Judy Waters: The blaze that burned Barkerville
WEST ROXBURY, Ma.
Although the former village names of "Coltsville" and "Morningside" are currently in use and familiar to many Pittsfield residents, the name "Barkerville" is rarely heard. Yet, like those earlier locales, Barkerville flourished during the mid to late 1800s as Pittsfield ‘s southwest corner village. Lower Barkerville lay closer to West Housatonic Street and Upper Barkerville extended out to the Richmond town line. Today West Pittsfield’s Barker Road recalls the earlier name, but the more descriptive "Barkerville" seems to be lost to Pittsfield’s past.
It was a different situation, when, in January of 1879, Barkerville was the subject of a leading article that appeared in the former Pittsfield Sun. Citing a serious event that left its mark on the bustling village as well as on the city, the article told of major loss. On a bitter cold January morning, "Friday last," as the Sun reported in its January 15 edition, a "great fire" broke out at the textile mill of Barker and Bros., located in Barkerville, just over the Richmond line. Described as the worst fire Pittsfield had seen in a long time, the reporting was detailed and at times eloquent.
As the Sun reported, a watchman of the mill by the name of Gilbert arrived to ring the bell for morning work. At about 6:10 a.m., he ascended to the card room on the second floor, and noticed a small flame in the southeast corner of the room. In trying to put the fire out, he stumbled, and, before he could recover himself, the fire had spread beyond his control. The Sun revealed that the room had a double floor, "which acted like a flue," to spread the fire even more quickly, and by the time the alarm was rung, the flames had broken out in several places.
Arriving promptly that frigid morning was the Barkerville Engine Company, under direction of foreman "Mapes," but no service could be rendered. The mill had a force pump which was located directly under the fire and of little use. Fierce northwest winds fanned the flames so forcefully, that by 7:30, the building was completely consumed and the entire floor, weighted with heavy machinery, fell to the ground. Flames then quickly spread to a storehouse nearby and it was also destroyed.
A wooden building directly attached to the mill was saved by an intermediary brick wall, though, because of the danger, its contents were removed. These included a desk filled with important papers and books, which were lost when the desk broke open. On a saving note, no lives were lost. A man named Killaly fell from a ladder, but was "without injury," according to the Sun.
When all was totaled, the loss amounted to about $80,000. Forty employees who worked in the burned mill and 60 who worked in the finishing mill nearby were put out of work. Purchased by John Vandenburgh Barker in the 1830’s from D.H. Stearns, the mill manufactured fine cassimere (a closely woven wool cloth), about 3,000 yards of which were on the machine at the time of the fire.
John V. Barker, active in Pittsfield business affairs and respected for his sound judgment, attempted to restore the business under Barker and Bros. Manufacturing Co.. Although the Sun surmised in its article that the business, which comprised 70 acres as well as tenement housing, would probably survive, Barker and Bros. did not fully recover. By 1890, all buildings except one were taken down, the business disappeared, and the once busy Barkerville became quiet.
Anyone who has experienced a typical Berkshire winter can likely imagine the intensity of the cold that early January morning and the frustration of firefighters and others unable to save the mill. By the time the engine company had arrived, destruction was well underway. The image of workers trying to lift a desk through an opening in the burning building, the desk breaking open and papers blowing away in the frigid morning air, tells of the strife and mayhem that settled upon Barkerville that day.
And yet, despite the chaos, common sense prevailed, workers and firefighters showed up to do their jobs, and the situation was handled without a single life lost. In its story of success, loss, and hard work, it’s tempting to think that the now obscure Barkerville somehow contributed to the character, values, and growth of the city.
A sketch of 19th century Barkerville shows a peaceful setting with dwellings neatly arranged, broad open sky, and gentle hills -- seemingly a place where life was predictable and even comfortable for a time. Perhaps the demise of the mill and the loss of employment it provided played some role in the disappearance of the name "Barkerville," which receded into history while other Pittsfield village names survived.
Walking along Barker Road today, facing a southwest sky, passing an open field, a backdrop of hills and an occasional hidden dirt road, one can almost picture the place that was there before, well worth remembering for the role it played in Pittsfield ‘s development and the western area of the city it opened to the future of the city.
More information can be found about Pittsfield ‘s Barkerville at rootsweb.com and in the local history department of the Berkshire Athenaeum.
A Pittsfield native and former Richmond resident, Judy Waters is a teacher of English as a second language in Chelsea, Ma. She has written before on Pittsfield history.
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