Richmond is a quaint village along Lake County’s northwestern border best known for its gaggle of antique shops, specialty stores and restaurants. Many area residents may not realize that this Christmas Eve will mark the 120th anniversary of the night when the original downtown business district burned to the ground.
The fire spread in several directions between Mill and Broadway streets, even hopping across Route 12. The destruction was so complete that many business owners chose not to stay and rebuild because they were underinsured or had no insurance at all.
“That was a devastating time in our history,” said Karla Thomas, the village clerk. “We were able to eventually come back, and rebrand ourselves commercially.
“We really need to thank the man who stood on his roof, pouring buckets of water, or else the whole town might have gone up,” she said.
An account from the Jan. 1, 1903 edition of the now-defunct Richmond Gazette identifies that man as Ralph “Darb” Kilburn. It also names the T.C. Schroeder house as “the scene of a valiant and successful attempt … to arrest a raging fire.” Kilburn sat on the topmost pinnacle throwing buckets of water on horse blankets covering the roof until the blaze subsided.
Others joined in, working to protect the house and successfully doused the flames.
Kris Anderson, a former Richmond postal worker, said, “I lived in the Schroeder house, or ‘The pink House’ now, as a little girl. My mother told me the story of the fire. She said there was a horse and tack shed in the back.”
The Gazette article is the only full record of that night. “We own their holdings, and digitized them … but no photos have been found,” said Kurt Begalka, the McHenry County Historical Society’s administrator. “Fire was a constant threat.”
That night, apartment dwellers were aroused by the smell of burning wood. A raging fire was discovered in the rear of a bakery-restaurant building, and coming from a partition between its kitchen and the abutting drugstore.
Flames swept into stores on both sides, winding south around the corner on Broadway Street, torching a tailor and millinery shop. A bucket brigade was formed, chain-carrying water that was hand-thrown onto the fire. It stopped at the Richmond State Bank facade.
But the heat set other buildings ablaze to the east, across Route 12. It consumed the Nash Grocery Store, Wray’s Undertaking and Furniture Establishment, along with the Gazette’s own printing and news offices, Johnott’s Grocery in the former 1905 Emporium building, and the city jail.
Surveying the ruins on Christmas Day, townspeople were thankful that no one was seriously hurt. Insurance investigators determined the cause to be a defective flue in the restaurant. The estimated $40,000 in 1902 damages equates to $1.38 million in 2022.
“The combination of old wood and open flames frequently proved disastrous,” Begalka said. “Couple that with cold temperatures, strong winds and the inaccessibility of water — think bucket brigade here — and it is really quite amazing that the outcome was not worse.”