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Aug. 6, 1918: Blackstone’s big fire

Streator Fire Department prevents total loss

The United Methodist Church in Blackstone, built in 1879, escaped destruction in a devastating town fire on Aug. 6, 1918.
The United Methodist Church in Blackstone, built in 1879, escaped destruction in a devastating town fire on Aug. 6, 1918.

For residents of tiny Blackstone, located about 10 miles southeast of Streator in Livingston County, the current concern is a 2,400-head hog farm planned for north of town.

But a century ago on Aug. 6, 1918, there was the more urgent and threatening concern of a raging pre-dawn fire that was consuming the town. As it turned out, the Streator Fire Department was able to halt the flames.

“Blackstone is situated on the western extension of the Chicago and Alton Railroad, nearly midway between Streator and Dwight” in Sunbury Township, according to an 1888 Livingston County history. The town was named after the railroad’s president, Timothy B. Blackstone, it says.

“It is a neat little town of nearly two hundred inhabitants; and in the amount of business transacted, is not exceeded by any town of its size in the county,” said the history.

The town’s progress came to an abrupt halt when the fire hit.

“Business Section of Blackstone Completely Destroyed by Fire at Early Hour this Morning,” was the headline on the afternoon edition of the Streator Daily Free Press.

“Smoldering ruins, the debris of buildings, and the melted remains of the stocks of merchandise, with a small blaze breaking out here and there through the charred boards, is all that remains of the business section of Blackstone this morning. In most cases, all books and invoices were destroyed, which will make it difficult to ascertain the damage.

“Had it not been for the assistance rendered by the Streator fire department the entire village would have been in ruins. Arriving upon the scene the firemen placed a hose in a pond to the east of the conflagration, and then started the pump. It was this that not only saved the frame buildings just across the street east of the business block, but the firemen were enabled to get sufficient pressure to spray the building to the west of the boring area, thus preventing greater loss in that direction.

“As it is, the entire business section was wiped out. The only walls left standing to mark the site of a former building are those of the postoffice, and those walls have the appearance of being ready to topple over at any time.

“The spirit of the business men is shown in the fact that some of them are already planning the structures to replace the ones destroyed this morning. Others of the merchants are stunned by the blow which has befallen them, and were unable to even talk regarding the fire or their plans for the future.

“How the fire started will probable ever remain a secret,” said the newspaper. “When it started it was in the residence of Mrs. LeGare at the north side of the post office building. But before a general alarm could be sounded had spread to the south east and west…The buildings were vey dry as a result of the scarcity of rain in this section during the past few weeks.

“The first one to discover the fire so far as could be learned this morning was Smedley Wilkinson. The young man resides near the Le Gare home, and he was unable to sleep because of the extreme heat, and he saw the flames devouring the residence at about 2:20 this morning.

“When he first saw the fire it had gained much headway, and he was unable to tell whether the fire had started from the inside or outside the building.

“The theory that it had been ignited by a spark from a passing locomotive was exploded when it became known that no trains had passed through the village at or near the time the fire was discovered.”

Blackstone: What’s in a name?

If the name of the tiny town of Blackstone sounds familiar it’s no surprise.

There also are places with that name in Mendota, La Salle and Chicago — and they all are connected to the same man: Timothy B. Blackstone.

Blackstone (1829-1900) was born in Connecticut and came to La Salle in 1851 to serve as a construction engineer for Illinois Central Railroad.

As part of his job he laid out the city of Mendota and today is remembered there by Blackstone Park and Blackstone Elementary School. He also donated most, if not all, of the land where Mendota High School is located.

In La Salle, Blackstone served one term as mayor starting in 1854 and Blackstone Street is named in his honor.

As Blackstone moved up in the ranks of railroad tycoons he also moved to Chicago. There he built a mansion at 252 Michigan Ave. Blackstone served as president of the Chicago and Alton Railroad from 1864 through 1899. He also was the first president of the company that controlled Chicago’s Union Stock Yards.

After Blackstone died, his mansion became the site of the Blackstone Hotel and Blackstone Theater. Also, a significant portion of his estate was donated to civic and charitable enterprises. Blackstone Hall in the Art Institute of Chicago and the Blackstone Memorial Branch of the Chicago Public Library are two examples.

But not every reference to Blackstone turned out to have a strictly positive association.

Blackstone Avenue in Chicago’s South Side is named in Blackstone’s honor. It runs through the ghetto neighborhood of Woodlawn. In the early 1960s youths from Blackstone Avenue founded the Blackstone Rangers, which became one of the most powerful street gangs in the city.

Later, however, the gang’s name was changed to the Black P. Stone Nation.

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