policemen.
The Ross baseball team was just organized. B. F. Morley is captain of Company B, and Jas.
A. G. Campbell is his O. S., whatever that may mean.
A municipal election was under way, in which W. P. Ladomus was elected on the Democratic
ticket as City Treasurer, and J. N. Shanafelt was elected City Recorder. John W. Harrison
began his long term as timekeeper at Roach's Yard, where
he then succeeded John A. Wallace, who resigned from that employment and from City Council
to become Postmaster of the city and to commence a career as publisher and politician
which took him as far up the political ladder as he wanted to go and netted him a
Perhaps the most ornate and imposing building in this neighborhood then and now is the Pennsylvania Military College, then called Academy. This school
has been a part of the intellectual and social life of the community for many, many years.
It seemed to have been old away back in the days when Billy Russell and Ben Donnelly were
the rugby idols of all of the youth of the city, and scholars attending this school have
by the score succumbed to the charms of the daughters of many of the old residenters who
have left the old town and become matrons in homes all over the Republic, and indeed
beyond its limits.
On February 16, 1882, a fire broke out in this imposing building, and when it subsided (it
resisted control) the bare blackened walls of the gutted building were left standing,
scorched and empty. The pathetic letter of Colonel C. E. Hyatt, appearing in the Evening
News of the time, is eloquent of the destruction and loss sustained.
Before the exhausted firemen could get their hose away from the scene of the fire,
unfortunately enough, the very next morning, another alarm sounded. It was generally
surmised that the " Academy" had "broken out" again. Up Third Street
came the Franklin Company, the engine horse drawn, the hose carriage drawn by the members
afoot. Over Third Street Bridge it went, horns blowing and bells ringing.
It had hardly disappeared, before up the dusty road (February, though it be) came one of
George Staat's many express wagons. George had the most extensive local transportation
business at that time. He lived at Emerald and Penn Streets, where he also had his stable.
On top of his perch came George, cracking a whip, in the knack of which he was a graceful
artist, urging his long-eared power plant into reluctant, unwonted speed. George was about
five feet seven, his ruddy face hinted his inurement to outdoor exercise which had
impressed its beneficent effect upon his supple, vigorous and sinewy figure. He was a
laconic, good-hearted man, of whom it was unnecessary to ask for a lift. It was yours if
you could make it, but failure was pretty certain to elicit a grin of glee at your
When his wagon was half-way between Concord Avenue and Penn Street three men made an
effort to "jump it" ; one of them, Tony Barber, was a member of the Hanley Company; another, John Turnpenny, was a member of the
Franklin Company; the third, Jake Lamplugh, was too young for membership in any company.
Tony and Jake made it, but John owed to his portly figure his fortuitous failure to get a
"lift," for he alone of the three survived that fatal day.
It wasn't long before the populace knew it was not the "Academy." The discharge
of explosives with ominous frequency and thunderous report soon frightened the neighbors
into a realization that tile fire was in the one place where its happening was always
dreaded-the Jackson Fireworks plant.
If the Academy was the most ornate building in the vicinity, the building in which the
powder plant was conducted was the most romantically interesting. Long the home of Admiral
Porter, of U. S. Navy fame, and lately of Admiral Farragut, the chatter of the
neighborhood had endued it with an interest which generally attaches to things in the
realm of mystery and piquant gossip.
It was located in a grove of glorious old shade trees-the only grove so near the river in
Colonial days-between Tinicum and Hook. It was on the East side of Welsh Lane, and from
its broad, comfortable porch a view could be had up stream on both sides of Tinicum Island
and down stream as far as Hook. It seemed an appropriate place to locate a powder
magazine, if any such place exists.
Instead of the weekly peril of the passage of the duPont powder wagon, it was always with
us. And now the long-feared calamity was here, although the business had been conducted
for some time without any considerable mischance-there had been slight fires before this
There were many minor discharges, but there were three terrific explosions, the first the
most severe, which reverberated and shook the whole vicinity and scattered portions of the
old romantic building and many of the victims over an area of three hundred square yards.
The fire was proven to have resulted from the careless drafting of the fire in a stove
with which the office room was heated (the temperature outside was 9 above).
The chief of the fire department was William Dolton, an Old South Warder and member of the
Franklin Company. Concerned for the safety of the firemen under him, he inquired of the
custodian of the building, afterward identified as Charles J. VanHorn, as to the presence
of explosives. Dolton, a man of unimpeachable veracity, said that he was assured there
were no explosives in the building. He was corroborated by Oliver C. McClure, Esq., a
brother of Uncle Dave McClure, a member of the Franklin Company; A. R. Hamilton, Harry L.
Pennell, a son of Jonathan Pennell; Jacob Bauer, of the Franklin Company, father of City
Thusly assured, the Chief permitted the firemen to reenter the building in which the
successive explosion wrought such destruction among them and among all the neighbors.
Nineteen either were killed or died shortly after as a result of fatal injuries;
fifty-nine were injured, some of them seriously and permanently; and poor old Zack
Vandegrift, driver of the Hanley engine, died three days after the fire from some internal
rupture which he undoubtedly sustained in relieving a fallen fellow fireman upon whom a
large segment of masonry had fallen, the further removal of which required more than three
The names of the killed were: Thomas Anderson, Second and Ulrich Streets, Franklin
Company; Thomas Donaldson, Kerlin near Front; Jacob Lamplugh, Third below Penn; Alex.
Phillips, Pennell and Mary Streets, Franklin Company; John Pollack, South Ward, Hanley
Company; Albert Lambert, Robert Taylor, Second below Market; Robert Stinson, Tony Barber,
of the Hanley; Joseph Kestner, William McNeal, Market below Second, Franklin; Perry
Williams, janitor City Hall, Bethel Court; Peter Vescove, Second Street; David Divers,
Parker Street; William Wood, Fulton below Second; James Dougherty, Eleventh and Kerlin;
William H. Franklin, Franklin Company.
Among the other members of the Franklin Company at the time, some of whom were badly
injured, were: W. M. Ford, John L. Hoffman, Sam Hoff, Bill Harkins, Bill Carr, Charley
McCallister, Jim Hickey, James O'Donnell, Sam Harkins, John Henderson, Bill and Jim
Greenhalgh, Hennie Hurst, Isaiah Newell and his brother, Andy McClure, John
("Butch") Armstrong, Charley Culin, John Beaumont, B. D. Ayars, Sr ., J. B.
Allen and Billy Schofield. William Cowan, a member of the company, was most seriously
injured of all the survivors, and he still survives, hale and able to work every day.
Some of the firemen whose enthusiasm had placed them right in the thick of the
catastrophe, escaped unscratched, while three men standing and talking to McClure, a
square away, were killed while the conversation was on, and McClure unscathed.
Perry Williams, colored, janitor of the National Hall, was blown through the burning roof
of the building. An attempt made by Sharpless and Dougherty, of the Moya, to rescue him was unavailing because of his
condition. Later, J. Wesley Barnes ascended a ladder held by Thomas H. Higgins, editor of
The Public Press, and one of the few survivors of that day who was present at the fire,
and brought down his charred body.
An inquest was promptly held. It would have been difficult to have obtained a more
representative jury. The foreman of the jury was John C. Price, an Old South Warder,
father of Captain Sam Price, and of Mrs. Fannie Price Rhodes, to the latter of whom there
is accredited a description of the public reception accorded the Marquis Lafayette, which
is not only a splendidly balanced piece of English, but charmingly describes one of the
most picturesque historic events of this community. Joseph Ladomus, William H. Martin,
Edward Barton, father of Harry Barton, another South Warder; Samuel Greenwood and Daniel
Robinson, long a prominent citizen of the town and father of Harry R. C. Robinson and the
Misses Jessie and Jean Robinson, were the others.
After listening to the testimony of thirty-six witnesses, among them Drs. J. L. and J. F.
M. Forwood, Dr. Weston, Dr. F. R. Graham, Dr. Samuel Starr, Dr. Elwood Harvey, Dr. R. P.
Mercer, Dr. W. J. Urie, Dr. M. Cardeza, W. W. Johnson, Dr. Bird and Dr. W. B. Ulrich, the
jury censured the city authorities for permitting this powder factory to be in the city
limits, in violation of the Borough Ordinance of 1853. They also censured the owners and
operators of the plant and recommended that they be held to await the action of the Grand
The city promptly enacted a more stringent ordinance on the 21st day of February, 1882.
This drove the powder business across the river and brought wealth and employment as well
as peril to our neighbors across the stream, from Thompson's Point to Carney's Point,
below Penn's Grove.
The case against the Jacksons and VanHorn was continued from March term until June 8 of
the following term and then ignored, and the persons responsible for this catastrophe
permitted to escape. Something was wrong about this. It was a shocking miscarriage of
Tony Barber was not the name of the victim so popularly known. Tony, like many another
bearer of that immortal name, was an Italian, whose barber shop (and it was from this
circumstance that he acquired his last name) was down on Third Street next to what was
once the front lawn of James B. Groundsell's home. He was a large, swarthy man. His
overcoat was on his left arm when he started from the pavement to jump the Staats express
wagon, on the extended tailboard of which he placed one of his hands and vaulted into the
fast-moving wagon. His conduct at the " Academy" fire had been so daring that
one of his fellow firemen predicted he would be killed at the next fire. His barber shop,
like that of John Turnpenny and Ned Brammall and Jake Bauer and Fred Bowers, was the
rendezvous of such of the socially inclined male portion of the population as were not
congenially cast in the saloons.
Jake Lamplugh was a schoolmate. He was the son of Mr. and Mrs. John Lamplugh - splendid
people, who lived and conducted a grocery store at 213 West Third Street. Their daughters,
Alice and Georgeanna, intermarried with Will and Fred Rumford and lived in this
neighborhood. These good neighbors were shortly after to have their hearts wrung at the
death of their son, John, who was killed with Nelson Waite, another schoolmate, over in
New Jersey, in one of the strangest of accidents. Anderson, Phillips and Franklin were
also members of the Franklin Company.
Perhaps the most popularly known of all of the victims was William (Curly) McNeal, whose
silvery voice had been heard with admiration in nearly every popular musical enterprise of
the city. On the very night before the explosion he had been one of the entertainers at
the last of a series of concerts given in Holly Tree Hall, under the direction of Miss
Hannah McKelvey, leader of the choir at St. Michael's R. C. Church. He was not a member of
that denomination, but he denied his gift to no worthy enterprise in the city. His
sisters, Mrs. Edwin F. Baker, Mrs. J. Harry Slawter and Mrs. Thomas J. Ross, were among
the belles of those days in a community which abounded in maidenly beauty.
Relief committees were organized. Mayor Barton was chairman. The members from the North
Ward were J. J. Ledward, father of J. DeHaven Ledward; Benjamin Blakeley, Humphrey
Fairlamb, long building inspector of the city; Middle Ward, Isaiah Mirkil, father of I. H.
Mirkil, Jr., Esq., then a Councilman; the late John H. Mirkil, since a member of Council;
Mrs. Emily M. Lyons, widow of the late Samuel Lyons, Esq., and Mrs. Samuel J. Cochran, P.
M. Washabaugh, B. Frank Baker. South Ward, Thomas J. Oliver, an Old South Warder and
father of Edmund Oliver, Mrs. Mary Oliver Swope and Wilson Oliver, all Old South Warders
and of the old Academy Alma Mater; Henry Palmer and William J. McClure, father of Senator John J. McClure.
The women's committee for the North Ward was: Mrs. Stephens, Miss Mattie Smith; Middle
Ward, Mrs. James Barton, wife of the Mayor, and Mrs. Dr. Samuel Starr; South Ward, Mrs.
Jonathan Grant and Mrs. W. B. Broomall. Only two of the latter, Mrs. Starr and Mrs.
The most indefatigable collector was Amos Gartside. Considerable money was raised and
devoted to the relief of the dead and injured. The largest sum given by anyone resident of
Chester was that of Fred J. Hinkson, Jr. G. Banks Wilson donated wagonloads of medicine,
liniments and salves to those unable to pay, and George Staats carried Dr. Wilson and his
much-needed unguents for nothing around the town without rest until all were supplied.
Gallant souls these Old South Warders.
In the five years that intervened between the tragic launching of the Saratoga and this
calamity, nothing had occurred to move the mass judgment of the people. The helplessness
of the people to cope with this disaster undoubtedly inspired Mrs. Julia Barton to
institute and Mrs. Sue Black to consummate the movement which resulted in the erection of
the Chester Hospital.
The calamity was so widespread and sympathy so universal among all of our people, that all
of the artificial barriers of politics, religion and color were swept aside and there
followed a balm and neighborly attitude that had never been seen before in the city.
One of the South Ward victims had been killed more than a square away from the scene of
the explosion, by a piece of the wreckage, which describing a trajectory through the air
lit upon his unsuspecting and fast-moving head with a deadly precision no human endeavor
could have designedly reproduced. The philosophy of the old ward, as well as its theology,
was very badly impoverished by this last circumstance, but we all found comfort in the
all-embracing arm of the good old Presbyterian doctrine of predestination-one old scuffer,
a pioneer in the rationalistic propensities of the present day, was known to say that if
Providence was as faultless in everything else as in marksmanship, it was all the
"camp-meeting gang" claimed for it. He joined church and remained a pretty good
member thereafter, although he was never what would be regarded as an enthusiastic
disciple of John Gough or Neal Dow.
The firemen who were killed in this disaster are remembered annually at a memorial service
held in some of the many churches of the city. This practice, which has survived those who
originated it, is likely to last as long as the volunteer fire department exists. It is
doubly meritorious because the dead are remembered and the firemen beguiled into attending
church at least annually.
For years thereafter such of the sages of the village as found attraction in the
contemplation of things that baffled, especially if any morbid feature were attached,
would discuss the remarkable feature of the death of one of their neighbors in the course
of which they would recount the life of the victim "and to think that every act of
his life, sleeping and waking, was a part of an inflexible program, ending with the impact
of the missile, which could have been avoided by the deviation of a hair's breadth, from
either the momentum or direction of that long inexorable pathway of fate."
Occasionally some old codger would emerge from a period of deep reflection, long enough to
nearly capsize our comforting Calvinism with the intimation that Providential
discrimination was less to be commended than its marksmanship, softening the irreverence
with a comprehensive wink and nod in the direction of one of the few noble men of the
village who "toiled not, neither did they spin" anything but yarns.
The personal equation was not entirely overlooked in the provoked rejoinder, and since
everybody knew everybody and all about everybody, and only a few were conceded known
perfection, there was no dearth of material with which to edify the bystanders or to
adequately inform geneological enthusiasts of the "highlights" of the ancestry
of all the participants.
I wish I could reproduce one of these classical colloquies, but I have waited too long,
the mist is too heavy, and the censors of the day have set up a rather puritanic standard
for polite speech-and many of their kinsfolk survive.
In the papers of the day, Melville King, a reporter with a poetic turn of pen, published a
four-verse dirge of the moment.
Its last verse:
And down all the ages yet unborn
The names of those whose memory we mourn
Will treasured be by young and old
And the story of their heroism told.
Melville King was abetter prophet than Mother Shipton's
Even while the grief was city-wide and sadness prevailed in all of the circles of the
town, the committee having charge of the Bicentennial of Penn's landing were shaping
things for that celebration which, occurring in October and elsewhere described, was the
outstanding event in the life of the Old South Ward.