Mercer, PA Mercer County Courthouse Fire, Dec 1907

On the night of Sunday, December 15, 1907, for the second time in just over forty years, fire again visited the Mercer County Court House.

The Western Press reported the discovery of the fire as follows:

Will Boston, of Findley, was in Mercer Sunday night, and his best girl had pointed to the parlor clock, which indicated ten-thirty. On gaining the street he thought to verify the maiden's warning by the town clock. He looked up at the steeple and discovered the blaze. He neglected, however, to see the time of night at all. It was Mr. Boston who discovered the fire through being sent home at the psychological
moment.

A special to the Mercer Dispatch dated December 16th offered this report:

The exact cause of the fire is not known and the reasons assigned are conflicting. Night Watch Robert Fruit had gone on duty, and passed the Court House a few minutes before 10 o'clock, and gone to the Red Leather Restaurant. A few minutes after the tower clock had struck 10 o'clock smoke was seen coming out of the cupola, which was followed by an explosion. The fire, when first detected, appeared to be in the attic, beneath the belfry , and not in the part of the cupola occupied by the clock.

Despite the above report it is generally held that the arrangement for the gas piping to the lights that illuminated the clock's dials was somehow faulty, and a build-up in gas was ignited by a spark from an unknown source which resulted in the conflagration. Regardless of how the fire started all accounts agree that brisk winds helped fan the flames and low water pressure prevented any effective counter measures. The Sharon Herald reported that the firemen's hose could only throw a stream twenty feet. The call went out to the Greenville Fire Department for assistance but was withdrawn when it became clear that there was no hope of containing the flames. With that realization the volunteer firemen turned their attention to saving the records from the non-fireproofed Clerk of Courts Office.

Despite these efforts to save the county's precious documents Judge Williams refused to let anyone try to save materials from his second floor office which included papers from pending court cases and his collection of law books. The Bar Association's Law Library was also destroyed and was, like Judge Williams' law books, uninsured. Also destroyed were numerous "old records" stored in the attic which had provided excellent fuel for the fire. Probably among these were the county's early tax lists and the Commissioners' minutes. Luckily, the bulk of the county's records were saved by the fireproof vaults and other measures that were part of the 1896 improvements. Fortunate circumstances also allowed for saving the records from the Clerk of Courts Office which, although not fireproof, was located on the ground floor. As was mentioned above, when it became apparent that the fire could not be contained with the means at hand the volunteer firemen turned their attention to saving these records, which they accomplished before the fire reached the first floor. Additionally, the building's relative isolation at the center of the Court House Park, along with the blanket of snow that covered nearby buildings, prevented embers that were blown by the brisk wind from igniting further blazes which could have led to an even greater calamity.

By daybreak the picture of destruction became clear. All that was left of the Court House were the exterior walls surrounding debris and the fireproof vaults that had saved the county's records. That Monday must have been a somber day in Mercer Borough though a busy one too.

Fuhrman, Robert B., Hail Temple Built to Justice; A History of Mercer County's Court Houses, 1994