History: The night of ‘The Fire’ that almost destroyed Seale

History: The night of ‘The Fire’ that almost destroyed Seale
On Oct. 21, 1875 nearly the entire business district of Seale was destroyed by a fire that was suspected to have started in the town’s Masonic building near the depot for the Mobile & Girard Railroad. Every able bodied male and female, both white and black, turned out to fight the fire that started around midnight. The Seale House hotel at the corner of Main Street and Railroad Street near the depot caught fire from sparks several times, but was saved. Above is the Dudley Hotel built in 1845 and believed to be the same structure that caught fire that night.

Editor’s Note: Russell County has a long history that is important to the State of Alabama and its evolvement from an area described in the book “Russell County in Retrospect” by Anne Kendrick Walker as a “barbaric land” to what it is today. Many of the people who set their roots in the county in its early days including the state’s first Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress, important Native Americans who paid with their lives to cede land that created the county, a family that started a place of higher learning in south Russell County that later led to the establishment of one of the state’s most known institutions of education today and a former slave who placed a monument to honor his former owner, are very much important to the formation of Alabama. The story that follows is another of a series to inform you – our readers – about the history of Russell County. 

In October of 1875, Seale was anything but the sleepy unincorporated area you see today on a trip to the middle of Russell County. It was a lively village that boasted being the seat of the county government. The Russell County Courthouse located on a small hill in the center of the town was the place where people in the county traveled to attend to their business, go to court, or record deeds and more.

Main Street was a hubbub of retail activity with no fewer than three dry goods stores. There was also a pharmacy, a couple of saloons, a shoe store, a livery stable, a doctor’s office, and dentist’s office.

W.T. Oakes advertised in the Russell Record about his recent leasing of the hotel near the railroad depot – The Seale House. “I have leased the hotel near the Depot, and will give the business that care and attention that will insure the comfort of guests,” Oakes’ advertisement stated.

The Mobile & Girard Railroad listed the times the train left going east to Seale from Troy and west from Seale to Troy with stops going both ways at Union Springs, Hurtville (now Hurtsboro), and Hatchechubbee.

With just over 300 permanent residents, Seale would continue to grow until the courthouse was removed from the town to Phenix City in the 1920s, after its consolidation with Girard. Sometime later, the town either unincorporated or lost its town charter. Which one appears to be unknown. But it was once a grand place to live.

Well, it was a grand place to live in the early days of Russell County’s history until the night of October 21, 1875 – the night of “The Fire.”

The Russell Record, in its first year of operation and only its thirteenth edition, ran the story of the fire that destroyed most of the town that night. It was a night that the townsfolk came together to avoid seeing every business on Main Street burned to the ground through quick action and ingenuity.

The story was written as follows:

THE FIRE

On last Thursday night 21st instant, we had a disastrous fire in Seale. On the midnight air was sounded the awful alarm of fire, and as each inhabitant left the retirement of his bedroom, he soon discovered it was no false alarm, but the hell fire monster, that element which as long as restrained properly may be a good servant, but when unrestrained is a heartless master, was on a fair way to consume all the business houses in town, if nothing more.

Soon everything that could move in the human shape, the old and the young, the decrepit and the agile male and female, without regard to race, color or previous condition, were moving – to save what could be saved. Young ladies that ordinarily could do no work requiring strength or muscle performed feats of effort and strength that they had never imagined they could do before, and all did their level best in saving the goods and effects of those threatened in the inevitable tract of destruction.

Meanwhile the flames were mounting higher and higher, and painting still with greater distinctness and horror hell and destruction on the face of the sky. The fire commenced in the old two story Masonic building, near to and south of the Depot of the M. & G. R. R. it spread to the depot, consuming some freight and furniture in it . . . but Mr. Washington, the Agent, succeeded by efficient and well directed work and energy in saving nearly everything of value, including a car load of cotton and all his business books. The fire then took southwardly down the street, destroying the shoe shop, Oakes Saloon on the corner, Bagley’s Saloon, and a vacant store, the five lots were the property of Mrs. M.V. Starkes, a widow lady, and whose loss is more than anyone else’s.

A vacant store belonging to John McGough & Co., the Saloon and Billiard table of M. J. Jones, owned by him, and three stores of W.H. Denson, one of which was vacant, were also lost . . . Denson saved his billiard table, which is almost new . . . very few goods were lost . . . no dwelling houses were burned . . . Oakes’ hotel was saved, after catching several times from sparks. No insurance on anything lost we think.

It was seen from the first that the fire was bound to extend to the ally running between Passmore’s store and Denson’s store towards the livery stable, and hence efforts were soon made and were successful in tearing down the two store houses north of that ally and belonging to Denson; and by the accomplishment of that and by the use of blankets and plenty of water on Passmore’s store and heroic work on the part of all the people white and black, the fire was restrained and ended here.

The sight was grand to behold, but at the same time was awful and disastrous on our town and people. We hope though that when Phoenix like our town does rise from her ashes . . . her youth will be remembered like the eagle’s, and that our people will build more substantial buildings, and buildings too better suited and adjusted to town purposes and fire risks.”

A trip down the streets of Seale today show the remains of how the town rebuilt after the fire, using brick and mortar. They remains are a reminder of how a small town continued to thrive after the – up to then – worst disaster in Russell County’s young history.