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Fire Foreshadows Fire

John Conway - Sullivan County Historian
Posted 11/27/20

In the early morning hours of Wednesday, November 29, 1882, fire broke out in a building used as a blacksmith and wagon repair shop in Gilman's, one of Sullivan County's most bustling little …

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Fire Foreshadows Fire

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In the early morning hours of Wednesday, November 29, 1882, fire broke out in a building used as a blacksmith and wagon repair shop in Gilman's, one of Sullivan County's most bustling little communities. Because of the hour, no one discovered the blaze until the entire building was destroyed.

Eerily, the blaze foreshadowed a similar fire less than two years later that would claim most of the hamlet, resulting in more than $120,000 in property loss. That is more than $3 million in today's dollars.

The 1882 fire may have broken out at an inopportune time, in that the building was unoccupied and the fire wasn't discovered for quite some time, but it was not as disastrous as it might have been because the weather—which turned the 1884 fire into a major conflagration—was fairly calm.

The building was owned by W.W. Gilman, one of the wealthiest and most eccentric men to ever live in Sullivan County. There was never any determination of how the fire started, but it was finally discovered by a man who lived nearby, George Niles, who awakened his neighbors, almost all of whom were employed by Gilman in one of several businesses he owned in the community, and they immediately went to work.

“Mr. Niles ran from house to house and spread the alarm, which was speedily responded to, but the shop was totally destroyed before assistance arrived,” the Port Jervis Evening Gazette reported later that day. “There were several piles of hardwood lumber near the spot and the men turned their attention to saving as much as possible, but the heat soon drove them away and all was destroyed.”

The newspaper article noted that it was difficult to estimate the total loss from the fire, but that it “probably will not be less than $5,000.” That would be about $128,000 today.

To make matters worse, the miserly Gilman refused to pay for insurance on his buildings.

Gilman was already a wealthy man when he arrived in Sullivan County in the 1840s, just as the tanning industry was beginning to boom here. Growing up in the leather tanning business, he purchased large tracts of land in Forestburgh and within a few years, he was operating a thriving lumber business in addition to a tannery. He constructed some 32 buildings anchored by a steam-powered gang sawmill comprising 22 saws that turned out three to four million board feet of lumber a year, all of it shipped to New York City.

When the Monticello and Port Jervis Railroad came through the area in 1871, the community became known as Gilman's Depot or Gilman's Station, and the railroad station was built onto the sawmill so that lumber could be loaded directly onto the trains. The community also included a schoolhouse, a company store, a post office and a boarding house.

The second Gilman's fire occurred in May of 1884. It started about a mile from the depot in the middle of the afternoon, and burned out of control for days.

“The wind was blowing a gale,” the New York Times reported. “The men from Gilman's saw mill fought the fire, but without avail. The residents were obliged to flee for their lives, and were unable to save anything and not more than half a dozen houses are standing within a radius of five miles. The fire is still burning to the east and south of Gilman's. Two railroad bridges have also been burned.”

Despite the fact that he had no insurance, Gilman was uncharacteristically philosophical.

“If I had had policies on this property during the past 40 years the insurance companies would have been paid its entire value,” he mused afterwards. “I saved that much money and had the use of it.”

W. W. Gilman contracted pneumonia in late November of 1885 and died on December 5. He was 78.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.

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