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Pieces of the Past: Clarendon Fire

February 28, 2024

Do you remember seeing a sign just east of the Glade Bridge that said: WELCOME TO WARREN, PENNSYLVANIA HOME OF 15,000 FRIENDLY PEOPLE? It was on the south side of Route 6 for many years.

Over the decades, like almost every small town around here, populations have shrunk. Today. Warren’s population after the last census was less than 10,000. Population numbers are declining in almost every community in Western Pennsylvania.

The reasons are varied but the loss of manufacturing is the most common. In some cases, it was a fire that did a town in. In Warren County alone you can trace serious damage and permanent loss to fire. One Sunday the entire town of Fagundas was leveled in less than 4 hours. Clarendon was so badly damaged that it never regained its potential. The story of the 4th of July fire there reads like a great disaster movie script.

If you traveled there before 1872, you would have been in Pattonia, named for Thomas Patton, a contractor who helped get the town going. Later, Thomas Clarendon was also a prime mover and shaker responsible for the town’s exploding with rapid growth. Clarendon grew to its largest population by 1887 with 1,200 residents! Stoneham had one of the largest tanneries in the nation. Cherry Grove had an oil boom that attracted hundreds of workers and their families which added to Clarendon and North Clarendon.

Ernest Miller, a revered oil-era historian, and Cindy Bigelow have documented one of the worst disasters in Warren County history.  The 1887 4th of July catastrophe in Clarendon. Clarendon was growing rapidly. Three successful lumber mills, a massive tannery just east of town in Stoneham, and of course the Cherry Grove oil fields all contributed to turning North Clarendon and Clarendon into a hub of commerce.

It was a Monday, July 4th, locals enjoyed a 3-day weekend. A crowd assembled on either side of Route 6. The gas company built a lighted archway across the road. There was red white and blue bunting hanging on every building along the parade route. Rough-cut lumber was the building material of choice. North Clarendon and Clarendon were perfect fuel. By 9:30 in the evening, most residents were ready for fireworks. They got them!

A fire was reported in the pump room of the local water company. That was brought under control quickly. Another fire in The Waver hotel or boarding house was spotted almost immediately. Firefighters were already overwhelmed. The fires were so intense that the wooden water main several feet underground collapsed. No water and limited manpower equaled a major disaster.

By morning almost all of the Clarendon area was ashes. Something like 100 homes and businesses were gone. The town never fully recovered. It was suspected the fire was arson. A man was arrested and charged, but arson is very hard to prove. The suspect was freed for lack of evidence. The fire left scars that remain to this day. So devastating was the calamity that until I studied this, I had no idea there was a NORTH Clarendon!

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