Christmas tragedy strikes Silver Lake in 1894
A large monument in the cemetery in the small community of Silver Lake is a grim reminder of one of the worst tragedies in the State of Oregon. The monument bears the names of 43 persons who lost their lives on Christmas Eve in 1894.
Silver Lake was growing to a prosperous little community by 1894. It was the only established trading post between Prineville and Lakeview, and freight wagons and stages regularly stopped at the site. Nearly 150 people lived in the community, and it became a close-knit group of people.
The community gathering place was the Chrisman Brothers General Store. The upstairs portion of the store was called Clayton Hall and was the site of weekly dances that were held on the wooden floors. It was also the site for special occasions and events.
The small community was unincorporated and did not have a fire-fighting organization. The crisp Christmas Eve morning dawned with bright hopes for local residents. A festive occasion was planned for the dance hall above Chrisman's during the evening.
Several Rochester lamps with a one-gallon capacity of oil were hanging from the upstairs ceiling. There was a large dinner held in the early evening hours, and nearly 170 men, women and children were enjoying the festivities. Many of the attendees had traveled many miles to get to the celebration.
After the delightful dinner, there were some skits and other events. Then people jockeyed to get into good position to see the stage and gift presentation.
There was only one doorway out of the upstairs. Eighteen-year-old George Payne began walking from bench to bench to get to the front of the hall and in his haste bumped his head on one of the Rochester lamps. He tried to right it, but flammable oil spilled onto the wooden floor. The flames spread and people panicked, rushing for the exit. People were trampled in the rush for the doorway, and other lamps were overturned, adding to the flaming inferno.
The door became clogged with people trying to escape, and unfortunately, would-be rescuers from outside the building rushed up the stairs, further clogging the exit. The flames spread rapidly, and some of the crowd rushed to a small window that led to a balcony. Many crowded through the window to the balcony, but the weight was too much, and the balcony collapsed.
A ladder was place against the building for others to escape through the window. Attempts to use a bucket brigade to douse the flames was unsuccessful. Many suffocated or were killed by the flames. The roar of the flames silenced moans.
The only doctor available was in Lakeview, and Ed O'Farrell made an all-night dash to Lakeview to get him, but they did not arrive until a few days later.
The joyous occasion became one of mourning as every family in the area was touched by the tragedy.
Steve Lent is a local historian and assistant director of the Bowman Museum. He can be reached at: 541-447-3715.