Christmas Eve is usually a night of anticipation and excitement, of big-eyed kids wondering what the morning will bring.
That same sense of anticipation sparkled in the northern Lake County community of Silver Lake in 1894, when between 160 and 200 people gathered in the J.H. Clayton Hall above the Chrisman Store for a Christmas Tree program. But before the night was over, 40 were dead and 34 others were injured, including three who later died of injuries resulting from a devastating fire.
The 24- by 50-foot J.H. Clayton Hall was used by traveling evangelists and for dramas and dances. It was reached by a narrow stairway outside the building. Two front windows provided light and ventilation. According to accounts from survivors, the 1894 Christmas Eve audience was seated on long plank benches that faced the stage at the end of the building opposite the door. One survivor wrote the room was lighted “by one huge brass coal-oil burner slung from the beams near the center of the hall and a small one mounted over the stage.”
Silver Lake, one of the few communities between Prineville and Lakeview, had been settled in the early 1870s, mostly by stockmen from the Willamette Valley seeking grasslands for hay and cattle. It’s estimated 225 people lived in the valley, while the town, which had a post office, school, hotels, livery stables, saloons and stores, numbered about 50 residents.
Inside the hall that Christmas Eve, the holiday atmosphere was made festive by decorations of paper chains and curtains and a community Christmas tree. School children, some outfitted like angels with halos and wings, had performed songs, poems, readings and skits and were anticipating the opening of gifts. Adults had participated in the program, too, some having performed on the organ, fiddle or harmonica.
The program was nearly over when a person, later identified as 18-year-old George Payne, stood up, began walking along the benches and accidentally knocked over the brass coal-oil burner lamp.
Coal oil spilled out and flared, causing the floor and ceiling to catch fire. Several people attempted to douse the blaze. Store owner Francis Chrisman grabbed the torch-like lamp and tried to carry it to the door, but oil ran down and burned his hand, causing him to drop the lamp, which was kicked around the floor, leaving behind a trail of oil, flames and smoke. The blaze quickly engulfed the building, causing the panicked crowd to surge toward the door.
When a woman’s dress burst into flame, the fragile calm exploded into hysterical terror. A little girl stumbled, and when her mother tried to pick her up, she also went down. In the melee, more people tumbled and panicked. The frantic mob crowded the door, which opened outside-in.
“`It was hardly more than two minutes after the lamp fell until the entire building was a roaring conflagration, everything was in a turmoil of excitement and commotion,” one person later wrote. “Some were rushing hither and thither through the blinding heat and smoke and flame, trying to find some means of escape from the prison flames. Some knelt down and prayed while others, so overcome by the suddenness of the dangerous situation, fainted and fell prostrate in the flames.”
When the door was finally opened, people trying to escape down the stairway were blocked by rescuers trying to rush upstairs. Rescuers briefly used a hose to douse the flames, but the water shut off. Then the badly overloaded stairs collapsed, causing those standing on the balcony to plunge to the ground. Some, fearing the blackening smoke cloud and hearing terrified screams, leaped out the opening.
Other rescuers ran toward the building’s front end and raised a ladder to a balcony under the windows. Walter Duncan stood on the porch and helped a few escape. Instead of jumping off, most stood on the porch until it collapsed.
Several days later, Lake County Judge E.M. Brattain wrote in the Morning Oregonian, “The screams and groans … were heartrending. Those on the outside were powerless, and were compelled to stand and see their relatives and friends burned to death.”
Forty people died that night. Three more later died from injuries. Of the 43, the fatalities included 19 women, 16 men and eight children.
A visit to the Silver Lake Cemetery, where a common tombstone names the victims, is sobering. Ages of the victims are listed in years, months and days. Most are young – very young. Two were less than a year old, 11 were 5 years old or younger. Many were in their 20s and 30s.
Even before he knew the extent of the carnage, local cowboy Ed O’Farrell had grabbed a horse and started the hard 100-mile ride to Lakeview to seek medical help.
“Ed O’Farrell became the man of the hour,” wrote Reub Long in his book, “The Oregon Desert.” “Long before it was known who or how many had been killed, he was on his way horseback, riding for all he was worth to get Doctor (Bernard) Daly at Lakeview, 100 miles away. It was a snowy winter, in the middle of the night, country roads were snowed in, and snow was 4 foot deep on the summits. The temperature was 20 below zero.”
O’Farrell, “riding for all he was worth,” stopped at various ranches, pausing long enough to tell his story, trade for a fresh horse, make arrangements to have teams ready for the return ride and gallop on.
“He was just a common, ordinary cowboy around there,” wrote the author of an unpublished account of the fire. “They rustled him up an extra good horse. He’d go into a ranch down at Summer Lake or someplace like that, tell them there’s been a big fire up at Silver Lake and he needed a good horse to go on. Everybody’s give him a horse and away he’d go.”
Silver Lake’s resident physician, W.M. Thompson, was in the Summer Lake area that night. After he learned of the blaze, he hurried back to begin treatment.
O’Farrell – although some Silver Lake people believe it was actually Ira Bradley who made the ride – reached Lakeview about 4 o’clock Christmas Day afternoon, 15 hours after leaving Silver Lake.
Within an hour, Dr. Daly “had gathered supplies and he was on his way with Willard Duncan in a buggy with the best team in town, Tom and Jerry. They swapped for fresh teams at Paisley and Summer Lake, where O’Farrell had stopped and alerted someone to have them ready,” wrote Dorothy Moran in a historical account of the fire.
Daly’s curtained buggy had heated bricks at the men’s feet. A group of horsemen broke trail.
“They pulled into Silver Lake at 6 a.m. (Dec. 26),” wrote Moran. “A saloon had been converted into an emergency hospital, with cowboys from ranches nearby as nurses. Housewives brought all the sheets and pillowcases they owned to be torn into strips for bandages.”
A remarkable man, Daly was a doctor, banker, rancher, judge (county commissioner) and benefactor who later created the Daly Fund, a scholarship fund that has helped hundreds of Lake County young people to attend college.
Daly’s efforts didn’t end after he tended to the dead and injured. Years after the fire, when he was elected a state senator, one of Daly’s first acts was introducing legislation requiring that doors on public buildings open outward. He wanted to be sure the same mistakes that cost so many lives at Silver Lake would not be repeated.
Word of the fire spread slowly. Days after the blaze, newspaper accounts appeared in Lakeview, Klamath Falls, Burns, Ashland, Salem, The Dalles and Portland and, Dec. 30, in The New York Times. Within weeks of the fire, the Lake County Examiner received requests for copies of the story as people came from around the country and world – even Tipperary, Ireland.
The charred bodies were mostly burned beyond recognition. As one area resident, George Giflrey, wrote, “We was not at the Christmas Tree and I am glad we was not … I was at the scene the next day before it quit smoking and it was a horrible sight to look at. To think that so many people died in so small a place. Not one could be identified – nothing left but the bodys and all them charred coal …”
The bodies of the original 40 were buried in a common grave. In following days three more people, including Payne, the person who accidentally started the fire, died from their severe burns. Five days after the fire, survivors and community people gathered at the cemetery to pay tribute. Of the injured, 15 were seriously hurt, while 21 others had minor wounds.
The Silver Lake Cemetery’s impressive 10-foot-tall monument, with the names of all 43 victims, was bought by community members and erected in 1898.
“As long as the fire continues to have meaning within the history of the community, there will be reason to retell the story,” Barbara Allen wrote in “The Story of the Christmas Eve Fire.” “For audiences and narrators nearly one hundred years after the event, the human dimensions of the fire are particularly clear, for the disaster involved no esoteric technology as in a nuclear plant or space accident, nor was it caused by sabotage or terrorism. It was purely a human tragedy.”
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