Community History St Landry History

The Courthouse Fire of 1886 – An Unsolved Mystery

CAROLA LILLIE HARTLEY
Publisher and Contributing Writer

Featured Photograph: The St. Landry Parish Courthouse, constructed in c.1847, destroyed in an awful 1886 fire is shown in this c.1880s photograph.. Although it was determined the fire was deliberately set, no one was ever charged for the 136-year-old crime. Can this cold case ever be solved. (Courtesy of Scott Longon.)

It was about 1:30 on Monday morning, March 22, 1886, when the stillness of darkness was broken by the alarm of fire in downtown Opelousas. The courthouse bell tolled and tolled, waking the town. Firemen and citizens rushed out of bed to the scene of danger. They were surprised to see the fire was burning at the St. Landry Parish Courthouse building, the place where the bell was ringing. As the fire progressed and spread throughout the building, the bell was silenced.  According to newspaper accounts of the event, “when the fire was discovered, disastrous flames were leaping from the ground floor and windows of the Tax Collector’s office.” 

All Opelousas fire companies, (Opelousas Fire Company No. 1, Opelousas Fire Company No. 2, Opelousas Fire Company No. 3 and Hope, Hook & Ladder Fire Company)were quickly on hand, assisted by a large number of town citizens. They used every effort to suppress the flames, but the fire had already progressed and burnt much of the inner wooden flooring, walls and ceiling. It was very difficult to get the water necessary to fight such a blaze, so despite the heroic efforts of the firefighters, the fire continued to burn. Besides this, several thousand metallic cartridges of the Opelousas Guard which were deposited in the SupremeCourt office in the second story, began to explode and somewhat paralyzed the work of saving the books and records in the adjacent offices.

It soon became apparent that the building was doomed, and as a high wind was blowing the burning cinders on many buildings near the east and southeast part of the square, the fire department and citizens had to direct their attention to prevent the spread of fire to the solid mass of buildings on the contiguous blocks. The nearby Eureka (Lacombe) Hotel and some other buildings caught fire and were immediately extinguished and saved. Not so lucky was Sam Perkins’ stable next to the hotel. It did not survive the fire and had to be rebuilt. The burning cinders were blown a distance of two to three blocks away and threatened a large number of other buildings. Nothing but the quickness and efficient work of firemen and citizens prevented a disastrous fire. 

Fortunately there was only a little money in the tax collector’s office.  A few days before the fire, Sheriff C. C. Duson had made a settlement with the State Treasurer and deposited $5,000 of State money in the branch of the State National Bank of New Orleans. He also had settled with the Parish Treasurer up to the 10th of the month. The safe in the tax collector’s office was a very old one and the intense heat of the fire burned large holes entirely through it. It contained $180in gold, $151.60 in silver, which was but slightly damaged. The amounts of paper money destroyed amounted to $620.00 in poll tax, $219.00 instate licenses, $250.00 in state warrants, and $94.00 in state warrants. Some valuable papers were also lost. 

Everything in the assessor’s office and supreme court office, including about half of the Opelousas Guards’ breech loading muskets and several thousand cartridges, and most of the records of the sheriff’s office were entirely destroyed by the fire. The contents of the safe of the parish treasurer had little damage, the papers being only slightly scorched.

The origin of the fire was unknown, but as the Opelousas Courier reported although unknown,  “is supposed to be the work of an incendiary either from the motive of robbery or to destroy important records of the Court. As none of the safes were tampered with, it is believed that the latter incentive prompted the act, if it was the work of incendiarism.”

Opelousas Fights to Remain the Parish Seat: Immediately following the fire, on Wednesday, March 24, 1886, the Police Jury called a special session to make decisions regarding the courthouse. The old building was just about completely destroyed, so it was decided a new courthouse building had to be constructed.  A location for the new building was also determined at this session.  The town of Washington had made a gallant effort to get the new Courthouse built there, but the Police Jury voted down the proposition.  It was decided the new building would be constructed in the same location where the old courthouse stood.  A committee, whose members included Albert Guidry, Edward Dubuisson, T. C. Chacheré, G. W. Hudspeth, C. C. Duson, J. O. Chacheré, T. S. Fontenot, Frank Wharton and Joseph Frozard, was appointed to draw up the plans and specifications and to advertise for bids. The committee scheduled a meeting for Monday, March 31st to begin the process.  At this meeting the Police Jury also authorized its president, Albert Guidry, to contract with F.  F. Perrodin to use the Perrodin’s Hall as a temporary courthouse.

But the fight over the courthouse location was not really over and continued for some time, and got rather heated.  Many wanted it built in Washington, and many wanted it built on the square in Opelousas, where a courthouse had been located since 1806. Plus there were those who wanted it built in other areas of St. Landry Parish at that time.  The fight over the location for the St. Landry Parish Courthouse built in 1886 is another story that will be shared later.   

Finally, after several weeks of back-and-forth discussions, a contract for building the new Courthouse at Opelousas was awarded on May 4th, 1886, to Hannon & Voss of Baton Rouge, at $20,850.00. The new courthouse was completed by the fall of that year.

The new St. Landry Parish Courthouse as it was being constructed in the fall of 1886.

The Mystery Continues – Can this 136-year-old cold case be solved? No one was ever arrested for that 1886 courthouse fire. And some valuable records were lost forever, many related to crimes in the parish. Numerous people during that time knew those records held the clue to solving the fire mystery.

So many unanswered questions remain for over a century about that 1886 fire that destroyed more than a building, but historic documents that we would love to have today. Can this mystery finally be solved? Who was it that started the 1886 fire, and why? Watch for new information about this 136-year-old cold case coming soon.