Imagine this. You’ve just sat down for dinner, and you hear the salt furnace’s steam whistle begin to shriek. The normal work day is over, so it can’t be anything other than an alarm of some kind. You rush outside to find the cause of the commotion. That’s when you realize that everything you know is about to go up in flames…
On April 7, 1893, flames were discovered in a shed at the Clifton Salt Works. In less than an hour, the entire salt furnace was burning and the blaze began to spread. Block by block, homes and stores caught fire. To the townspeople of Clifton, their situation seemed hopeless.
Before further damage could be done, John J. L. McElhinney of the Ohio River Railroad appealed to Middleport for help. Almost immediately, the “fire lads” loaded their steam fire engine and equipment onto the ferry and crossed the river. They set to work as soon as their boat hit the shore, and labored well into the night. Almost miraculously, they were able to contain the fire and save a portion of the town. It is said that “God Bless Middleport” was exclaimed by every man, woman, and child in Clifton that fateful night.
The next day, the town took stock. Many families lost everything that they had. Where homes had stood the night before, there were now only chimneys and ash. They had lost their last salt furnace, the Masonic Hall, three stores, 28 homes, and numerous sheds. The loss totaled almost $30,000, or over $750,000 in today’s dollars. Luckily, one of the oldest buildings in town was saved. The flames came within feet of the Powell-Redmond house, but the Middleport Fire Company was able to protect the historic home.
Quite a few local legends also came out of this disaster. One that I find particularly interesting concerns the origins of the blaze. Many of the older locals speak of “the fire that burned from Hell to Heaven.” According to the story, the fire began at a bar and spread to the surrounding buildings. The last building to be consumed by the flames was supposedly a church. Only recently did I discover that this referred to the 1893 Clifton Fire. Sadly, I can say that this remarkable story isn’t true. Every eyewitness report states that the fire began in one of the salt furnace sheds.
With the last major employer in ruins, many families chose to leave Clifton. The town temporarily rebuilt, but within 20 years, Clifton was virtually consolidated into Mason. Today, the town is mostly residential, though businesses are beginning to move in.
Information for this article taken from the Meigs County Republican, Weekly Register, Shepherdstown Register, and writings of Anna Lederer.
Chris Rizer directs the Mason County Historic Preservation Society which can be found on Facebook.
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