Jonesborough has been the destination for many travelers over the decades. They notice its charm and picturesque scenes of days gone by. However, many do not stop to think about a history that was literally burned into the minds of former residents.

On New Year’s Eve 1873, the town of Jonesborough went up in flames. According to the Herald and Tribune’s edition on Jan. 8, 1874, “Eighteen hundred and seventy-three will be a memorable year in the history Jonesborough, for the dreadful scourgings of pestilence and extensive losses by fire. Our long immunity from such direful visitations renders these calamities the more grievous, and the harder to be borne with that complacent philosophy which regards whatever is right.”

This specific article provides insight into the truth of what happened that fateful day.

“The last day of the old year was one of peculiar and almost irreparable misfortune to a few our citizens, and their great losses cause universal sympathy and regret in the community. They eye of the day and year closed amidst the ghastly horrors and fierce wrath of a disastrous conflagration. A huge pile of ruins, heaps of scoria and rubbish and rent and blackened walls the destruction of two of the largest and best private dwellings in the place — were the sad and grim greetings of the New Year,” the article explains in great and vivid detail

According to the 1874 article, the fire was discovered around 5 p.m. that day, and the alert that went out was by word of mouth and ringing of the courthouse bell — “The roof of one residence that burned was already on fire and because it was constructed of wood, the fire spread quickly and the roof collapsed.

Townsfolk flocked to the scene and after a moment of shock, the men and boys who gathered started a bucket brigade. The newspaper account indicated that everyone knew there was no hope of saving the structure, or the adjoining ones, but the responders battled the fire anyway.”

The residents were able to keep a structure only known as “Blair’s stores” by keeping the roof wetted down.

“Had this large building being entirely built of wood, taken fire, the town would have been utterly impossible to have extinguished it with the meager and slow facilities at command,” the article continued.

In addition to brave Jonesborough residents, a group of men from Johnson City also responded to help fight the fire. Capt. Jack Howren, town marshal of the time, received praise and gratitude for his part in helping extinguish the fire and encourage the responders.

Just with any disaster, many only gathered that day to “simply gawk”, according to the Herald and Tribune.

“Whilst a large majority of our citizens worked until they were utterly exhausted, we noticed a line along the pavement, who stood with hands in their pockets, unmoved spectators of the awful scene, apparently enjoying the drama of ruin and exchanging the vulgar jests and ribaldry of the law and degraded. They were the loafers, loungers, dead beats, thieves and fine-haired gentry of the town.”

Though the origin of the fire was never unequivocally determined, the most common theory, according to Johnson City Press reporter Becky Campbell was that it started in Tom Deer’s whiskey shop where a stovepipe, had caught fire several times before, went up through a floor and into one of the burned residences before exiting the structure.

However, the fire started, “it is certain that the two oldest landmarks of the town are grim and blackened ruins, and their burning will mark one of the most disastrous days that ever befell Jonesboro,” the newspaper noted.


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