The Betzing fire of 1917

By Jordan Pickens - Special to the Sentinel

The grave marker for the Betzing family, of which the mother and children were killed in a house fire in 1917.

The grave marker for the Betzing family, of which the mother and children were killed in a house fire in 1917.

I was watching the news of the horrifying fire that claimed the lives of five children in Youngstown on Dec. 10. I cannot imagine the feeling of the immediate family and the community for such a devastating loss. As a parent myself, I hugged my wife and son a little tighter after hearing of the event. It has kept running through my mind thinking about the grieving of the family and the community, and I send my deepest condolences to all who have been affected by this tragedy.

My dad and late grandfather have been firefighters for as long as I can remember. Some of the dreadful stories that I have heard from them, I cannot begin to explain or understand how anyone could cope with seeing such tragedy. As I sat down to write this week’s article, I came upon a story very similar to that in Youngstown, only this took place in Minersville. This story needs to be told for two reasons: first, to show how a life can change in an instant, and second, to remember the lives lost in the Betzing house fire in Minersville in 1917.

The following is an article in its entirety, taken from the May 23, 1917 edition of Pomeroy’s Tribune-Telegraph newspaper.

The home of Mr. and Mrs. Betzing and their six children was located on the riverfront at Minersville, the third building above Windsor Salt Works lot. It was a story and a half frame building of old time construction and odd arrangement. Mr. and Mrs. Betzing and baby occupied a room on the ground floor. Five children slept upstairs.

According to Mr. Betzing, he arose at about 5 o’clock to go to the river with his brother, Pete, to look at some trotlines. He talked with his wife, who remained in bed. He carried a lamp into the next room and extinguished it on leaving the house. He waited sometime on the riverbank before his brother arrived at about 5:30. There was nothing to indicate anything amiss at the house. Nor was there any evidence of anyone else astir in the neighborhood.

It was a calm, beautiful, serene Sabbath Morning with the whole neighborhood enjoying rest, peace and fancied security. On any other morning of the week, there would have been activity on every hand in preparation for the day’s work, and possibly the outcome of the fire would have been less disastrous had the neighbors had fairer warning.

When out on a line nearly across the river, Mr. Betzing’s attention was attracted by the noise of a dull sounding explosion. In a few moments, he was horrified to see the flames burning from the windows of his home and to hear the screams of his children. In spite of their frantic efforts, they only succeeded in reaching the scene of when it was too late to be of assistance. Naturally, the father was frantic and was restrained with difficulty from rushing into the death heap to join his loved ones.

There are several theories to the origin of the fire, although the facts never will be certainly known. One theory is that the oil lamp may have exploded. Another, and the more plausible is that Mrs. Betzing arose and attempted to light the fire in the kitchen stove using oil (or gasoline by mistake,) and when an explosion resulted, in which she was so injured the she could neither escape or give alarm. She did manage, however, in reaching the next room with the babe clasped in her arms. If she had been in the kitchen, she probably went there taking the baby with her. The stove was found tilted up on the rear end as if thrust that way by explosion before it was dropped to the ground by the burning away of the floor.

The Walter Thomas family on one side and Grant Hood’s on the other were aroused by the cries of the perishing and were horrified to see the Betzing home in flames. Ray Thomas was the first on the scene and made a superhuman attempt to rescue a boy and a girl from the upstairs window while another was trying to force in one of the downstairs doors. Ray was painfully burned and had to give up.

Grant Hood then went up the ladder and tried to pull the girl out, but the window sash had fallen on her and was holding fast. Back of his sister, the son, Earl, age 15, was standing with an expression on his face that he was particularly unconscious. Neither of the children uttered a word. Soon the house fell in and the children disappeared in the flaming mass.

There were heroes there that morning, but the handicaps were such that heroism availed nothing. Those seven people went to eternity because fate willed it so.

Mrs. Betzing, the mother was 36 years of age. She was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Frank O’Neil of Mason. She was a devoted mother, who was giving her whole life’s activities to her home and her children. The children were Earl, the only boy aged 15; Clara, 13; Beulah, 10; Helen, 7; Eleanor, 5; and Florence, the 18-month-old baby.

The Walter Thomas home, next door west, soon caught fire and burned to the ground. Mr. Thomas has been (an) invalid for months and had to be carried out of the doomed building. A part of the household effects were saved. Lou Custer’s house, nest to Thomas’, was saved only by a great effort, and that of Grant Hood’s, east of Betzing’s, was saved from burning by hard work and protection of a large elm tree between the properties.

Undertaker Ben Ewing of the B.F. Biggs Co. was early on the scene and worked hard and intelligently with the help of neighbors in removing the bodies compactly as possible from the heap of burning embers. Not one of the corpses retained any semblance of human form. Three of the little forms found on the bedsprings, indicating that they suffocated and expired without leaving the bed. The two older children were seen to fall back into the flames after an attempt to escape by an upstairs window. The youngest dies in her mother’s arm(s.)

The remains of Mrs. Betzing and the six children were removed to the home of her parents at Mason, Monday afternoon the mother and babe in one casket and the other five children in the other. The funeral services were held at the M.E. church at Mason yesterday afternoon, conducted by Rev. Wollard, the Syracuse M.E. minister. It was one of the largest gatherings that ever attended a funeral in the Bend, hundreds of people not being able to gain admission in the church. It required seven trips of the ferryboat to convey the people from this side to Mason.

The Minersville Sunday school attended in a body. Likewise, one hundred and fifty fellow miners from the Rolling Mill Mine, where Mr. Betzing is employed (attended.)

Mr. Betzing has been almost frantic with grief, and the entire community shares in the great impulse of sympathy for the man who in a few minutes before his very eyes had to witness the wiping out of his home and his dear ones. It is well nigh enough to destroy the man’s reasons.

The Betzing home was insured for $300, and the household goods for $500. Hundreds of people visited the scene of the catastrophe Sunday, which will remain as a topic of discussion in Minersville for many years to come.

The five Betzing children and Mrs. Clara Betzing were buried together in Odd Fellows Cemetery in Mason, West Virginia in 1917. Joseph Betzing died in Syracuse on Jan. 27, 1945 and was buried alongside his wife and five children that he lost 28 years before.

As a reminder, many fire departments in Meigs County have teamed with the American Red Cross to install smoke detectors free of charge. In some instances, departments are able to contact the Red Cross to obtain smoke detectors for installation, free of charge. Please contact your local fire department for more information.

As the old Ohio flows….

The grave marker for the Betzing family, of which the mother and children were killed in a house fire in 1917. grave marker for the Betzing family, of which the mother and children were killed in a house fire in 1917.

By Jordan Pickens

Special to the Sentinel

Jordan Pickens is a local historian and educator.

Jordan Pickens is a local historian and educator.