Coudersport Before May 18, 1880
On May 17, 1880, Coudersport was a prosperous peaceful town, the
county seat with all of its government offices and legal apparatus. The townspeople
were making strides in growing their lives and the life of their town. Farmers
came to town to purchase supplies and sell goods, there were grocery, drug,
furniture, and general stores. There were mills, factories, millinery shops,
banks, wagon- and harness-makers, blacksmiths, hotels, restaurants, doctors,
dentists, insurance agents, and a photographer. A new gas company was in town.
across the courthouse square
from the Courthouse
Most of the businesses were physically clustered on the streets surrounding the courthouse square just as they are today. The Coudersport of May 17th had a distinctly New England look that was of a piece with its courthouse. Buildings were clapboard and faced the courthouse. The courthouse maples were thriving young trees, the Civil war monument was in place, but without its soldier which wouldn't be added until 1887. The entire courthouse square was surrounded by a sturdy, white wooden fence.
Many a house was built from logs snaked behind a team as bark peelers returned home at the end of the day. The wood was soft, splintery, and full of pitch. However, it sawed into boards just fine. The logs could be sawed on shares or traded for boards at any of the sawmills that dotted the county. Even today, many an old home or other building has boards that are 18 or 24 inches wide or even wider hiding behind its modern drywall or paneling.
Our ancestors feared fire above most any natural event. They
had to - they were set up for disaster by fire:
When a cry of "FIRE!!!" went up everyone turned out with buckets and the fire was fought by bucket brigade. As you can imagine, many fires resulted in the destruction of the building. Because throwing buckets of water on a house fire is the next thing to futility, a great part of fighting fires at that time was wetting down adjacent buildings to prevent the spread of the fire. It was a job well done if only one building burned. Another important activity was salvaging whatever could be moved. Livestock, buggies, wagons, feed, seed, merchandise, household goods - if it could be hauled out of harm's way, it was.
Although Coudersport had no formal fire department, it did boast a fire fighting system for its downtown area that was ahead of its time in rural America. In the late 1860's a well was dug in the courthouse square and fitted with a pump that was powered by four to six men pumping in teams. Two to three hundred feet of two-inch hose was purchased and kept on hand to fight fires in the stores around the courthouse. It was better than charging an inferno with a bucket of water - but not much.
By 1880, several communities had been leveled by fires out of control. Just two weeks earlier, in just hours, fire destroyed Rew City, Gilmore, and Rixford which were a cluster of booming oil towns in McKean County. Reports of the time say that not a building was left and that the fire was so fast that nothing was saved. And thus, the people of Coudersport lived each day working, building, dreaming while just below the surface lurked the nightmare of
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The Fire of 1880
After the Fire