Newspapers of the 19th Century

In the 19th Century newspapers were the internet of the time. Their accounts of events were sometimes lurid and editorial comments creeped into news reporting whenever the opportunity presented itself. Sometimes the descriptive accounts of events were long and detailed. Other times the descriptions were brief.  The Centre Democrat, of Centre Hall reported on the conditions in northcentral Pennsylvania on May 22, 1879.

Forest fires did much damage last week in the vicinity of Snow Shoe

The report is found at the bottom of the back page along with other local news including news that Samuel Gray of Altoona was advertising for a wife and that a test well for oil was being drilled in Osceola Mills. The success of either is unknown, but one can be reasonably certain the Osceola Mills did not become the Pennsylvania equivalent of Tulsa, OK.

Again The Centre Democrat, April 22, 1880, didn’t devote many words to the devastation that was occurring in other parts of the state.

Forest fires are raging in Pike and Monroe counties, Pa., and people are fighting the flames in Sussex County, New Jersey.

The Forest Republican of Tionesta briefly commented on the devastation that had occurred in Forest County in the recent past on May 19, 1880

The forest fires having burned over all that is is burnable, are subsiding.

It shocks the sensibilities of the modern reader who is used to a CarbonAdvocatetwenty-four hour news cycle and video coverage of even minor events that a fire of the magnitude described in The Carbon Advocate of Lehighton, on May 15, 1880 was not described in more detail.

Twenty thousand acres have been burned over by forest fires in Pike and Monroe counties.

The acreage burned over was in all probability not a single fire, but probably multiple fires. According to DCNR, Bureau of Forestry records total fire acreage for the entire state has not exceeded 20,000 acres since 1964.

Again not wishing to expend valuable column space on events across the county the Centre Democrat, reported on September 1, 1881:

We learn that extensive forest fires are prevailing at Snow Shoe, in this county. Much damage to timber and property is apprehended.

Reporting deaths and injury to people was crude by modern standards. For example Juniata Sentinel and Republican, Mifflintown, ran the following on September 21, 1881.

Elias Champlin, while fighting forest fires near Barryville, was struck with apoplexy, and was found dead and his body roasting between two burning logs.

The Carbon Advocate, on April 25, 1885 was the first paper of the year to note that wildfires were out of control in Pennsylvania.

Forest fires are raging in all parts of the state.

This rather succinct report gives no mention of where they were or any damage that occurred.

It appears that the writers and editors of the Butler Citizen did not have a good grasp of Pennsylvania geography as evidenced in the brief mention of fires on July 22, 1887.

Forest fires are raging in Centre Co, near DuBois.

DuBois is in Clearfield County.

PittsburgDispatchPeople at the time often thought a forest fire was something to witness and the press was always looking for the unusual. The following appeared in the Pittsburg Dispatch on April 14, 1889

The forest fire scenery around Pittsburg these nights is indescribably grand, but game has suffered. One huge groundhog jumped off Campbell’s ledge and fell to a valley below, nearly 400 feet but the thud merely jarred it and it took several lunges of a long knife to kill it.

Note that at the time Pittsburgh was spelled without an “h” at the end.

The Freeland Tribune, Freeland, Luzerne County, of May 7, 1894 noted the presence of forest fires on page 4

Fierce forest fires are raging in all the surrounding woods.

The news items was found between mention that Ambrose Rickert had moved his household effects to Freeland and that services would be held in the Episcopal church on Tuesday evenings.

People took what entertainment where they could find it, especially in the rural regions of the state. The writer of the article that appeared in the Sullivan Republican, May 18, 1894 appears to be unaware of the devastation that forest fires could wreak.

The forest fire on the hill east of town, was a beautiful sight Sunday evening.

Of course there were the usual theories about the drought and consequent forest fires. One was reported in The Evening Herald on September 14, 1894.

It was time for something fresh from Ignatius Donnelly, and he is on hand with it. It is that the forest fires this year are due to a comet, and the same one which burned Chicago In 1871 and caused the great forest fires of that year.

In today’s litigious world of helicopter parents it is startling to the modern reader when presented with the article that appeared in The Cambria Freeman on May 29, 1896.

Mr. and Mrs. James Ogden, who reside near Clearfield, went out a few days ago to fight the forest fires which threatened to destroy their fences and other property. They took with them their two children aged 5 and 8 years. The children were left at the edge of the woods and told to remain there until the parents returned. The children, however, wandered away and were not found until the evening of the following day. When found the younger child was lying on a log fast asleep and his brother was guarding him. They had wandered almost twenty five miles around through the woods trying to find their way out. Several times they were compelled to run from the flames, but beyond having their faces singed by the heat, they were uninjured.

Of course there were longer accounts of fires, some quite devastating. This is just a small sample of journalistic style in the late 19th Century.






1993 was a different sort of year. The year began with an open winter. So open in fact, wildfires were prevalent in January and February. From February 3 to February 6 the state experienced 54 fires that covered 203 acres.  31 of the fires happened on February 5, 1993. 57% of the fires were attributed to Debris Burning. People got outside and began cleaning up in the dry “false spring.”Fire31993

The spring-like weather would come with a price. On March 12, 1993 a cyclonic storm formed over the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time a high pressure system built in Canada. The two fronts began to move toward each other.  On March 13 the “snowicane” moved out of the Gulf and headed up the Eastern Seaboard. Record snowfalls and hurricane force winds covered the entire Appalachian range dumping on average 20 inches of snow and the winds caused severe drifting. The storm was unprecedented in the 20th century. It was called the Blizzard of the Century and paralyzed the East Coast for the better part of a week.

A warming trend followed and the snow melted, causing some problems with flooding, but the melting was slow enough that Pennsylvania for the most part was spared from major flooding. By the end of the first week of April fires were again springing up across the state.

The worst day in terms of number of fires happened on May 1, 1993 when 31 fires burned in various places across the state.  May 11, 1993 saw the most damage when 403 acres burned in 15 fires. The worst fire of the year was a 304 acre arson fire in McHenry Township, Lycoming County on May 12th. Fires21993

The summer was dry and fires continued to burn through the summer and into the fall. A fire in Laurel Run Boro, Luzerne County began on July 22nd and was not extinguished until August 8th, 18 days later. The fire covered 168 acres. On October 24, 1993 an arsonist would set a fire that burned 122 acres in Rush Township, Centre County. fires1993The fall fire season would continue until December.

For the year arson accounted for the most fires (37%) with debris burning second (32%). Arson accounted for the most acres (53%) and debris burning second (21%). Lightning accounted for 13 fires but caused no significant damage accounting for less than 1% of the acreage burned.