The Great Fire of Chase 'nearly wiped out' town 120 years ago

CHASE — The small town of Chase in southeast Lake County has quite a history. Being the location of the first county seat in the early 1870s, its glory days during the lumber boom were just beginning to dwindle when the town caught fire April 27, 1892, causing a great blow from which it never quite recovered. 

Surrounded by towering hardwood forests, first settlers and proprietors saw opportunity, and mills began popping up to the west, north and south. In its heyday, Chase had a population of 2,000, and would soar to about 5,000 when the lumberjacks and mill workers would hit the town on weekends. 

"By 1892, when the town burned, Chase was kind of on the decline because logging operations moved out, and the town began switching more to a farming community," local historian Sid Woods said. "Chase still was pretty good sized, though. About 67 structures burned down, mostly in the business district on both sides of Main Street (now U.S. 10) just west of Depot Street, to about where Chase Fellowship Church is now, about 2 1/2 blocks to the east."

As the biggest fire in Lake County history, with an estimated loss at $50,000 and six town blocks demolished, the Lake County Star from April 29, 1892, reported,  "Town nearly wiped out."

The article continued: "The most disastrous fire in the history of Lake County occurred Wednesday night. Between the hours of 9 and 10 p.m. flames broke out in the rear of Ross Drug Store after the proprietor had gone to his boarding place for the night." 

The account told how the flames spread to the Eagle Hotel, then swept across the highway to Knevels Grocery, and traveled west to the Metropolitan Hotel, and then east to an empty saloon, Furniss' furniture store, a millinery store, the barber shop, post office, the Odd Fellows Hall, an empty store building, two or three residences and the J.E. Wells Hardware Store. The GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) Hall, where Civil War vets fraternalized, burnt, but some guns and the flag were saved. The flag is displayed at the Chase Township Public Library. 

The fire continued East from the Eagle Hotel on the north side of the highway and demolished an empty building, Thurstin's Saloon and residence, the Hurley House, a restaurant, an empty store, the fire department's headquarters, Dr. Field's Drug Store and house, an empty business house, the Oriental Hotel, and blacksmith and wagon shop. 

The flames also ran north on Depot Street on the west side and took down W. S. Gordon's Warehouse, a meat market, some business rooms and several dwellings. On the East side of Depot Street the Opera House burned to the ground. On the first street north of the highway, a string of seven dwellings were consumed. On another street, L. Potter's livery barn was destroyed, but he was able to save the horses. A residence as well as a meat market burned. 

Chase at one time had a decent water works system and fire department, but during the decline from the lumber era, the water works were discontinued and out of repair, making it near impossible to control the flames. When the fire alarm was sounded, the firemen attempted to hook hoses to the old water works, which got its pressure from a steam boiler, but the equipment was defective and the hoses were left to burn in the street, as firemen turned their efforts to saving the contents of the burning buildings. 

"Had the wind not changed and alignment scarcer, the destruction of the village would have been yet more complete," the article read. "As it is, it is a hard death blow, although the plucky businessmen will likely rebuild to some extent. $50,000 would not begin to replace the loss occasioned by the fire."

Although some of the businesses were able to save some of their stock, "very little of the household goods were saved, and acres of smoking ashes is all that is left of many family's possessions. Chase people should have the sympathy of all in their terrible affliction for many are left desolate of all possessions." 

The efforts of citizens kept the Congregational Church (the first church built in Lake County) and the parsonage from burning. Dr. Fields attempted to save a new piano, but the heat became so intense it burned in the middle of the street. 

CAUSE OF FIRE A MYSTERY

Although no proof was brought forward, many people in Chase suspected the fire was caused by arson, according to the Star article, as well as other historical accounts. Several thought the fire was started from a candle by the hands of druggist Z. Ross, where the fire began. It was known he was bitter when the town council withdrew him as town druggist and gave the position to Dr. Fields, who also was a council member. Yet, during the fire, Ross worked to exhaustion trying to save his business and assist others in their efforts. 

Ross went to Grand Rapids the morning following the fire, and was arrested by the Lake County Sheriff when he returned Friday morning and was taken to jail. It was determined there was $600 insurance on the property, and resolved nothing could be gained by its destruction, so he was released, according to an article from the Osceola Democrat. 

Some other interesting notes mentioned from the Star article were,  "Mrs. Torrence had a $50 silverware set stolen," and "Supervisor Fowler was in town and had begun assessment. There is less work for him now," and "200 bushels of baked potatoes at one mess in Gordon's cellar." Many farmers from outside of town also came to the action, as well as folks from Reed City and Baldwin. 

Following the fire, many families and businesses moved out of the Chase area, and some found abandoned dwellings in town to move into. 

Ironically, it was 20 years ago on a gusty April day, April 23, 2012, Chase experienced another fire, 120 years and four days after the Great Fire of Chase, when the locally beloved Chase Creek Smokehouse burned down, To many that enjoy dining and celebrating special occasions there, the spirit of the Chase people triumphed again, and the establishment was rebuilt. 

The truth of what really transpired the night of April 27, 1892, remains a mystery. Although the town never rebuilt to its former glory, the newspaper reprint stated, "Chase people are plucky, and while knocked out, will soon be in the ring."

Chase remains on the map, and its businesses are a frequent stop for travelers and area residents, which is more than can be said of a lot of lumbering communities that sprang up in Lake County only to have their existence extinguished with passing time.