A Harrowing Fire Story!

Folks:

Here is a fictionalized account of a nineteenth-century bridal party’s encounter with a fast-moving forest fire in the Pine Barrens. It is a harrowing read, but before you know it, you will again be able to sit back in your seat! Sorry—no illustrations with this one.

Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume XXI, July 1842, pp. 51-53

The Girdle of Fire
by Percie H. Selton


The lower counties of New Jersey are proverbially barren, being covered with immense forests of pine, interspersed with cedar swamps. During the dry summer months these latter become parched to an extent that is incredible, and the accidental contagion of a fire-brand often wraps immense tracts of country in flames. The rapidity with which the conflagration, when once kindled, spreads through these swamps can scarcely be credited except by those who know how thoroughly the moss and twigs are dried up by the heat of an August sun. Indeed scarcely a spot can be pointed out in West Jersey, which has not, at one time or another, been ravaged by conflagration. It was but a few years since that an immense tract of these pine barrens was on fire, and the citizens of Philadelphia can recollect the lurid appearance of the sky at night, seen at the distance of thirty or even forty miles from the scene of the conflagration. The legendary history of these wild counties is full of daring deeds and hair-breadth escapes which have been witnessed during such times of peril. One of these traditional stories it is our purpose to relate. The period of our tale dates far back into the early history of the sister state, when the country was even more thinly settled than at present

It was a sunny morning in midsummer, when a gay party was assembled at the door of a neat house in one of the lower counties of New Jersey. Foremost in the group stood a tall manly youth, whose frank countenance at once attracted the eye. By his side was a bright young creature, apparently about eighteen years of age, whose golden tresses were a fit type of the sunny beauty of her countenance. But now her soft blue eyes were dim with tears, and she leaned on the shoulder of her mother, who was apparently equally affected. The dress of the daughter, and her attitude of leave-taking, told that she was a bride, going forth from the home of her childhood, to enter on a new and untried sphere of life. The other members of the group were composed of her father, her brothers and sisters, and the bridemen and bridesmaids.

“God bless you, my daughter, and have you in his holy keeping,” said the father as he gave her his last embrace, “and now farewell!”

The last kiss was given, the last parting word was said, the last long look had been taken, and now the bridal party was being whirled through the forest on one of the sweetest mornings of the sweet month of July.

It was indeed a lovely day. Their way lay through an old road which was so rarely travelled that it had become overgrown with grass, among which the thick dew-drops, glittering in the morning sun, were scattered like jewels on a monarch’s mantle. The birds sang merrily in the trees, or skipped gaily from branch to branch, while the gentle sighing of the wind, and the occasional murmur of a brook crossing the road, added to the exhilarating influences of the hour. The travellers were all young and happy, and so they gradually forgot the sadness of the parting hour, and ere they had traversed many miles the green arcades of that lovely old forest were ringing with merry laughter.

Suddenly, however, the bride paused in her innocent mirth, and while a shade of paleness overspread her cheek, called the attention of her husband to a dark black cloud, far off on the horizon, and yet gloomier and denser than the darkest thunder cloud.

“The forest is on fire!” was his instant ejaculation, “think you not so, Charnley?” and he turned to his groomsman.

“Yes! but the wind is not towards us, and the fire must be miles from our course.

There is no need for alarm, Ellen,” said he, turning to the bride, his sister.

“But our road lies altogether through the forest,” she timidly rejoined, “and you know there isn’t a house or cleared space for miles.”

“Yes! but my dear sis, so long as the fire keeps its distance, it matters not whether our road is through the forest or the fields. We will drive on briskly and before noon you will laugh at your fears. Your parting from home has weakened your nerves.”

No more was said, and for some time the carriage proceeded in silence. Meantime the conflagration was evidently spreading with great rapidity. The dark, dense clouds of smoke, which had at first been seen hanging only in one spot, had now extended in a line along the horizon, gradually edging around so as to head off the travellers. But this was done so imperceptibly that, for a long line, the travellers were not aware of it, and they had journeyed at least half an hour before they saw their danger. At length the bride spoke again.

“Surely, dear Edward,” she said, addressing her husband, “the fire is sweeping around ahead of us: I have been watching it by yonder blasted pine, and can see it slowly creeping across the trunk.”

Every eye was instantly turned in the direction in which she pointed, and her brother, who was driving, involuntarily checked the horses. A look of dismay was on each countenance as they saw the words of the bride verified. There could be no doubt that the fire had materially changed its bearing since they last spoke, and now threatened to cut off their escape altogether.

“I wish, Ellen, we had listened to your fears and turned back half an hour ago:” said the brother, “we had better do it at once.”

“God help us—that is impossible,” said the husband, looking backwards, “the fire has cut off our retreat.”

It was as he said. The flames, which at first had started at a point several miles distant and at right angles to the road the party was travelling, had spread out in every direction, and finding the swamp in the rear of the travellers parched almost to tinder by the draught, had extended with inconceivable velocity in that quarter, so that a dense cloud of smoke, beneath which a dark lurid veil of fire surged and rolled, completely cut off any retrograde movement on the part of the travellers. This volume of flame, moreover, was evidently moving rapidly in pursuit. The cheeks, even of the male members of the bridal party, turned ashy pale at the sight.

“There is nothing to do but to push on,” said the brother, “we will yet clear the road before the fire reaches it.”

“And if I remember,” said the husband, “there is a road branching off to the right, scarce half a mile ahead; we can gain that easily, when we shall be safe. Cheer up, Ellen, there is no danger. This is our wedding morn, let me not see you sad.”

The horses were now urged forward at a brisk pace, and in a few minutes the bridal party reached the cross road. Their progress was now directly from the fire; all peril seemed at an end; and the spirits of the group rose in proportion to their late depression. Once more the merry laugh was heard, and the song rose up gaily on the morning air. The conflagration still raged behind, but at a distance that placed all fear at defiance, while in front the fire, although edging down towards them, approached at a pace so slow that they knew it would not reach the road until perhaps hours after they had attained their journey’s end. At length the party subsided again into silence, occupying themselves in gazing on the magnificent spectacle presented by the lurid flames, as, rolling their huge volumes of smoke above them, they roared down towards the travellers.

“The forest is as dry as powder,” said the husband, “I never saw a conflagration travel so rapidly. The fire cannot have been kindled many hours, and it has already spread for miles. Little did you think, Ellen,” he said, turning fondly to his bride, “when we started this morning, that you should so narrowly escape such a peril.”

“And, as I live, the peril is not yet over,” suddenly exclaimed the brother, “see—see—a fire has broke out on our right, and is coming down on to us like a whirlwind. God have mercy on us!”

He spoke with an energy that would have startled his hearers without the fearful words he uttered. But when they followed the direction of his quivering finger, a shriek burst from the two females, while the usually collected husband turned ashy pale, not for himself, but for her who was dearer to him than his own life. A fire, during the last few minutes, had started to life in the forest to their right, and, as the wind was from that quarter, the flames were seen ahead shooting down towards the road which the bridal party was traversing, roaring, hissing, and thundering as they drew near.

“Drive faster—for heaven’s sake—on the gallop!” exclaimed the husband, as he comprehended the imminency of their danger.

The brother made no answer, for he well knew their fearful situation, but whipped the horses into a run. The chaise flew along the narrow forest road with a rapidity that neither of the party had ever before witnessed; for even the animals themselves seemed aware of their peril, and strained every sinew to escape from the fiery death which threatened them.

Their situation was indeed terrible, and momentarily becoming more precarious. The fire, when first seen, was, at least, a mile off, but nearly equidistant from a point in the road the bridal party was traversing; and, as the conflagration swept down towards the road with a velocity equal to that of the travellers, it soon became evident that they would have barely time to pass the fire ere it swept across the road, thus cutting off all escape. Each saw this; but the females were now paralized with fear. Only the husband spoke.

“Faster, for God’s sake, faster,’ he hoarsely cried. “see you not that the fire is making for yonder tell pine—-we shall not be able to reach the tree first unless we go faster.”

“I will do my best,” said the brother, lashing still more furiously the foaming horses.

“Oh! God, that I had turned back when Ellen wished me.”

On came the roaring fire—on in one mass of flame —on with a velocity that seemed only equalled by that of the flying hurricane. Now the flames caught the lower limbs of a tall tree and in an instant had hissed to its top—now they shot out their forty tongues from one huge pine to another far across the intermediate space—and now the whirling fire, whistled along the dry grass and moss of the swamp with a rapidity which the eye could scarcely follow. Already the fierce heat of the conflagration began to be felt by the travellers, while the horses, feeling the increase of warmth, grew restive and terrified.

The peril momentarily increased. Hope grew fainter. Behind and on either side the conflagration roared in pursuit, while the advancing flame in front was cutting off their only avenue of escape. They were girdled by fire. Faster and quicker roared the flames towards the devoted party, until at length despair seized on the hearts of the travellers. Pale, paralized, silent, inanimate as statues, sat the females; while the husband and brother, leaning forward in the carriage and urging the horses to their utmost speed, gazed speechlessly on the approaching flames. Already the fire was within a hundred yards of the road ahead, and it seemed beyond human probability that the travellers could pass it in time. The husband gave one last agonizing glance at his inanimate wife. When again he looked at the approaching flames, he saw that during that momentary glimpse they had lessened their distance one half. He could already feel the hot breath of the fire on his cheek. The wind, too, suddenly whirled down with fiercer fury, and in an instant the forky tongues of the advancing conflagration had shot across the road, and entwined themselves around the tall pine which had been the goal of the travelers’ hopes. He sank back with a groan. But the brother’s eye gleamed wildly at the sight, and gathering the reins tighter around his hand, he made one last desperate effort to force the horses onward; and with one mad leap, they lifted the carriage from the ground as if it had been a plaything, plunged into the fiery furnace, and the next instant had shot through the pass.

Charnley gave one look backwards, as if to assure himself that they had indeed escaped—he saw the lurid mass of fire roaring and whirling across the spot through which they had darted but a moment before; and overcome with mingled gratitude and awe, he lowered his head on his breast and poured out an overflowing soul in thanksgivings to the Power which had saved them from the most dreadful of deaths.

And long afterwards, men, who travelled through that charred and blackened forest, pointed to the memorable scene where these events occurred, and rehearsed the thrilling feelings of those who had been encompassed by THE GIRDLE OF FIRE.

Best regards,
Jerseyman
 

imkms

Explorer
Feb 18, 2008
517
133
SJ and SW FL
That is a good read, but for some reason my thoughts while reading this tale are in black and white! Must be the wording.
 

bobpbx

Piney
Staff member
Oct 25, 2002
12,416
2,640
Pines; Bamber area
I've always heard that the safest thing to do when caught in a fire is get onto already burned ground. I suppose you are supposed to run in between the flames and hope you don't catch fire yourself. Thankfully, I have never had to test that method.
 

LARGO

Piney
Sep 7, 2005
1,545
117
51
Pestletown
Thank you, just thank you. This piece was fantastic and this writer, that style, sort of over flamboyant and dramatically descriptive ,lost today, tossed aside as silliness by lesser authors. I actually pictured at their every turn, roads and/or trails I've passed my own self. One could almost feel the adrenal burst in the horses themselves. Given the supernatural tendency of a forest fire, I will bet any Forest serviceperson that reads this can attest to the accuracy of the lunacy of a forest fire, then, and now. This writer got it, dug it, pegged it, and tossed in a nice piece of romance at the beginning. (I'll share those tears should I one day have to pass my daughter along, that last embrace)
I could only wish to convey such as this fellow did in the written word. The piece is a great find and an even greater share sir.
Jerseyman, you remain a Phenom of sorts here in your offerings. As long as your fingers can hit the keys, please keep it coming!

g.
 

glowordz

Explorer
Jan 19, 2009
585
8
SC
www.gloriarepp.com
A great story and even more affecting, as Largo noted, for its style, considered old-fashioned today. Interesting --feminists, note!--how the bride, rather than her two manly (tall, muscular, courageous, wise) escorts was the first to realize their danger. :D

"The legendary history of these wild counties is full of daring deeds and hair-breadth escapes" . . . indeed! Thank you, Jerseyman.

Glo
 
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