A Christmas Eve tragedy

During my annual vacation trip to Paisley (in Lake County), I enjoyed the solitude, isolation and rural setting of Oregon's Outback — high desert country. Fifty miles north of Paisley along Highway 31 is the hamlet of Silver Lake, located in northern Lake County. On Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1894, a devastating fire took the lives of 43 people.

A crowded Christmas Eve gathering of local residents — farmers, ranchers, homesteaders, town folk and others were assembled together while attending a Christmas program and staged play complete with piano. This public assembly was conducted inside an upstairs community dance hall, situated above the Christman Brothers' store or mercantile in Silver Lake. Children and parents were present, enjoying the festive Christmas Eve party.

Tragically, a coal oil or kerosene lamp was accidentally overturned with liquid fuel dissipating and spreading onto the board floor. Someone attempted to kick the lamp toward the exit door, which opened inward, not outward. Yet it was too late! The fire quickly engulfed the dance hall and rapidly escalated into a devastating intense inferno!

The panicked crowd attempting to exit the building was trapped in the consuming flames. The devastation, destruction and loss no doubt was indescribable, as many of the burn victims were burned and charred beyond identity.

Meanwhile, a local buckaroo, Ed O'Farrell, rode his saddled horse 100 miles south to Lakeview, the seat of Lake County, in a blinding snowstorm to summon help and emergency medical aid. Remember, there were no phones or electricity in Silver Lake in 1894.

Dr. Bernard Daly (1858-1920), an Irish immigrant turned doctor and civic leader, drove his horse-drawn buggy 100 miles north to Silver Lake over bad winter roads for 24 hours in a heavy blizzard to reach and treat the burn victims. Dr. Daly's efforts to render aid to the survivors earned him statewide recognition and prominence.

Later, while serving in the Oregon Legislature in Salem, Dr. Daly was instrumental in passing legislation regulating public building safety. This legislation mandated fire codes requiring that exit doors swing outward and not inward to forestall tragedies such as fire entrapment and to expedite quick evacuation.

While visiting Silver Lake in July, I snapped some photos at the Silver Lake Community Cemetery just south of town. A granite monument inside the fence is inscribed with the names of the 43 victims who perished in this horrid inferno. The cemetery grounds are lush, watered and well maintained. A sign reads, "Silver Lake Cemetery: Burial site of 43 people who died in the 1894 Christmas Eve fire."

The Silver Lake fire left a legacy of grief and mortal loss impacting this isolated, rural farming, ranching and logging community for decades and generations. How tragic this loss indeed was!

A former resident of Klamath Falls and Midland in Klamath County, James Farmer has lived in Ashland since 1986.

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