By Colin Foster
March, 14, 1970 — an infamous day in the City of Troy’s history.
At 2 a.m. that morning, a botched attempt to conceal a robbery created a spectacular fire that claimed a popular Troy business. The Troy Fire Department responded to a report of a massive blaze at the Uhlman’s Department Store building on the northwest corner of Troy’s Public Square. When the Troy Fire Department got to the scene, the fire had engulfed in flames and spread to three floors, spreading to adjacent structures.
At the time, the building stood in what was called the Brown Block, which was named after the family that built it. Prior to that, it was roughly 110 years old and had survived blazes which nearly destroyed it in 1871 and another in 1928 which had caused $50,000 in damage. The building, however, didn’t survive this one.
Firefighters were battling the elements that day, as harsh southwesterly winds fanned the blaze and freezing temperatures caused water from the fire hoses to turn to ice.
Former Fire Chief Robert Counts, who was with the Troy Fire Department for 47 years, 33 as chief, spoke of the fire in a December 1999 Troy Daily News article. Chief Counts passed away on Jan. 24, 2013.
Counts said, “It was a big one, and dangerous. As I look back over my career, I think it was the biggest fire I ever had to deal with. I remember that it was cold that morning, in the lower teens, and snowing. When I arrived, one of the firemen told me that they had extinguished a table of sweaters on the first floor, and that the fire was out. But I knew it wasn’t over.
“The building had been covered with aluminum siding, so we couldn’t find the windows to get in. We made an assault on the fire on the second floor, and we repelled from the heat of the blaze. From that point on, I knew that we wouldn’t be able to get help in time, and the building was lost. All we could do is set up a perimeter defense and try to keep the fire from spreading.”
Counts said the fire “looked like something from the Fourth of July.”
Despite the wintry conditions, hundreds of spectators gathered to watch the drama unfold. Troy firefighters were joined by personnel from Tipp City, Piqua and Covington, along with off-duty firefighters, Troy policemen and Miami County Sheriff’s deputies.
By the time the Troy Daily News went to press that morning at 6:30 a.m., the fire was still not under control. Preston Dye Interiors, located next door to Uhlman’s, was so damaged by smoke and water that the building and contents were declared a total loss.
Based on his observations at the scene, Counts suspected the blaze was intentionally set. Two days later, Earl Eugene Lewis appeared in court to enter a plea of innocent on charges of arson. Officers in the case said that Lewis admitted to breaking the glass in a door at the NW corner of the building, cutting his hands, in order to gain access. Once inside, he gathered several items of clothing to steal. Then, he used some of the selected clothing to start a fire on the third floor, repeating the process on the second and then the first floors, finally exiting the building without any of the clothes he originally intended to take. Following that, he reportedly broke into an apartment on N. Market St. and stole a record player, along with some beer. Lewis was arrested by Sheriff deputy William Morris, who was directing traffic at the scene of the fire that morning, after he was seen exiting the area with a portable record player.
Lewis was picked up for a probation violation. After questioning, he admitted to the crime, according to police. In all, Lewis was charged with a probation violation, arson and breaking and entering.
The loss of the Uhlman’s store was considered devastating to the City of Troy.
“Uhlman’s was a magnet store,” Counts said in the Troy Daily News article. “They attracted shoppers and provided business traffic to other downtown merchants.”
The Uhlman’s fire is regarded as one of the worst fires in Troy’s history. However, there have been a number of other blazes that have damaged and destroyed businesses and houses all over town.
According to Thomas Wheeler’s book “Troy: The Nineteenth Century,” the 1890s brought the usual number of bad fires to Troy. In 1891, a pile of lumber owned by the Troy Wagon Works and stored on Clay St., near Simpson St., burned at a loss of $6,000. The following year, the Willow Lake Ice House burned, along with seven railroad cars which were on the siding. Then in 1895, a fire leveled the railroad elevator on E. Main St. In the same year, Philip Vance’s planing mill (on the corner of Plum and Canal) was destroyed by a fire, the Chinese laundry (southeast corner of the Public Square) caught on fire, as did the saloon which occupied a corner space of the square. In September of 1898, the Troy Bottling Company — home of the original Henne Brewery Ice House on Water and Plum streets — went up in flames. William Hayner, president of the Hayner Distillery Company, discovered the fire and rescued the horses from the burning building.
On Easter Sunday, April 1, 1899 the fire whistle went off as half the people in Troy were in church. The Methodist Church on Mulberry St. had caught fire, and Public School Superintendent Charles Van Cleve made the announcement that the church was on fire. The congregation filed out and watched the church burn from across the street. The fire department arrived to the scene moments later, but the water pressure was low, and within minutes, the interior of the church had burst into flames. As other churches let out, people began flocking around the blaze. The roof caught fire, and the tall wooden steeple swayed and finally fell on the roof.
In the end, the 60-year old church was damaged beyond repair. Before the fire was completely out, the Reverend Stanley A. Royal had posted a notice on front of the church that the evening service would be held in the Court House.
Less than a year later, another blaze rocked the City of Troy — causing $40,000 worth of damage. In the cold early morning hours of March 16, 1900, a fire started in the David Sullenberger saloon on Commercial Row. The temperature was below zero, making the fire fighting very difficult. The blaze spread to many surrounding buildings, David Miller’s gun shop, Elmer E. Thomson’s undertaking parlor, Jacob Pfister’s shoe store, Stephen D. Deum’s music store and the Faulkner & Faulkner drug store — leaving a gaping hole in the center of Commercial Row. The frame Scobey & Vandeveer livery stable to the rear of Cherry St. was saved.
In 1942, the Hayner Mansion caught fire while Mary Jane Hayner was away on a trip to Florida. A picture of the damage grazed the front page of the Dayton Herald newspaper on Feb. 26, 1940. The picture featured Troy firemen making sure the fire was completely out in the ballroom. Mary Jane hired the original architect to come back to fix the damage following the fire.
An explosion and fire at Goodson Chemical Corp. claimed the life of a 22-year old Piqua man in late October of 1987, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In total, four plant workers and a firefighter were treated for chemical burns or inhalation at Stouder Memorial Hospital. Firefighters from Troy and surrounding towns in Miami County battled the fire for nearly two hours on the night of Oct. 27, 1987. About 10 workers were on duty when the incident occurred.
According to an article from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, in May of 1990, fire officials blamed a defective electric heater for a fire that caused $250,000 damage at the Hobart Bros. plant. Counts said the heater had been housed in a copper-plating tank with a corroded base. Firefighters responded to a call at about 10:30 p.m. on a night in mid-May and the fire was under control by 3 a.m. A handful of firefighters suffered minor injuries.
In 1996, a huge fire broke out at Days Inn on Main St. El Sombrero, which opened inside the Days Inn in 1995, was put out of business as a result of the fire. The restaurant ended up moving to Piqua, before finding a location back in Troy years later.
On a Saturday night in early February of 1999, SafeHaven Inc., a non-profit organization for the mentally ill, was heavily damaged by a fire. According to a Troy Daily News article, the fire began in a dumpster outside the Safehaven building, 131 S. Market St., and spread up the side of the building. It burned through the siding and traveled up the inside of the walls and ceiling. There were 25 firefighters who responded to the scene to help put the fire out. Total damages were estimated at near $40,000.
In October of 2008, a Troy pallet manufacturing operation at 1375 S. Union St. caught fire, resulting in over a half million dollars worth of damage. The fire was believed to be started by a wood stove. It took more than 40 firefighters to combat the blaze.