On a quiet cold and damp Sunday morning, March 21, 1965, disaster struck the small village of Hilton, population 1,700, with sudden and awful consequences. This year is the 48th year since the local event occurred, and it certainly is not an event to celebrate. However, it is an event that should be remembered and not forgotten. The fire changed Hilton’s Main Street, a small tight knit village commercial district where everyone was known, and recognized, and where life seemed to operate casually and efficiently. After the fire, development in the village spread out in different directions, to different locations with more automobile parking, and larger and more modern structures.
Around 7 a.m. on that day, Margaret Culverhouse was making a cup of coffee in her kitchen at 32 Lake Avenue before getting ready for church when she looked out her window and noticed smoke coming from the back of one of the stores fronting on Main Street. She quickly called the fire department and reported what she was seeing. Margaret knew about fires. She could recall the devastation the village experienced in 1903 when three fires in the same year wiped out Main Street. About the same time, volunteer fireman Russell Wright was driving into town, and, while looking north into the furniture store, saw flames leaping. The shrill fire whistle sounded and the fight to save the Hilton’s Main Street began. Before the day was over between 400 to 500 firemen would be engaged in battling what would be a raging inferno for over six hours until it was put under control. It was freezing, the wind came up and blew, the smoke poured out in all directions, flames raged and leaped, and ice from the water hoses began to cover everything. It was, in fact, a winter inferno.
Bank officials Bernard Kedian, Jim Whitley and Beryl Ingraham Campbell (left) and Ann Barons (right) spread wet currency from the bank on Main Street after the fire. The money was removed from the bank vault.Over 80 percent of Main Street’s commercial district was destroyed. Sadly, one woman, Dorothy Sisson, 73, and a renter of one of the upstairs apartments, perished in the fire, overcome with smoke, and unable to be rescued by the firemen. Several firemen were also injured in the ordeal.
Henry S. Carter was the Mayor, and he received a telegram from Governor Nelson Rockefeller stating, “This is to assure you that the state stands ready to render all appropriate aid to you and to residents … in the immediate emergency, and in the restoration of your community.” The estimate of damage from the fire was $2,000,000 ($12,000,000 in today’s present value). Over $500,000 was not covered by insurance. Rep. Barber Conable, Jr., of the 37th Congressional District including Hilton, stood ready to assist.
The aftermath of the fire rippled through the community; families, friends, distant relatives and former Hilton residents were shaken to the core. The valor of the fire department, many volunteers from not only Hilton, but other communities, and the aid received from many civic organizations will always be the positive things remembered from the tragedy. However the resurrection of Hilton’s tight knit and once attractive Main Street did not happen. News of the event circled the globe. One resident recalled learning about the fire while traveling in Italy.