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

Such behavior by one person might indicate mere madness. By a defined group — say, the Klan — it might indicate plain wickedness. But when mass insanity grips otherwise disconnected townspeople, it indicates something larger, something civil in scale. Zachariah Walker and his offense were only symbols. Changes in industry and society had rolled over Coatesville’s citizens, and they lashed back with the weapon they knew best.

“THE GOOD TIMES…the good times … the good times … ” librarian assistant Charlene Coates murmurs, letting hundreds of yellowed pages of A History of Chester County fall through her fingers. She is a member of the Coates family for whom her town was named, and she serves an unofficial historian for the place. Finally she stops flipping, and points at the book. “Here it is,” she says. “The good times. When people had hope.”

More than hope. A History appeared in the 1930s, at the height of the steel boom in America. “Commercially, Coatesville is ideally situated with relation to supply and demand. Products can be delivered overnight to Philadelphia or New York by either the Pennsylvania or Reading Railroad, or by using motor trucks,” it gushes. “Transcontinental and local bus lines follow their routes along the highways to the north, south, east and west.”

At the end of A History’s section on Coatesville, the author notes with strained nonchalance, “Fire prevention has received special attention in Coatesville. The equipment is modern, and can be put to use effectively with little loss of time.”

Evidence of the good times still remains. If you climb the hills around Coatesville and look back down into the town, it seems wonderful. Big three–story homes — the sort real estate agents call “stately” — stand along the main street, and elsewhere, rowhouses — “charming” — form well-defined neighborhoods in the West End, the downtown, the East End. But descend into the valley, and it becomes clear that the big houses are often boarded up. The rowhouses are burned out. Young men stand around on street corners, staring into the pavement with eyes as blank as manhole covers.

“I’m still here because my mother is still here. If she were not still alive, I would be elsewhere,” Charlene Coates says. She gives a small chuckle. “She just doesn’t want to leave because she’s been here 86 years.”