I heard a presentation given by LeAnne Woolf last night to the passengers of the Starlight Express, a special night train held by Sumpter Valley Railroad during the Perseid meteor showers. This year it happened to coincide with the date of the Sumpter fire. I’ve written about the fire before, but this is a story from a different perspective, so I asked her to share it here. As always, we Sumpter history buffs love us some photos courtesy of Baker County Library digital archives.
“Ninety-nine years ago today, on August 13, 1917, Dr. Samuel Clinton Browne and his wife, Ida, left Sumpter for a day of picking huckleberries. They probably headed north out of town, toward Bourne. (That’s where the best huckleberry patches were when I was growing up.)
“He’d owned the Sumpter Hospital since 1907. It had been built in 1900 and several different doctors had operated in it. Ida was the hospital matron.
|hospital at left|
“Due to the rising cost of gold mining without a matching rise in the price of gold, Sumpter’s population was in decline. Still, it was a good place to live.
“His hospital had a good view over the main downtown area with its planked street.
“Granite Street’s planking had been put in place in 1900, the year his hospital was built. The planks were thirty-foot long 4 x 4s.
“He and Ida could catch a show at the Ellis Opera House, one block down from the hospital, on Granite and Mill. (Of course, catching a show in those days generally meant vaudeville. One of the “operas” advertised was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.)
“Practically next door to the Ellis on Mill Street was Basche Hardware. Like most of the brick buildings in Sumpter, it had been built in 1899, the year before his hospital. If Claude Basche didn’t have it, maybe you didn’t need it.
“A little past Basche Hardware was the Bank of Sumpter, built in 1899. A block beyond the Ellis on Granite Street, the First National Bank had also been built in 1899.
“There was only one brick building in town that Dr. Browne knew hadn’t been built in 1899: the Sumpter Hotel.
“The brick work for the Sumpter Hotel had been finished by July 1901, but the building didn’t officially open until Jan. 27, 1902. It cost $60,000, measured 100 x 100 feet with a rotunda of 40 x 50 and 46 bedrooms, 12 with bath. It had electricity AND steam heat.
“Sumpter had come a long way from its founding in 1862. Goodness gracious, even by 1895 it had had only one hotel, the Starr, and only about 200 people.
“Still, a large new schoolhouse had been built in 1897, less than a year after the railroad reached town. Sumpter’s population reached 300 in 1899. In 1900, just the school itself had 200 students.
“By 1903, Sumpter’s population was 3300.
“Maybe it was a little odd to build a hospital right next to the school, but timber baron J.B. Stoddard, father-in-law to Sumpter Valley Railway’s David Eccles, had intended to build a house. Then he started renting out to doctors and one thing had led to another.
“That was okay. On the other side of the street from the school was the Presbyterian Church. Body, mind, and soul: all could be served in close proximity.
“Yes, Sumpter was a good place to live. Dr. Browne couldn’t have been ready for what he saw when he returned.
“The Sumpter Hotel and First National Bank would have been among the first buildings he could have recognized as he passed. Two brick buildings standing close to each other, but now just shells.
“The Masonic Hall, built in 1903 of stone. It burned.
“Only the vault left at the Bank of Sumpter.
“In three hours, twelve blocks of the heart of downtown was gone, at an estimated loss of half a million 1917 dollars.
“The Presbyterian Church had been the last building to burn. The hospital and school survived in part due to Miss Marguerite Harris, the local telephone operator. Down at the Sumpter Hotel, she remained at her switchboard until heat and smoke forced her to abandon her post. She and a gentleman moved the telephone equipment out of the Sumpter Hotel as other people were bringing in furniture and belongings salvaged from other buildings on Granite Street.
“Miss Harris and her assistant Miss Hauser then ran to the hospital and filled buckets with water from a nearby well. They soaked blankets and hung them out the windows. On several occasions the wooden siding on the hospital and schoolhouse began smoldering but the telephone girls and other volunteers helped firefighters save those buildings.
“But it was too much for Dr. Browne. The furniture and belongings that had been moved into the Sumpter Hotel for safety was all gone. The hospital’s view over downtown was full of emptiness and blackened skeletons of buildings. So many had lost so much. Within days he sold his hospital to Mrs. Bessie O’Neill, who within a few days more had turned it into a hotel named Mountain View.
“Others stayed behind, too. The year after the fire, in 1918, the Masons bought the Mountain View from Mrs. O’Neill and used it as their lodge until the 1970s.
“Bricks were salvaged from various buildings and used to rebuild the Basche Hardware building. You can see the dark bricks that were still in the walls after the fire and the paler bricks that were re-purposed for the reconstruction. The Basche building served as Sumpter’s City Hall from the 1920s into the 1970s.
“The bricks remaining at the Bank of Sumpter vault were picked over by souvenir hunters until it was fenced during my childhood. In the 1990s, it was preserved and the fence could be removed.
“And now the hospital is a bed & breakfast, still giving a body a chance to recuperate. For the soul, you step outside and soak in the peace of the mountains and trees of our Golden Sumpter. For the mind, there is this and all the other history you haven’t heard. Yet.”
LeAnne Woolf wishes to thank Sharon Howard for her research. It was instrumental to bringing this story to life.
Grace Meadows thanks both of you!