On a recent research trip into the Nevada outback, Nugget News editor Jim Cornelius and I had occasion to stop for a few minutes in Silver Lake, Oregon–to pay our respects at a monument in the local cemetery. Ten feet high, unprepossessing, the monument was erected in 1898, to remember the victims of Oregon’s most deadly fire.
The Silver Lake fire of 1894 isn’t really the stuff of the Christmas season, except that in the midst of an agonizing tragedy there were also towering acts of selflessness.
For the 200 or so people who gathered in the J.H. Clayton Hall–a community room built above Chrisman Brother’s Mercantile–it was a chance to get out of the -20° cold. It was also Christmas Eve, and after weeks of anticipation, occasion to celebrate the “The Christmas Tree Program” with family and friends who had come in buggies, wagons, and on horseback, from ranches and homesteads as far away as Paisley.
Silver Lake was then not much bigger than it is now, and in 1894 it was the only established trading post between Prineville and Lakeview.
The community hall, which had been used for dances, theater programs, and the occasional foot-stomping lecture by wandering evangelists, was decorated with a large Christmas tree. The tree was piled up with presents, and the walls were decorated with paper chains and pine branches. At one end of the hall there was a small stage for the choir, and the guests were seated, shoulder-to-shoulder, on an assortment of planks, benches, boxes, and the occasional chair.
The celebration was almost at an end, the choir wrapping up its last song of the night, when George Payne, 18, stood up from his seat and tried navigating through the crowd by walking along the edge of a bench. Focused on keeping his balance, George cracked his head on a Rochester lamp hung from the ceiling, “causing it to slosh coal oil into the burner and flare and flame inside.”
The inferno that followed would cost the lives of 43 people.
There were plenty of heroic efforts among the general panic that night. There was Francis Chrisman, who grabbed the burning lamp with his bare hands. It was a heroic move that ended poorly when people began batting at the fireball, causing Chrisman to drop the lantern–where it was kicked away in the stampede.
Burning oil then spread in all directions, and caught a young woman’s dress on fire.
There was Walter Duncan, who climbed out onto the porch roof and handed some twenty people down into the street and safety. And there was John Buick, who carried his infant daughter, and young son Frank, through the flames.
For many, there was no way out at all. Built above the mercantile, the Clayton Hall had only one exit, at the bottom of a narrow corridor, with a door that opened into the crowd that was now pressing down the stairs. But for Lucinda Schroeder, who had initially escaped the fire and who returned to search for her husband and son, nearly 100 more people may have died. She stood blocking the door open with her body so that others could escape.
Both Schroeder and her son would perish in the flames.
After George Payne’s head struck the lamp it took only two minutes for the entire building to go up in flames. Outside, “water was pumped on those stumbling out of the building with their clothes aflame, until the hose rig jammed. Then the stairs, heavy with people, collapsed.”
And there was Ed O’Farrell, a young buckaroo, who climbed on his horse and set out across the desert, in the middle of the night, to fetch the closest doctor. Anyone who has done any serious riding in that kind of cold, at night, can appreciate the magnitude of this feat, and we are left to wonder what he might have been thinking as he started out into the miles of snow and ice with an inferno raging in the winter darkness over his shoulder.
The physician, a Mr. Bernard Daly, was in Lakeview, 100 miles away.
But O’Farrell rode through, changing horses at ranches along the way, and arranging a relay of fresh mounts for the return trip. He finally arrived in Lakeview on the afternoon of Christmas day, some 15 hours after setting out.
When Dr. Daly arrived in Silver Lake, early on December 26th, “every house in the village had been turned into a hospital.” Among the dead were 19 women and 8 children. For days afterward, citizens of the Oregon outback continued to arrive in Silver Lake, to lend whatever hand they could in the wake of unimaginable horrors.
The monument in Silver Lake is a grim, grey thing. And it was a grim, grey day when Jim and I parked on the side of the road to explore and behold it. And as we set out again, heading east into even deeper reaches of desert history, I could not stop thinking about Ed O’Farrell.
I could not stop hearing the creak of cold saddle leather as he rode, or stop feeling the bitter, burning frost in his fingers and toes. I could not stop hearing his horse, laboring to punch through mile after mile of crusted snow and ice. And I could not stop admiring the size of a man’s heart who would continue in that way, long after the warm and terrible fireglow had been subsumed, when even time finally froze and night rushed into the void like the hardest dark.