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Thread: Up in smoke

  1. #1
    Lisa J. Werth

    Up in smoke

    Iím researching for a historical womenís fiction partially set in a real Midwest US town that entirely went up in flames in the late 1800ís (not Chicago).

    There are limited photos in existence of this area before the fire. They are in black and white. I also found an aerial view lithograph with limited explanations of what was located where.

    I want to describe some stores, hotel, and brothel. (Colors that places were painted, furniture, fabrics, etc.) I can find photos and other information of nearby towns to get ideas. What type of artistic liberty might one have to describe the town before the fire?

  2. #2
    Bob Kellogg

    Re: Up in smoke

    Hard to advise you, Lisa, not having read any historical women's fiction.

    Do you have to make it a real town? If so, do the best job you can finding information, then fill in the rest. If the constraints of your genre are such that you must use real places, be prepared for someone to disagree with your recreation. It goes with the territory, I believe.

    Keep at it.

    Bob K.

  3. #3
    Pamela Taylor

    Re: Up in smoke

    Lisa, if no one has access to other photos from before the fire, and if all the photos are black and white (which from that date they must be), then I would think you have quite a bit of leeway. I imagine you can't tell if the buildings are white or pale yellow trimmed in maroon or dark blue or forest green (or whatever other colors were popular back then) from the photos, so your guess is as good as anyone else's. The main thing I would worry about is if you put a general store next door to the railroad station and all the pictures of the railroad station make it amply clear that there was no general store next door. Of it the general store was brick and you say it was white clapboard.


  4. #4

    Re: Up in smoke

    I had a similar problem. I needed to know what a podunk town in Kazakhstan named Tyuratam looked like in 1956. Boy. You want to talk about obscure?

    What I ended up doing was reading through some of the correspondence from Polish deportees to Kazakhstan in the 40's and getting a feel for what they were writing about.

  5. #5
    Lisa J. Werth

    Re: Up in smoke

    Sorry for posting and then disappearing. Something came up.
    Thanks for the input.

    Part of the appeal of this story is that it is the worst fire in US history as far as loss of human life and it's not well-known. (Part of the hook of the story - I'm hoping.) So I'd like to use the town.

    Pam & Boogop,
    In my time away I continued to think about. Even though there aren't photos perhaps the town's historical society might have other word of mouth info. From what I've read, I get the impression that the surviving victims really wanted to forget and didn't talk about it much. A lot were immigrants, so getting it written down may not have been easy.

  6. #6

    Re: Up in smoke

    A couple suggestions. I would get a copy of the census done prior to the fire. This will give you some information regarding just how many people lived in the town and the breakdown of ethnicity, etc.
    I would also research the newspapers of the closest large towns. They should have a number of pictures and interesting articles about the fire.
    I would do a plat research of the township as well as the large properties, general store, rail yard, etc. This can be done at a title company in the area.
    You might query insurance companies which paid out claims and be allowed to view their files which could have pictures, etc. of the claims made.
    If you can find investigations by the state or county of the causes of the fire that could be helpful.
    Check with the legislator regarding resolutions or special appropriations made because of the fire.
    Good Luck!

  7. #7

    Re: Up in smoke

    Me again.
    I would check the state archives for records of the fire, including the State Fire Marshall and the State Department of Insurance or their predecessors. Usually these offices are very helpful and have a great amount of information.
    Continue to have good luck! Mike

  8. #8
    Lisa J. Werth

    Re: Up in smoke

    Hi Mike,

    Thank you for taking the time to post.
    It was a developing lumber town - a majority of the few records kept in wooden building were gone. With it being a boom town, people were arrving often. Immigrant farmers and laborers didn't have insurance. (The flames basically wiped out the area, including people.) They can only estimate casualities - they are aware of at least 1,800.

    I have found the newspaper articles, and a few diaries and letters on the web that vaguely talk about what happened. These people were in major shock.

  9. #9

    Re: Up in smoke

    Lisa, depending on how much time and resources you are willing to spend on research I would still request the census information for the census just before and just after the fire and visit the "county seat," County Clerk's Office and view the "town plat or map." These could provide leads to other information about the town and the fire.
    If that many people perished there has to be a considerable amount of information still out there. It would have been a national story and the major news organizations would certainly have picked up the story and run with it. Good luck! Mike

  10. #10
    Mary M.

    Re: Up in smoke

    Also, for historical data, try this website: www.refdesk.com

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