Editor’s note: In light of recent downtown fires, we’re sharing a reflection on the largest fire in downtown Winona history. The story below, which relies heavily on the on-the-scene descriptive coverage in 1862, was originally published in the Winona Daily News Centennial Edition, Nov. 20, 1955.
A disastrous fire wiped out nine-tenths of the business district of Winona in 1862, with a loss of $300,000.
One of the buildings destroyed was that of The Winona Republican, and the publishers were forced to suspend publication of their daily paper for five weeks and to have their weekly printed in St. Paul.
The fire occurred early on the morning of July 5, a few hours after the conclusion of a Fourth of July celebration in which firemen of Winona and La Crosse had competed here in a firemen’s tournament.
Residents of Winona and the surrounding territory had joined in the merry-making, and the boat carrying the La Crosse visitors did not get started down stream until midnight.
Between 1 and 2 o’clock in the morning the town was aroused by the cry of “Fire!” and ringing of the fire bells and the tired firemen were called out to battle the rapidly spreading flames.
The fire, which was probably due to the fireworks of the previous evening, began at a point in the rear of Clapperton’s bakery on Center street, between Second and Third streets.
The downtown buildings were made of wood and close together, and very dry after the hot sun of the day before.
The blaze was beyond control before the fire engines were brought into use, and was swept by a southeast wind to the corner of Second and Center streets, the heart of the business district at the time.
There were a dozen families occupying rooms in the second and third stories of buildings in the vicinity, and most of them had to get out in such a hurry that they did not even have time to clothe themselves.
The wind finally became so strong that the flames leaped across Center street and then across Second street on both sides of that street.
“At this juncture,” according to The Republican of July 8, 1862, “seeing that all attempts to stop the progress of the fire would be unavailable, the owners of the property still untouched, but manifestly in danger, generally hastened to save what they might out of the universal destruction which was seen to be impending.
And here the scene became one of wild confusion.
The unconquerable, fiery demon was rushing madly on, overlapping the very streets, thrusting its many forked tongues into everything within its reach, and spreading the terror and destruction upon every side.
Men and women were rushing hither and thither — some hastily gathering a few of their most valuable goods and effects together, and others clutching their children almost from the jaws of death itself, and conveying them to safety.
“About three o’clock the conflagration reached its height. Four solid blocks of buildings, composed in great part of wood, were blazing up towards the heavens. Scattered on the streets and on the levee, were indescribable piles of goods, merchandise, household effects, etc., much of it burning and yet more spoiled by the process of speedy removal. Wildly shone the lurid light of the conflagration upon the surrounding hills — while dense clouds of smoke, mingled with burning cinders, floated across the river, in whose bosom much of the sad scene transpiring upon its band was then reflected.”
Efforts of the firemen and bucket brigades were directed toward preventing the fire from crossing Main Street, and in this they were successful, but the four blocks bounded by Main and Lafayette streets, and Third Street and the river, comprising 110 closely built wooden buildings, were, in three or four hours, reduced to ashes.
The loss of $300,000 was covered by insurance of only $78,200.
Some of the heaviest losers were R.D. Cone, hardware, $20,000; V. Simpson, buildings and grain, $18,000; S.N.Wickersham, druggist, $20,000;W.G. McCutchen, merchandise, $16,000.
The destruction of the Winona Republican office was complete and only the subscription and account books were saved.
The loss was estimated at $4,000, with insurance of $2,400.
All persons indebted to The Republican were “urgently requested” to settle their accounts if possible, for “we stand peculiarly in need of money at this time.”
Less than two weeks after the fire, The Republican was able to report that rebuilding was in full swing, and “the burnt district bids fair to surpass its former self.”
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