Since several members of the Local History Team work on the Reference Desk, some of the posts on this blog will be about topics that originated with reference questions.
Sometimes, as in this case, reference skills can only go so far, and we have to rely on serendipity to get the story.
Several years ago, a patron offered to loan me a small box of photographs, which I scanned at high resolution, and returned to her. Most of them were recognizable buildings around town, but none of them had any information on the backs. Two of the photos were very dramatic looking images of a destroyed house on a snowy day. Certainly there’s a story here, but with no identifying marks on the reverse, I couldn’t even be sure the photos were taken in Richmond.
The only solid clue I had was the gaslight right in the center of one of the photos. The high resolution scan revealed the street names on the frame of the light. “N 10 St” and “N I St” How many places would even have a North I Street? A glance at the Sanborn maps showed a couple houses at the corner of North 10th and I that correspond to those in the photo, so this probably is Richmond.
Morrisson-Reeves has an amazing collection of microfilmed newspapers, and perhaps more importantly, an index to those newspapers compiled by librarians for more than 100 years. As wonderful as it is, the index provides access to a tiny fraction of the information that’s hidden on the hundreds of rolls of film. I searched the index, but found nothing that sounded like the destruction I saw in the photos. I hit a dead end for the moment, but I tucked the information away.
A couple months ago, when looking through my “Miscellaneous” file, I came across one of those articles that catch our eyes when we’re scrolling through the microfilm. “He Found the Leak” was the title, and it told in great detail about a really poor decision to look for a gas leak with a lighted match. I had a friend in my office at the time, and read the article out loud to her for a bit of entertainment. (It’s the same thing Steve Martin often does for his Palladium-Item series.) The second paragraph started with, “The scene of the disaster was at the corner of north 10th and I streets where stood the two story frame house and grocery of Thomas Crabb.” Fortunately, the image of the gaslight wasn’t buried too deeply in my memory, and I had a big “Eureka” moment. When I proposed the story as a possible future blog story, Steve told me he had already written a column about it for publication in the P-I, so now his column has some great images to go with his description.
Now that I had a name to search, I found some further information to wrap the story up. A couple days later an Item reporter checked on the family and found them “suffering intense agony” from broken bones and burns. They were being cared for by neighbors. Within a month Crabb’s mother, Sarah Baker, filed suit against the Richmond Gas Co. for $10,000, and was awarded $4500. The family filed other suits, the last of which wasn’t settled until 1897 when Mr. Crabb was awarded $500 for the damage done to his stock of groceries.