by Kenneth A. Dupuy
One hundred years ago, Abbeville suffered a catastrophe. Below is an account of that calamity, woven from reports from the Meridional and from my imagination of what those present experienced that fateful night.
The evening of February 19, 1903 gave no warning of an impending disaster. Some 200 citizens were enjoying a performance at French Hall when, at 9:15 p.m., Abbeville was attacked by the most disastrous fire yet! The damage was estimated in excess of $100,000. Beginning in the Court House Exchange saloon at the corner of Concord and State Streets, the insatiable flames spread westward and to the south. They destroyed every building on the south side of Concord Street, as well as several buildings on Jefferson and State Streets. Although the alarm was sounded promptly, the fire worked quickly. All that could be done was to try to save those buildings in the fire's path, and to rescue the contents of these buildings. However, the blaze left all in its fiery path in "smoldering ruins."
On State Street, Eloi Erath's saloon the corner building and J. A. LeBlanc's jewelry store, as well as Judge W. W. Edwards' two-story building were destroyed. In the latter structure were located the law firm of Edwards & Greene, the real estate firm of J. H. Lutgring & Co., and the post office. However, the mail, the records and most of the furniture were saved.
Despite the heroic efforts of volunteers, the fire raged for over two hours leaving fourteen buildings in heaps of ashes, crackling embers, and tiny, curling plumes of smoke. While many individuals fought the fire and rescued goods and furniture, others just stood and watched the shocking scene. There were about as many people on Magdalen Square being mesmerized by the fire as there had been in attendance at a recent fair.
New Iberia sent a steam fire engine by a special train, just as it had done for the State Street fire of 1900. "Foreman Louis Bazus...was accompanied by a goodly number of brave and gallant firemen of the Queen City."
The list of businesses affected by this fire illustrates their number and variety in this small section of the town. Those businesses were: E. Erath's saloon, Rittenberg Brothers' clothing store, Broussard's barber shop, J. A. LeBlanc's jewelry store, the law office of Edwards and Greene, Lutgring & Co. real estate office, the post office, Hebert's harness shop, C. Trahan's meat market, the Gem restaurant, T. Elmer's saloon, Landry's restaurant, Adam Brasseaux's saloon, M. Bernstein's clothing store, A. J. Godard's drugstore, Dr. Cushman's office, the law offices of Walter B. Gordy and Judge M. T. Gordy, Stauffer Brothers' general merchandise store, the office of cotton broker Emmett P. Putnam, Godard & Nilson's livery, feed and sales stable, Dr. Beaumont's veterinary surgeon's office, the Cumberland Telephone office, and the Bank of Abbeville. In the bank building were the offices of insurance agents Broussard & Summers, and of the Abbeville Building & Loan Association. Also located in this building was the office of George Honold, the architect of many of Abbeville’s landmark buildings. The Bank of Abbeville relocated in the courthouse, where it had opened in 1894! The post office moved to the Masonic Temple.
Imagine the spectacular fiery brilliance that must have been visible for miles. That pulsating glow must have made those who saw it from a distance wonder if all of Abbeville were ablaze. Imagine the sounds filling the night: the villainous hissing of burning wood being drenched by water—sounding like angry serpents protecting their nests—the shouts and swearing of desperate men fighting a losing battle; the crashing, and crunching noises as walls, giving up the fight, fell precipitously, or in slow motion; and the oohs and aahs as the crowd on Magdalen Square took in the fantastic, if wretched, drama. As the inferno neared the corner of Concord and Jefferson Streets, the radiating heat surely backed this crowd. The roiling, acrid smoke, lit by greedy flames, added to the horror. This monstrous fire would be something to tell others about for years to come.
The 1900-fire transformed the east side of State Street from Peace Street to Lafayette Street. This 1903 fire created the current architectural styles seen on the south side of Concord Street. How differently these two blocks would look today had those fires not occurred. Certainly buildings would have sprung up at different times crafting a much different collection of structures.
Next time you travel on Concord Street, try to imagine that fire, one hundred years ago.
By Ken Dupuy