My dearest Mother,
Yesterday I received a letter from Uncle John informing me of the accident which happened from fire on Friday night. I was very much frightened as you may imagine & glad it was no worse. I am almost crazy to know all the particulars, none of which Uncle gave. I wish I could go home for one or two days to hear all about it for I shall never rest till I know I find it very difficult indeed to fix my attention on my studies & don't pretend to recite them perfectly. I find myself so often conjecturing what in the world you did when you found the fire out, being, I believe by yourself. Uncle John said Mr. McIntire had taken you to his house & insisted on you staying till the house was repaired. I want to know if the kitchen was burnt to the ground? how long you will remain at Mr. & Mrs. McIntire's? where the servants are? & oh dear; I don't know what I want to know only every circumstance however minute. How on earth did you get news to town? Did Mrs. Graham and girls get home before it was out? I wish you would write & give me a full description of all or let me come home for a day or two to hear the latter I would much prefer. Uncle thought you would write after you got over the hurly-burly, which I think you have had time for. I was rather disappointed that I did not get a letter from you yesterday but hope I will have better success today....I called at Aunt Ann's yesterday & there met a Miss Hall who said she had seen an account of the fire in the paper and asked me about it. Aunt Ann was almost thunderstruck when she heard it, clasped her hands and exclaimed "Good heavens" and was so much relieved to hear the house was not entirely destroyed. I expect Uncle will come to Baltimore this week and if he will let me go home I will go with him. I am so crazy to know all about it & fear you will write me all I want to know. Please, oh I don't know what to do! Joseph Wallace wrote to George that the house was entirely burned down. Mary told me this morning. You will please remember me to Mr. & Mrs. McIntire and all the good folk of Elkton. Give my best love to Mary & Mag & tell me if they go to school now. I do wish I could hear from you. Do pray write soon & tell me everything....I must stop now.
Write soon & believe me yours affectionately,
Hopefully, Isabella shortly received a letter from her mother: her distress coupled with frustration is understandable, she had heard reports of fire but could not substantiate them nor ascertain the extent of the damage. Based on her letter, many who heard of the fire thought the damage more significant than the Cecil Whig reported, but there is no reason to question that the lower story and cellar of the house remained intact.
When examining the Elk Landing house, the wing attached to the structure is somewhat conspicuous. Simply by examining the outside of the house, the addition of a two-story wing contiguous to the original structure becomes apparent. Once inside the house, the fire damage is evident. On the second floor, one is aware of stepping from the original portion of the house into the addition. A plastered wall on the addition side of the house is crumbling from age, exposing the original brick underneath. Whoever renovated the home plastered a new wall directly on top of the brick. These bricks are blackened--an indisputable signature of fire. The damage to these bricks reveals the extent of the fire damage, confirming that Mary certainly could not have lived in a home with a charred roof. What did she do immediately following the fire?
Shortly after the fire, Mary searched for a builder to repair her home. Among the original documents recovered from Elk Landing were seven appraisals, all dated in March of 1848, from separate carpenters, addressed to Mary E. Hollingsworth--it seems she was a prudent spender. The appraisals ranged from a quarter page note hastily scribbled to a lengthy two-page letter detailing the exact repairs and renovations. The appraisals proposed to rebuild the original house as it stood and construct a wing onto the house. The price of construction varied depending on the size of the wing and number of stories, but most builders quoted somewhere around $2,200. One builder, by the name of P. Strickland, proposed a number of options to Mrs. Hollingsworth:
I will take all the old materials as they stand and build you a square house fifty feet long the same width of the old one three stores high in good order and of good materials for twenty five hundred dollars. I will make the necessary alterations on the main building and build a wing twenty by forty feet three storeys [sic] for twenty four hundred dollars. I will make the necessary alteration on the building and build a wing twenty by forty feet two storeys [sic] high for twenty two hundred dollars. I will rebuild the house as it stood before for thirteen hundred dollars. The above calculations are all made for shingle roofs, for forty dollars more I will put a tin roof on either of the above plans.
Today, the house stands with a two-story wing neatly projecting off the original premises. Strickland quoted a price of $2, 400 for such work. In 1848, $2,400 could purchase the same quantity of goods and services as approximately $49,216 today ( howmuch/testdollarr.php). Had Strickland rebuilt the home without adding a renovation, the $1,300 he would have charged was more than the $950 the insurance company was willing to pay Mary E. Whichever builder she selected, the cost of renovating her home must have broached $2,000--considerably more than the insurer's appraisal. Undoubtedly, the Hollingsworths had the assets available to pay the difference. According to the Cecil County Assessments of 1850, Mary E. Hollingsworth owned an estate valued over $27,000; an amount with the purchasing power of about $610,440.00 today ( howmuch/testdollarr.php).
Currently, the Historic Elk Landing Foundation has undertaken the restoration of the Hollingsworth home. Had reconstruction been delayed longer, the roof to the home may have fallen in again, this time due to water damage. Most likely the last time the house underwent significant construction was in 1848. The builders of the nineteenth century saved the home from fire damage, and now over 150 years later their counterparts have returned to restore the home to its original prominence. In this way, the fire, the past renovation, and the current restoration are intertwined and the history of the Hollingsworth mansion is continually written.
The Fire at Elk Landing
By Michael Peddicord
In 1848, the Hollingsworth mansion at Elk Landing was owned by Mary E. Hollingsworth, widow of the late William Hollingsworth. William was the heir of Zebulon Hollingsworth, Jr., who operated a shipping business that transported merchandise from Philadelphia to Baltimore. Constructed in the early 1800s, the Hollingsworth mansion was home to two generations of children and survived the War of 1812. Its residents witnessed the presidency of Andrew Jackson, and saw the construction of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. But on the 11th of February, 1848, the Hollingsworth's home at Elk Landing caught fire, resulting in fairly significant damage to the upper story of the home. The extent of local newspaper coverage provided by the Cecil Whig on February 18, 1848 follows:
The Fire at Elk Landing--The loss to Mrs. Hollingsworth (or rather to the Insurance company) by the fire on the 11th inst. has been fixed by the appraisers at $950; much less than was expected. The efforts of our citizens with the engine, although the whole roof had fallen in when they reached the place and got to work, saved the lower story, and the cellar and its contents.
The citizens of Elkton seemed to respond rapidly to the fire and prevented greater damage, indicating an amicable relationship with Mary E. Hollingsworth. According to the Economic History Services website, the value of the appraisal, $950, is approximately equivalent to $21,252 today ( testdollarr.php). Even though this figure is a rough estimate, it ably communicates the magnitude of damage to Mary E. Hollingsworth's home.
The Whig is the only Cecil County newspaper to have an account of the fire. Based solely on local newspaper evidence, historians might be inclined to dismiss the fire; after all, it seems as though Mary had only to repair her roof. However, reports of the fire spread and even reached Mary's daughter, Isabella Hollingsworth, in Baltimore.
Original documents from the Elk Landing house survived into the present; among these is a stack of letters addressed to Mary E. Hollingsworth during the 1840s. Ironically, all of them but one are dated before the fire. Nevertheless, one crucial letter remained; Isabella sent it to Mary from Baltimore on the 15th of February, 1848. Dated only four days after the fire, news reached the obviously distraught Isabella quickly: