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  • Writer's pictureTedd Long

The Great Sylvania Fire of 1887

The fire wiped out 19 businesses along the west side of the block we now call Main Street between Maplewood and Monroe.

Toledo's Steam Pumper No. 2, courtesy of the Toledo Firefighter's Museum.

As you browse through an inventory of Sylvania buildings, you'll notice a distinct lack of listings for buildings constructed on the west side of Main Street in downtown Sylvania prior to the late 1880's. The reason for this gap is a disastrous fire that occurred on April 26, 1887.  The fire wiped out 19 businesses along the west side of the block we now call Main Street between Maplewood and Monroe - Main Street was called Division Street at the time of the fire.

As the story goes, the fire started in Dr. Hank's Drug Store and worked its way from one small frame building to the next. Sylvania citizens succeeded in keeping the fire from jumping across Monroe Street to the buildings on that side by pulling down Pop Polley's saloon in advance of the flames. At the time of the fire, Sylvania had a very limited volunteer fire crew to respond to any fires within the village and township.  The 1887 fire was so intense, the call went out for help from Toledo via telegraph but it was too late. 

It was the black night of April 26, 1887. Back of the counter in Dr. Hank's Drug Store, a greedy tongue of flame danced upward in a gust of wind from under the door. It was blowing outside, a fitful April wind from the east, bearing a feel of rain. No warning of the fire that was eating it's way out of the doctor's little shop was given until the glare awakened some light sleeper. Then, the clangor of church bells. No powerful siren shrilled to tumble firemen out of bed. Instead, men with buckets, slopping water hastily drawn from the wooden pump at the livery stable, tried to quench the spreading flames. Women and children huddled in awe at a distance. The town was burning! Over at the depot a telegrapher opened his key and called. Toledo answered. Staccato clicks spelled out a plea for help. A.L.S. & M.S. train dispatcher at the other end, the thrill of a big fire mounting in his veins even at a distance, cranked a telephone on the wall and asked for the fire chief. While he waited, brief instructions were given the yard master, lounging in the office, to bring No. 27 up from the round-house and pick up a flatcar at the team track. Up at No. 3's house, on Jefferson Ave., the old chief rolled out of bed, wide awake. Down below horses stamped in their stalls, some equine sense telling them that the "old man" was up. They looked out of their wire screened folding stall doors to where the big steamer stood glistening in the light from the watchman's desk. Harness hung suspended from the ceiling, tugs hooked to the single-trees, needing only a snap of the collar to finish the job. "Sylvania is burning! Engine Co. No 5 and Hose Co. No. 3, go to Union Station; load on a car for Sylvania". The chief goes back to bed. A short run from the station, the puffing train makes the open country. They cross Dorr Street, a rutty dirt road. Coming out of the woods near the Bancroft Street crossing, they see the glare in the sky ahead. "Sylvania is burning!" They do not know it, but Sylvania has burned. By the time the ramp is down, the pumper unloaded and drawn to the creek, and a line of hose laid up the hill, little is left to be done. Day breaks, obliterating the reflection of the fire in the sky, and heaps of ruins mark what once was Sylvania's thriving little "downtown district". Nineteen shopkeepers, milliners, saloon-keepers, cobblers, and merchants did not open their doors that morning.

- From "Firefighting in Sylvania, Then and Now" published in 1935.

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