This segment features a news item from Fayette County’s past. This week we examine a story from the March 23, 1914 edition of the Daily News Standard.
This weekend marked one hundred years since the burning of McClelland House, a hotel that once stood on West Main Street in Uniontown. If you’re local, you may have noticed coverage of the anniversary in the Herald-Standard and even on area news stations — particularly with regard to a volunteer firefighter named Voight LaClair.
It was around 9:20 A.M. when the fire was first noticed by two clerks in a store adjacent to the McClelland House. The front room of the shop filled with smoke so quickly that they didn’t dare to retrieve their coats or pocketbooks; instead, Myra Lewellen and Edna Bowlen rushed outside to call for help. They assumed that the fire had started in the hotel’s kitchen, which shared a wall with the five and dime store where they worked. The blaze quickly grew out of control:
“With a fierceness and intensity that defied all efforts toward checking them, the flames . . . spread with alarming rapidity, great volumes of smoke poured out the doors, windows and crevices of the buildings and the onward march of the grim destroyer struck terror in the hearts of everyone.”
Among the early responders was the Chief Williams Hook & Ladder Company. Several of its members, including the 28-year-old Voight LaClair, raced to the top of the hotel and began cutting the roof open to douse the flames. “Two or three times,” said the Standard, “[LaClair] went on uncertain and precarious locations with the fire beneath constantly undermining the supports.” Despite calls for him to retreat, the firefighter pressed on — until a misstep sent him tumbling through a hole in the roof. Said one onlooker:
“He threw up his axe, took another step, and down he went . . . One of the other firemen started to go after him, but I called out to warn him of the danger and hopelessness of trying. He called out, ‘Voight, where are you?’ but the black, thick flames gushed up from the opening and shut off every hope of seeing or locating the missing man.”
At first some thought that LaClair had escaped, but no one on the ground could find him. When his fellow firefighters tried to enter the McClelland House and find him, fresh bursts of flame and overwhelming smoke turned them back. It wasn’t until the Oliver First Aid team arrived with oxygen masks that anyone was able to get inside. They carried LaClair out and, “in full view of thousands of spectators,” tried desperately to revive him — but their efforts failed.
When news of LaClair’s death reached his family, his mother simply said, “I want them to bring him home. I want him here just as soon as they can bring him, but I cannot realize he is dead.”
Three others were injured in the fire: Frank Wood, Ira Williams, and Earl Rogers, the latter of whom was overcome by smoke and was successfully revived via artificial respiration. Property losses and damages were significant, as well, with four other buildings being affected. The loss of LaClair was the most widely felt, though, and all business was suspended in Uniontown during the hours of his funeral. He was to be buried in Oak Grove Cemetery.
“So numerous and massive were the floral offerings that six members of the Chief Williams Hook and Ladder Company were designated to look after them,” the Standard reported. Services were held at the Third Presbyterian church, where over a hundred local firefighters were seated directly behind LaClair’s family and close friends filled the pews. Outside, the crowd overflowed onto the street.
Pastor T.M. Thompson gave LaClair’s eulogy, saying that he was “possessed of the very elements out of which a good fireman is made . . . He had youth, a splendid physical constitution, a strong, daring, and fearless disposition together with a cool head.” Thompson also remarked on the other firefighters’ bravery, in words that resonate today:
“While you cost us as citizens but little, it costs you much. The weather has never been too cold, the night never too dark, the danger never too great, and your bed never too comfortable to keep you away when the fire whistle blows, to respond for service of the most dangerous character. As citizens we hear the whistle, we count the number of the box; we ascertain the place of the possible conflagration; learning the fire’s not near enough to endanger our lives or property we turn in our beds, go to sleep feeling quite sure you will respond and fight the fire to a finish.”
Today, LaClair’s impressive tombstone is visible from Route 21 as you pass by Uniontown Hospital. A Firefighter’s Memorial has since been erected at the corner of North Mount Vernon Avenue and Pittsburgh Street, and this weekend, a ceremony was held in the fireman’s honor. LaClair’s great-great-nephew — himself a volunteer in the Uniontown Fire Department — took part in the event.
As Pastor Thompson concluded to LaClair’s fellow firefighters, a century ago this week:
“Long shall the memory of your heroic brother abide with us. You shall ever recall with pride his manly character, his heroic death.”