Rebuilding for the Holidays: the Coudersport Fire of 1880
During the holiday season, people across the Pennsylvania Wilds will be shopping for gifts. There are a lot of places available: the local shops, the PA Wilds gift stores, and much more.
A hundred and forty years ago, there were also shops available, but at the time, some of the shops in Coudersport were struggling against difficult circumstances.
The situation peaked around the holidays, but it began in May. A tragic fire burned down much of Coudersport’s business district, leaving the Dark Skies community without stores. The headline in the newspaper was “Coudersport In Ashes.”
“On Tuesday afternoon about three PM the cry of fire startled the people of Coudersport,” the article read. “The fire started in a small building on Second Street between the store of P.A. Stebbins, Jr, and the furniture store of C. Reissman. Efforts to save the contents of the buildings were made and very many goods were removed to the courthouse square and other places.”
In the end, thirty-eight buildings were destroyed. Nobody figured out how the fire began. Some people speculated that it could have been a misplaced cigar or pipe. Others thought it was a case of spontaneous combustion, where items burst into flame without warning. The newspaper, however, pointed out that it was useless to speculate.
“The fire came,” the article said, “And the business portion of Coudersport is gone.”
Within a day, town council held a meeting, and appointed several police officers to watch over the merchandise that had been saved. Nobody exactly wants to think about looters, but you have to stay prepared. The most important businesses moved into other buildings as soon as possible: The post office moved into a local surviving building owned by A.B. Mann, and the telegraph office moved into the local law offices of F.W. Knox. But that still left many stores with plenty to sell, but nowhere to sell it.
Rebuilding began in some locations over the summer. And by the time the holidays rolled around, some of the new stores were ready and open for Christmas shopping.
On December 15, 1880, the Potter Enterprise ran an article updating everyone on the progress. They noted that some of the new buildings were rather an improvement, saying, “We believe no town of its size has been so benefitted by a fire as Coudersport.”
It began with the drugstore of M.S. Thompson and Company, which had also served as home to the local newspaper, the Journal, on the second floor. It was built back even bigger than the old building, expanding the space for merchandise. The new building was a Queen Anne style of architecture, very elaborate and attractive.
One of the five new counters inside held the first shipment of Japanese goods ever brought into Potter County, according to the newspaper, which noted that the merchandise “excites much comment and admiration.” One visitor from McKean County was quoted as saying that there was “not so fine a drug store in his city.”
“We will say,” the Enterprise commented, “that M.S. Thompson has wonderfully fine taste in the selection of goods for the holidays.”
Next door was P.A. Stebbins & Brother, a general store, which had also been recreated bigger and better. It had twenty-four drawers and forty-five feet of showcase for their merchandise, and they’d hired four new clerks, an upgrade from before.
“Thompson and Stebbins’ stores are ornaments to our place,” said the newspaper, ”and we are willing to affirm that no other place of this size is so liberally endowed with substantial business buildings.”
There were difficulties and tragedies in the year of 1880. But the people of Coudersport managed to pull together, and have a good holiday season.
Out there in the Pennsylvania Wilds and beyond, I hope you have one, too.
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