Nearly every fire that destroys a building touches the lives of many other people. Mansfield has certainly had its share of disastrous fires. From the very beginning, though, the borough has bounced back from every tragedy. Here are some of the more memorable blazes.
Seminary Fire: April 22, 1857
Mansfield Classical Seminary’s enrollment had grown to about 150 students when the institution’s second term started April 16, 1857. Six days later, April 22, at 10 a.m. the seminary building caught fire and burned to the ground. The origin of the fire was never discovered. Some furniture, doors and windows were saved, but many items were ruined. On that day, there was a foot of snow on the ground and many of the furnishings were damaged when they were thrown into the snow.
The building was insured for $12,000, but a financial crisis in 1857 caused one of the insurance companies to close and another refused to pay. A few days later, some of the original founders met and resolved to rebuild. They raised about $4,000 for the effort. However, little was done for the rest of the year and the institution remained closed.
The citizens of Mansfield invited the members of the East Genesee Conference, under whose auspices the school was run, to a free picnic on the “Island” (now Smythe Park) in hopes that the conference would offer financial support for the rebuilding effort. Conference members refused, but the local crowd that had assembled raised about $4,000 in subscriptions and pledges of goods and labor. Work resumed immediately. One of the seminary founders, Simon B. Elliott records that only 50 cents was paid to the laborers in 1858. That sum was paid to a “chap who came along and represented himself as a bricklayer, but he was not.” That person was discharged that day, but paid his 50 cents.
The seminary reopened Nov. 23, 1859 with 30 students. By 1862, the institution became Mansfield State Normal School.
Major fire in 1882
George Retan, in his history of Mansfield, published in 1957, notes that a fire destroyed all of the wooden buildings from Center Street south for some distance. As a result, the borough council decided that a zone between Sherwood and Railroad (now East Main) streets should be only brick stores. Existing wooden buildings were exempt from the ordinance. The area was rebuilt by 1885.
A fire destroyed two businesses and the homes of the business owners Saturday, Jan. 26, 1884. The fire leveled two wooden buildings between the Pitts Block and the Brundage Hotel on South Main Street.
The fire started in the upper level of a grocery store owned by G.N. Welch, probably from a defective chimney. The Welch family lived in the upper level of the building. The fire also damaged harness shop owned by William Hollands, whose family also lived above the store.
Most of the stock of the stores and personal belongings were saved. The buildings, owned by A.M. Pitts, were valued at $3,000 and were insured for $2,100. The Wellsboro Agitator credited the fire company with saving the adjacent buildings.
Just after Postmaster Thomas Bailey of Mansfield leased the Hotel Allen from M.S. French, landlord of the French Hotel in Mansfield, the Hotel Allen burned. Just days before the fire, the Allen was occupied by a person named E.A. Thomas. The fire broke out early Friday morning, Oct. 14, 1904. The hotel, located at the northwest corner of Wellsboro and Main streets, formerly served as Prof. Fordyce Allen’s Soldiers’ Orphans School, built in 1867 and remained in service as a school until 1889 when the remaining students were transferred to Harford, Pennsylvania were one of the last remaining Soldier Orphans Schools was located. This image is from cira1875.
At the time, the cause of the blaze was unknown. The second and third stories of the wooden building were destroyed and two ground floor rooms sustained damage. Mrs. Bailey, who was ill at the time and living next door to the hotel, was moved to safety. A Normal School student named Jackson fainted from all the excitement. It was later determined that the cause of the fire was arson, with an incendiary device thrown through a rare window.
The image below is looking from the rear of the orphan school looking towards main street around 1877.
Losses totaled $8,500 with $3,000 insurance on the building and $1,000 on the contents. Just before the fire, Bailey dropped $1,000 insurance on the building. A portion of the building that escaped the blaze was purchased and used as a print shop for the Mansfield Advertiser.
The Opera House was a major entertainment venue for the community between the time that it was built in 1888-1889 and the day it burned on May 19, 1913. Before that, the major venue was Union Hall, located on the third floor of the bank building across the street. Some of the area’s first moving pictures (movies) were shown at the Opera House, as were dances and socials.
Located on East Wellsboro Street (Route 6), the grand building also housed the switchboard for Citizens Mutual Telephone Exchange, a barbershop owned by R.W. Dann, and the home and office of Dr. Edith Flower Wheeler, the Troy Gazette-Register reported. The report is posted on Tri-Counties History and Genealogy by Joyce M. Tice.
The fire broke out in the early morning hours and firefighters were able to contain the blaze before it caused major damage to the nearby borough building and Presbyterian Church.
The building was owned by Charles Ross, who was also part of the Williams and Ross Bank across the street. Williams and Ross is the forerunner to First Citizens National Bank. The cause of the Opera House fire was probably arson. It was the third of Mr. Ross’ buildings to burn in the recent months. The Wellsboro Gazette speculated that someone was intentionally targeting Ross’ buildings.
Ross valued the building at $9,000 and had $1,000 insurance. Dr. Wheeler lost everything and had no insurance. Dann’s losses totaled $300 with no insurance. The telephone company lost $600 in property but the switchboard was saved.
Today the building hosts an ice cream shop, a coffee shop, a craft shop, and a beauty shop downstairs. There are about a dozen apartments, mostly housing university students, on the second and third floors.
The Wellsboro Agitator called the fire at the Mansfield Novelty Works, just south of Corey Creek, and the Mansfield Electric Light plant the town’s “Big Fire Loss.” The fire also burned several barns, causing a total of $100,000 damage.
The fire was caused by a hot box just after the women’s shift ended. The men working at the time all managed to escape, though Herman VanNess broke a leg jumping from a window. Had the fire started earlier, many lives could have been in danger.
The fire forced about 50 people out of work and the owners, A.R. Decker and Leon Baynes had no insurance on the building. Several weeks later, it was announced that the plant would be rebuilt. Mansfield Novelty Works opened in 1892 for $20,000 and was devoted to making toys from native woods.
Additionally, Mansfield was without power for some time due to the destruction of the electric company. The paper also reported that, due to high demand for electrical equipment, it might take months to restore power. In the meantime, Mansfield negotiated with Blossburg and Wellsboro for power.
The former Mansfield Advertiser reported that the company ceased operations in 1971. The article is reprinted on Tri-Counties History and Genealogy. The story noted that the company endured several fires, including the devastating one of 1920. The Borough Street Novelty Place pays testament to the old factory.
A major Mansfield landmark was destroyed by fire Friday, April 13, 1934. The old Paisley Shawl Factory, owned by former First National Bank President Charles S. Ross, caught fire in the early morning hours.
The fire was likely started by a spark from a cigarette or an acetylene torch.
The factory was built in 1892 and was one of the leading industries in Mansfield. The factory closed in 1900 and was vacant until 1918. That year, the Blake Manufacturing Company and Brady Brass Works were located there.
They remained in operation until 1924. The building was used for storage at the time of the fire.
A fire destroyed a historic grist mill, owned by Charles S. Ross Friday evening, April 27, 1934.
The original mill was built by Terrence Smythe, in 1852. Terrence was brother to Dr. Henry Smythe for whom Smythe Park is named.
The grist mill was 82 years old and had undergone numerous expansions and renovations until it was abandoned in 1918.
The mill was located on the western side of the Tioga River, a short distance from the Wellsboro Road and a little south along Brooklyn Street. Firefighters could not save the structure which burned some trees on the opposite side of the Wellsboro Road (Route 6).
After losing the first three football games of the 1954 campaign, Mansfield State Teacher’s College coach Ed Rushin was seriously injured in a gas explosion. Rushin was putting the finishing touches on his new home in October when a leak in a line filled parts of the house with natural gas.
Something, possibly a cigarette, sparked an explosion which blasted the coach into the cellar. The house was located on Brooklyn street.
Rushin suffered third degree burns and was sent to Robert Packer Hospital in Sayre. The explosion destroyed the home. The Wellsboro Gazette article detailing the incident noted that the explosion rattled windows two blocks away, but did not say where the house was located.
Following that explosion, the physical education director, Marion E. “Spots” Decker, took over the team and posted a record of 2-1-1 for the remainder of the season. That record included a 30-6 win over Edinboro and a 42-7 drubbing of Millersville.
The shoe store located at 21 North Main Street, owned by Frank Fish of Mansfield, burned Saturday morning, Nov. 29. Firefighters from Mansfield, Wellsboro, and Blossburg contained the fire before it spread to other buildings in the business district.
Tenants living above the store escaped unharmed.
Dense smoke from the fire spread to VanNoy’s furniture store next door as well as the Masonic Lodge rooms upstairs from the furniture store.
The blaze marked the first time that the Wellsboro firefighters used a new Cascade System to battle a major fire. The system allowed firefighters to refill oxygen tanks while fighting the fire. The old system only provided enough oxygen for about 30 minutes.
On Saturday afternoon, Aug. 21, a fire broke out at the house occupied by the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. No one was injured. The house had been unoccupied for two weeks while students were away on break.
The fire, which caused about $8,000 in damage, was contained to four rooms. Investigators later learned that the fire was caused by an inflammable liquid substance that was poured on beds.
A 14-year-old Mansfield youth was later charged with arson. According to the Aug. 25, 1976 issue of the Wellsboro Gazette, the boy also admitted to burning a house in Texas and setting several smaller fires locally.
The same issue of the Gazette also included a story about a fire that damaged several Wellsboro businesses and left 10 people homeless the previous Thursday. Also on the front page was a story about a house fire on Newtown Hill Road near Mansfield.
The paper noted that it was the fifth major Tioga County fire in a week.
A house owned by the Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) fraternity burned in the early morning hours of January 12, 1981 on a particularly cold night. The house at 19 College Ave. was valued at $50,000 and was insured.
About 60 firefighters battled both the flames and 20 degree below zero temperatures. The fire may have been sparked by a space heater in an upstairs bedroom. After firefighters from Mansfield and neighboring communities doused the flames, 11 students found themselves homeless. Mansfield State College helped them to find housing.
The fraternity vowed to rebuild.
In November of that year, the fraternity proposed relocating to a house at 71 College Ave., which stirred protests at a meeting of the zoning hearing board. They had to go before that board to request permission to open a “private dormitory.” Neighbors even filed court cases to halt the action. When that plan fell through, TKE resided for a time in a large home in Richmond Township on Ore Bed Road. The home was owned by Dr. Charles Seidel, a long time Mansfield University Professor. After that TKE resided in various apartment houses in and around Mansfield.
On Friday afternoon, May 17, 1991 a major fire broke out at Tioga Petroleum on Seventh Street. The state police reported that the fire was the largest in Mansfield’s history. Oil and gasoline on the premises fed the fire that shot out thick, black smoke. Students at Warren L. Miller Elementary School, half a mile away took cover just in case. There was concern that the school buses housed next door to Tioga Petroleum would be damaged.
Firefighters from every department in Tioga County responded to the scene as did rescue workers from Lycoming, Potter and Bradford counties. It was also the first time that a unit from Chemung County, N.Y. responded to a fire in Mansfield.
The fire was sparked when some gasoline leaked into a catch pan and splashed into a trouble light that a mechanic was using to fix a gasket on a truck. The trouble light exploded, igniting the gasoline.
Firefighters had trouble entering the steel building in an effort to keep the fire from spreading to barrels of oil in the building. One explosion inside the plant created a huge fireball. Local residents were evacuated as firefighters brought the fire under control after about an hour. They used water from the Tioga River to douse the flames. Eight firefighters were hospitalized, but no major injuries were reported.
The business had moved from Canoe Camp in 1987.
On Monday morning, Nov. 18, 1996 fire destroyed the 101-year-old Rose Building on North Main Street. It housed a beauty shop and a fitness center. Eight university students and one former student were also displaced.
Firefighters from as far away as Southport, N.Y., battled for several hours to extinguish the blaze. The building was completely ruined and the remaining debris was later removed. A cause was never determined. The fire figured prominently in subsequent borough council discussions regarding building codes. The borough currently inspects all rental units at least once every four years.
As for the tenants, two left for the holidays early while the rest managed to find other housing. Several campus and community organizations as well as friends helped them to get back on their feet after they lost everything.
The original building was constructed by G.N. Welch and later became known as the Rose Building. Over the years, it housed a grocery store, S&H Green Stamp Store and retail businesses. The site of the fire is now used as a parking lot for Ten West Espresso Company, which moved to that location from its first home at 10 West Wellsboro Street.
The Warren L. Miller Elementary School Fire
Editor’s note: This article, written by Diane Eaton, was adapted from the April 18, 2007 issue of The Mansfield Gazette
At 12:14 a.m. on Friday April 13, 2007 the Tioga County Communications Center dispatched the Mansfield Hose Company to the scene of a reported fire at the rear of the Warren L. Miller Elementary School on Dorsett Drive, Mansfield.
The caller was Miller Head Teacher Sam Rotella who lives on Brooklyn Street, on the other side of the Tioga River directly across from the back of the school. “My wife saw the flames and woke me up. At first I thought she was telling me that our house was on fire. Then, I realized she was saying the school was on fire." Rotella looked out the window to see flames roiling through one of the first floor classrooms located at the rear of the building. He immediately dialed 911.
Said Fire Chief Jim Welch, “When I arrived at the school, I noted heavy smoke coming from the building's ventilation grates and eaves. Only when I went around to the back of the building could I see flames. One entire classroom on the first floor was involved. I radioed the communications center and asked them to dispatch more departments."
In addition to Mansfield, two other fire departments had been immediately dispatched - Wellsboro and Blossburg. The communications center then dispatched Tioga and Lawrenceville. In addition, five other fire departments were dispatched to stand by in case another fire was called in while the Miller Elementary School fire was in progress.
“Everything at the school was locked so we had to break the glass doors in the front of the building to get inside. We made an aggressive attack on the first floor fire.” Welch said, “Classroom #4 on the first floor was fully involved. The fire had already spread to the classroom right above it. The heavy smoke and heat conditions inside the structure made it difficult. We essentially contained the fire to four rooms - two classrooms - and two small rooms, one on the first floor and one on the second floor, which each housed the small elevator and provided storage. The fire was contained to those areas but there was heavy smoke damage throughout the building. It was an amazing amount of smoke."
He continued, “The fire was declared under control about two hours after firefighters arrived on the scene but they stayed there until 4:30 a.m." Between 4:30 and 8 a.m., several fire chiefs, maintained a fire watch, staying at the school to make sure there wasn't any smoldering debris.
“There were only two classrooms affected by the fire – the one on the first floor and the one directly above it on the second floor. Due to the significant structural damage done to that area of the building, the eight classrooms and music room located in the wing involved in the fire will remain closed. The school is a steel bar truss construction - typical of the type of construction done in the 1960's. The first floor ceiling serves as the second floor. The steel joists in the immediate area, and surrounding area of the fire received so much heat damage that they warped into a downward arch. That end of the building needs to be made structurally sound before students and staff are allowed back into that section. The other parts of the school building have to be cleaned up because of the smoke and soot…”
Welch noted that the school did not have smoke detectors, a sprinkler system, an automatic fire alarm system or fire doors. "They have pull box alarms but someone has to be there to work them. And, of course at that time in the morning no one was there to get off the alarm. The firefighters who responded made an exceptional stop to save that building. But even so, the damage was extensive."
Welch continued, "My understanding is that they may be able to re-open the Miller School next week." Southern Tioga School District Director of Human Resources Penny Crowell would neither confirm nor deny whether the district will be able to re-open Miller next week for classes. She said, "We have several options that we are discussing but no decision has been made." She went on to say that Superintendent Joe Kalata is hoping to make a decision about where Miller students will be attending school and when they will be returning to school and announcing those plans at the Miller Elementary School parents meeting being held at 7 p.m. this Thursday, April 19, at Straughn Auditorium on the Mansfield University campus. Mr. Kalata is expecting to make the decision tomorrow morning (April 19) as to when we will bring students back to school and where."
In a separate press release, issued by State Fire Marshall Norm Fedder who is stationed at the Pennsylvania State Police Barracks at Milton, Fedder declares that $1 million in damage has been done to the school, “The fire is believed to have originated in or around a portable CD/radio player and an extension cord. Due to multiple items within the area that could have caused this fire, this fire is being listed as undetermined in origin."
Immediately on Friday, April 13, Superintendent Joe Kalata, Business Manager Jim Rakoski, Principal Doris Sargent and Assistant Principal Sam Rotella, with the assistance of many other district personnel began working to see what could be done. Also involved right away was Quad Three Group of Wilkes-Barre, the architectural/engineering firm that has been working closely with the district on the $10 million renovation project at the Warren L. Miller Elementary School.
Crowell said that the first thing Friday morning, April 13, the district was contacted by Mansfield University and offered the use of the university's facilities. She noted that the district had an administrative council meeting that same morning and that the decision at that time was to plan on having school at Mansfield University for the rest of the school year. In a separate press release it is stated, "Mansfield University is working with officials from the Warren L. Miller Elementary School and Southern Tioga School District to determine what university resources can be used to assist the district in light of this morning's fire. President Maravene Loeschke said that the University is ready to help and is making preparations to respond to space and other needs."
Sargent and Rotella met with Mansfield University's Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael Renner who gave them a tour of the campus and discussed the logistics of moving the Miller classes to the campus by Monday, April 23, where it was anticipated they would remain the rest of the year. Mansfield University's graduation ceremonies are set for Saturday, May 12, so, even if Miller students are moved to the campus to attend classes, it should not create any problems. The college and elementary school students would only be attending classes together on campus for about three weeks.
Kalata said the Miller teachers were going to meet at Straughn Auditorium on Monday, April 16, but that meeting was rescheduled to today, Wednesday April 18, due to Monday's snowstorm. The purpose of the meeting, according to Kala