Coatesville Fires: The Town That Burned Itself Down

For 18 months, Chester County’s Coatesville, once a thriving steel-industry town, was besieged by fire after fire — set by the residents themselves. A shocking mystery unraveled

Tracey appraised all this within a second or two, and intuition dictated his job on the scene. Unfortunately, that job required the most dangerous action possible.

Still working alone, Tracey positioned his enormous truck next to the burning city block and raised its ladder. The rest of the world — Chester County, Coatesville, even the panic on Fleetwood Street — all faded into the smoke as Tracey began climbing toward his destination. Fire can focus a man’s attention like nothing else, burning away all mental distraction and decay. It can consume a man and a town — in more ways than one.

And Bob Tracey, as it happened, had a lot on his mind.

FIRE HAS RUN through public thought in Coatesville since the town’s earliest days. It twists through the history of the place, and more than once it has nearly devoured the community altogether.

About two centuries ago, workers built an iron foundry along the banks of Brandywine Creek, where it breathed soot by day and hiccupped flames at night. It sat in the bowl of a small valley, and over the next century, a town grew around the mill and its fire, hearing it, smelling it, watching the skies for the comforting sight of smoke rising like a black signal of prosperity and civic security.

The crucible in Coatesville was the largest in the world, and working the blast furnace at the steel mill meant mastering nature, melting metal into liquid light and reshaping it into something stronger. It also meant surviving occasional explosions and shrapnel. Blue-collar workers immigrated to the town from Poland and Germany and Sweden, and knew the rewards and dangers of the work. They were strong-backed men, and violent.

At the beginning of the 20th century, as the last embers of the Civil War faded, Coatesville’s mill owners courted Southern black workers to move north, knowing cheaper labor would keep white workers from striking. Zachariah Walker was one of those black workers, and one day in August 1911, he killed a popular steel-mill policeman during a fight. When a mob of citizens heard about it, they dragged Walker from his hospital bed, through town and over a hill into open farmland. They wanted to lynch him, but weren’t sure how to go about it. Then someone shouted, “You were in the hospital tonight. You will be in the furnace soon!” And the idea took hold: They would use fire.

The mob, which had now grown to a crowd of thousands, gathered kindling and put flame to it. A chant formed: “Burn him! Burn him!” They threw Walker into the midst of the fire, and he screamed in anguish. He crawled out, and they shoved him back in; he crawled out a second time, and then a third time, and the crowd cheered his noble effort. Then they used fence rails to pin him in the flames until he died.