A History of Forest Fires in PA

This site is being developed to share information about Pennsylvania and its rich, varied and colorful history. I include some of my essays on Pennsylvania and timelines that include various information.

In May 2013 I embarked on a new project to detail the history of forest fires in Pennsylvania. To date that project has taken me across the state searching for information.

I relied heavily on newspapers for the accounts of many fires. At this point I have reviewed more than 4000 articles in 159 newspapers, and I have written the history to 2015 where I have decided to stop.  More than 30 personal interviews have been conducted. It has been an interesting journey.

Newspapers were the Internet of the times. Pennsylvania was largely agrarian in the nineteenth century, and people either got their news from talking to neighbors and travelers, or they got their news from newspapers. Often, especially in small towns, newspapers were the only way that people kept up with what was going on in the world.

There are no “official” records of forest fires in nineteenth century Pennsylvania. There was no one to keep them. There were no reporting requirements for local agencies to report fires. There were no local agencies to report them, and nobody to report them to. Therefore the accounts that are available of forest fires – or any fires for that matter – come from newspapers.

It’s hard to believe that Pennsylvania was still largely rural – that is to say wild – and travel across the state was limited. Where the accounts of forest fires pick up in the latter half of the nineteenth century that was true. Travel was by train, horse and buggy, the quickly going out of style canal boat, or foot. A trip from Philadelphia to Erie may take a week or more. Information travelled slowly.

It was a time of expansion of the country. Manifest Destiny that proclaimed that America should stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean was the talk of the country. It was healing time from the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Nature wasn’t something to be enjoyed and admired. Rivers were made for damming to generate power and to take refuse away, the plains were there to be plowed, and the forests – especially the forests of Pennsylvania – were there to be cut and feed lumber to a growing nation.

Horace Greeley, abolitionist and reformer, founded the New York Tribune in 1841. He may not have been the first to speak the phrase, “Go West, young man, go West,” but he certainly popularized it. America was growing and on the move at the midpoint of the 19th century. Industry was humming in the cities of Pennsylvania. Entrepreneurs were building vast empires. Railroads were the wave of the future. To have the railroad come to or through your town meant opportunity.

A century later Bob Dylan sang, “For the times they are a-changin’” but it could have applied in the last half of the 1800s. It certainly applies today.

The book is in editing now. More details to come.