By Kellen M. Quigley
Fifty years ago this week, a fire struck a blow to the Ellicottville community when the 1830 Town Hall on West Washington Street was engulfed in flames.
It was the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 22, 1969, when one of Cattaraugus County’s most historic buildings was seemingly damaged beyond repair when flames originating in a lower hall swept through the then 139-year-old building, which was once the county courthouse.
Town and Village Clerk Charles E. Lawler called the fire department from his second-floor office after being warned by a 15-year-old boy who saw the fire through the building’s front door.
Lawler quickly fled from the building on a fire escape. Unfortunately, the door of the town safe, containing town and village records was left open.
Luckily, a near-miracle occurred soon after. Firemen who arrived with great speed directed large amounts of water through windows into Lawler’s office. Apparently, a stream of water hit the safe’s door and knocked it shut, saving the town and village’s records.
The floor did not collapse, and entering the room with firemen by means of the fire escape, Lawler removed the most valuable records — wet, but still legible. However, office equipment including a new adding machine and a typewriter were lost.
Hard-hit but also sharing in unexpected good fortune was the Ellicottville Historical Society. Its large stock of irreplaceable historical items was in a room on the west side of the first floor of the building.
Flames which originated in the main hall, just outside the room, swept up the stairs and climbed through partitions, burning the roof off the building, but did not enter the historical society room. Tons of water seeped down from the second floor.
Miss Bula Johnson, the town historian, said the Historial Society’s 13-star flag was wet and smoke-stained but an effort would be made to restore it. An old handmade cradle loaned by Richard Bohall, of Steamburg, was saved, through soaked, she said.
Glass cases of treasured historical items were carried from the society’s room and stored in a vacant building, including a muzzle-loading musket, powder horns carried in the Revolutionary War and the French and Indian War, Indian artifacts, old dishes and a great many pictures.
Police Chief Charles A. Tretheweysaid he would start an immediate investigation into the cause of the fire later that night. He said he had left his second-floor office in the building only about half an hour before the fire was discovered and noted nothing wrong at the time.
Lawler later reported that Mike McAndrew, 15, who had been shooting baskets in the play area adjoining the town building, at the northwest corner of Washinton and Jefferson streets, saw flames through the double front doors of the building. He ran into the building, past the fire, dashed upstairs and notified Lawler of the fire.
Lawler said he came down the stairs at the rear of the building, and looking toward the front saw the fire which, he said, appeared to be coming from back of a small folding table which had been leaned against the wall on the west side of the hall near the front door. It could have been coming from the partition back of the folding table, he said.
Lawler ran back upstairs and called the fire department. By that time, he said, smoke was billowing up the open stairway in such clouds that he was unable to descend the stairs. Crossing into the second-floor Boy Scout room on the west side of the building, he climbed through a window onto the fire escape on the front of the building.
Mrs. Joseph Halloran who was helping with a book sale in front of the Ellicottville Memorial Library, across Jefferson Street, said, “I saw Mr. Lawler coming down the fire escape, then I saw flames coming out through the front door of the building.”
Ellicottville firemen summoned equipment from Little Valley, Great Valley and Killbuck. Pumpers were stationed at hydrants about the village, and huge amounts of water were thrown on the building through fire hoses on all sides of the building and from Little Valley’s aerial truck.
Crowds watched as huge clouds of black smoke billowed from the building and made a black pillar extending hundreds of feet into toe air. Flames devoured the roof and burned up through the large belfry, which appeared ready to fall at times. But flames failed to topple the sturdy old brick walls.
The old courthouse, built on land donated by the Holland Land Co., replaced one built in 1820, which burned in the winter of 1829. The building which burned in 1969 was sufficiently completed by January 1830 so that a term of County Court could be held in it. On March 25, 1831, the supervisors appropriated an additional $1,200 to complete the building.
It served the county until the county seat was moved to Little Valley in May 1868. It then
was sold to the Town of Ellicottville for $1,000 and has been a town building since.