Anyone who has ever witnessed a fire knows that it can be a destructive force which can destroy life and property, putting everything and everyone at risk. Rhea County has had many devastating fires which date back to its early history, and those times provide an understanding of what hardship was like in the “early years.”

A fire which goes back to the 1800’s was one which happened in Washington during 1886. This event was written about in an unknown newspaper dated Thursday, February 25, 1886, with a headline telling that there was a destructive fire at Washington in Rhea County. (Because of this headline, I believe that this was either a Chattanooga or Athens newspaper.) The article states that Washington was the county seat of Rhea County, and that the fire occurred the morning before, which would have been Wednesday, February 24. Also, from the writer, we find that the fire was discovered too late for anything to be done toward putting it out.

In the article it is written that the owner of the store was John D. Howard, who slept in a room at the rear of the store, and had a large supply and variety of goods. Another item of interest was that Howard took all precautions possible to prevent his store from burglary or fire. It is stated that he had been awakened early the previous morning by the crackling flames and falling timbers in the store. After Howard rushed from his bed into the store room, he found that the only way he could escape would be through a window in the rear of the store. He woke his neighbors, but when the “bucket brigade” arrived, they found that it was too late. Flames had already spread throughout the entire store, with the dry goods, oils, and other flammable materials being good fuel for the fire. The article also states that by daylight the building had burned to the ground, with only smoldering debris remaining. John Howard unfortunately had neglected to insure the store or contents; therefore, the building and goods were a total loss. According to the article, the building was valued at $2,000 and the stock at $8,000, with the total loss of the store being valued at $10,000. The news article states that the origin of the fire was not known, but that it was attributed to rats gnawing matches and spontaneous combustion.

Today, stores have better methods of storing feed, seed, and other items which rats love to eat, and combustible materials such as matches and oil are fixed so that animals cannot get to them. However, it seems that rats and other pests cannot be totally eliminated, so there are still chances for fires. Also, human error is to blame for many fires because people are just naturally careless, and will leave candles burning and heaters too close to materials which can burn. Even with today’s good practices, we still need to heed the lessons learned by a man who barely escaped with his life from his burning store. Remember to study the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.