The great fire began at 11:15 in the evening on September 15, 1893. The undisputed cause of the fire was arson. Blue vaporous flames were seen leaping from the ground to the roof in the rear of the Alexander Richards building on Walnut Street. Splashing liberal amounts of either gasoline or coal oil against the side of the structure, the arsonist applied a match and disappeared into the shadows. The culprit was never brought to justice and his motive forever unknown.
Citizens spotted the flames almost immediately and turned in an alarm—but when the fire department arrived they confronted a raging inferno. All of the businesses and residences on Walnut Street were constructed with wood and were extremely dry. Gale force winds out of the northwest spread fiery embers to nearby buildings on Walnut Street and to businesses on Cedar Street. The Richards building, which was occupied by the Paul Rediker Saloon, was soon transformed into a pile of ashes. Occupants on the second floor of the building barely escaped alive. Other businesses on Walnut Street including saloons owned by Antowine Vassau and Fenton Gorman, along with the John Hackenbrach and Robert Knudson barbershops, the Bebeau Brothers livery and the John Kirstine tailor shop soon succumbed to the flames.