Imagine this. April 7th, 1893. It’s Friday night, you’ve just sat down for dinner, and suddenly you hear the salt furnace’s steam whistle begin to shriek. The normal work day is over, so it can’t be anything other than an alarm of some kind. You rush outside to find the cause of the commotion, and that’s when you realize that everything you know is about to go up in flames…
Burning soot from a pumping battery had fallen on an old shed at the Clifton Salt Works, the old Bedford Furnace, a tinderbox waiting only for a spark. Before Clifton could even get organized, the entire furnace was in flames and growing by the minute under a strong wind. Block by block, homes and stores caught fire, and the bucket brigades, as admirable as their efforts were, might as well have been shooting spitballs. To the townspeople of Clifton, their situation seemed hopeless.
Desperate to halt the fire’s advance, John J. L. McElhinney of the Ohio River Railroad appealed to Middleport for help. Clifton’s older sister city answered the call, and the “fire lads” loaded their steam fire engine and equipment onto the ferry as quickly as they could. They set to work as soon as they hit the shore, dropping hoses into the river and working their way to the edge of the fire, which by then was nearly four blocks from the salt furnace and only feet from the historic Powell-Redmond House.
With plenty of men and water available, the Middleport Fire Company and Clifton Volunteers set to work on a fire break and began wetting buildings not yet burned to keep the inferno from spreading. Through the night they labored, house by house, building by building, tightening the perimeter and pushing the blaze back until finally it was under control. It is said that “God Bless Middleport” was exclaimed by every man, woman, and child in Clifton that fateful night.
The next day, the town took stock. Almost miraculously, the fire companies had managed to save almost a third of the town, but many families still lost everything that they had. Where homes had stood the night before, there were now only chimneys and ash. They had lost their last salt furnace, the Clifton School and Masonic Hall, three stores, twenty-eight homes, and outbuildings too numerous to count. The loss reported in the papers totaled almost $30,000, or over $750,000 in today’s dollars.
The disaster also spawned quite a few local legends, and one that I find particularly interesting concerns the origins of the blaze. Many of the older locals speak of “the fire that burned from Hell to Heaven.” Now according to the story, the fire began at a bar and spread to the surrounding buildings, and the last building to be consumed by the flames was supposedly a church. It’s not quite accurate, but close enough to make a good story. In fact, next to the salt furnace was the Virginia Hotel, which had a bar inside. And, one of the last buildings touched by the fire, though it was saved by the firefighters, was the Clifton United Methodist Church.
Anyhow, after the fire, with the last major employer in ruins, many families chose to leave Clifton. The town tried to rebuild, but brine salt was already on the decline and other cities offered better sites than the riverfront lots prone to flooding in Clifton. What little was rebuilt was destroyed by the 1913 flood, and before long, Clifton was virtually consolidated into Mason. Today, the town is mostly residential, though new businesses are starting to move in once again.
Info from the Meigs County Republican, Weekly Register, Shepherdstown Register, and writings of Anna Lederer.
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and assistant director of Main Street Point Pleasant, reach him at email@example.com.