DAYS GONE BY: The Great Chase Fire

By Shanna Avery

Lake County Historical Society

The quiet village of Chase was once a bustling lumber town with a population around 2,000, and up to 5,000 on weekends when lumberjacks and mill workers piled into town. Catastrophe struck on the gusty night of April 27, 1892, and most of Chase was reduced to rubble. A fire swept over six blocks, and the whole business section of Chase was demolished. The wind shifted direction three times from southwest, then west, then northwest. With the destruction of 46 business places and 18 residences, this was the most disastrous fire in Lake County history.

The flames were first discovered in the Z. Ross drug store after he went to his boarding house for the night. This building was located on the west side of the village and on the north side of the main stretch. At 10 p.m. Dr. Torry saw the fire from his office window east of the drug store and at once sounded the alarm. The firemen rushed to the scene with hoses that were connected to a water works system that got its pressure from a steam boiler, however, their efforts were halted due to defective equipment. The hoses were left to burn in the street as the fire department turned their efforts to saving contents from the burning buildings.

The fire spread to W. S. Gordon's general store, then to the Eagle Hotel, then skipped across the street to Knevels' Grocery store, the Metropolitan Hotel, an empty saloon and bakery, Furniss furniture and undertaking business, a millinery store, C. Shade's barbershop, Morley Brother's store room, the post office, the Odd Fellows hall, the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) Hall, and J. E. Wells hardware and grocery. The fire continued east of the Eagle Hotel, and burned the Hurley House, a restaurant, an empty store, the fire department headquarters, Dr. Fields drug store and home, the Smith Brothers' Hotel, and William Walker's blacksmith and wagon shop. The fire also swept north on Depot Street and took W. S. Gordon’s warehouse, a meat market, a few other businesses and several buildings, seven houses and the fine residence of Frank Torrence. The livery barn of L. Potter was destroyed, but he was able to save the horses, two buggies, and one cutter. East of Depot Street the opera house burned to the ground.

The post mistress, Mrs. Oviatt, was able to save some boxes, stamps, and office supplies. The post office was housed at the depot the following day since it was one of the few structures that survived. Most of the contents from the G.A.R. hall burned except a flag and a few guns. The flag is now on display at the Chase library. The united efforts of the citizens saved the Congregational Church and parsonage from being burned.

Dr. Fields attempted to remove a fine new piano but abandoned the efforts when the heat became too intense. It burned in the middle of the street.

The cause of the fire was determined to be from a candle, and some suspected arson at the hands of Z. Ross whose drug store was where the fire started. The following day the town council unanimously voted to get the state attorney general to investigate. It was known that Ross had ill feeling for months prior to the fire toward the town council when they withdrew Ross as the town druggist and gave the position to Dr. Fields, who was also a council member. Yet, during the fire Ross worked to exhaustion to try and save his business as well as assist others in their efforts.

The Osceola Democrat reported how Ross went to Grand Rapids the morning after the fire, and when he returned to the area Friday morning he was arrested in Reed City by the sheriff of Lake County. He was taken to Chase and put under $1,000 bond by Justice Wells on charge of arson. He was unable to obtain the bail and was sent to the Baldwin Jail Friday night. There was an insurance of $600 on the property going to H. Matthews of Grand Rapids, the former owner, and it was resolved that nothing could be gained by its destruction. Ross was released.

The loss to Chase was determined to be between $75,000 and $100,000 with only $1,300 to $2,250 covered by insurance. Many families and business owners moved out of the Chase area following the fire. Some of the families who were burned out of their homes were able to find abandoned dwellings in the village to live in.

The truth of what really transpired on the night Chase burned remains a mystery. The once thriving town never rebuilt to its former glory, but several times the following statement was written in the Chase column of the Reed City Clarion that still rings true today, "Chase is neither dead nor sleeping."