Thursday, February 20, 2014

Chariton's First Lady: Old Betsy, Part One

Old Betsy was approaching her 130th birthday when she made her annual appearance in last summer's 4th of July parade.

There's little doubt that Old Betsy is the First Lady of Chariton. If you were among pretenders to the title, I'm sorry.

The old girl's status came to mind the other day while writing about Chariton's City Hall --- there was intense concern for a time late during construction of that fine 1931 building that Betsy was going be left out in the cold. But that's a story for another day.

Old Betsy is a Silsby Steamer (Serial No. 758), built during 1883 by the Silsby Manufacturing Co. in Seneca Falls, N.Y. She arrived in Chariton after a truly unfortunate incident --- the firehouse caught fire and burned on Sept. 9, 1883, taking the volunteer firefighters' 1877 Silsby and all the rest of the department's equipment --- every bucket, every inch of hose, every hook and every ladder --- with it.

The Fire Department then was in its sixth year, having been organized upon purchase by the city of that first engine.

Here's an extensive report on the great calamity from The Chariton Democrat of Wednesday, Sept. 12, 1883:

The Entire Fire Apparatus of the City Totally Destroyed

An alarm of fire was sounded at half past one o'clock Sunday morning, at which time the discovery was made that the city engine house was on fire. When the doors of the building were opened, the fire which had been smouldering on the first floor, burst forth into flame, and notwithstanding the energetic efforts that were put forth to draw the Steamer from the burning building, it could not be done. The Hook and Ladder wagon stood still further in the building than the Steamer, and of course nothing could be done toward getting it out. Men had to stand there powerless and witness every single thing in connection with the city fire department destroyed.

Bucket brigades were at once formed, and only by the most heroic efforts was the fire confined to the engine house. Just across the alley stood a frame livery barn and had the fire communicated with this, Chariton would have seen one of the most destructive conflagrations in her history, as the entire row of wooden buildings from the engine house to the square would have gone, and without a doubt the entire south side of the square.

A telegram was sent to Albia for aid, but the response came that they were fighting a fire of their own. Then Ottumwa was appealed to, and a prompt response came that they would come. But by the time they got ready to board the cars, the danger here was past. There was no insurance on the fire apparatus, and only $2,500 on the building. The loss to the city is a clean $10,000, and the question naturally arises in the minds of the tax-payers, who is responsible for the gross carelessness that resulted in such a loss to the city? That it was carelessness and the most wretched kind of carelessness, no one doubts.

The very idea of the city investing such a sum of money in a fire apparatus for the purpose of protecting the property of citizens, and then having that fire apparatus so managed or so guarded that it will take fire and burn up, leaving the citizens unprotected from the danger occasioned, is unheard of, and richly merits the severe censure that is being made. We have taken special pains to learn the views of citizens as to the probable origin of the fire, and in every instance the reply comes, "gross carelessness." The council will no doubt go into an investigation of the matter at an early day, and until the result of their inquiries is made known we shall refrain from intimating where, in our judgment, the responsibility rests.

But there is one thing we feel justified in speaking of with our present knowledge. It is the manner in which the building was constructed. We have no doubt that the council considered the building a safe one at the time it was built. But the lesson of Sunday morning shows it to have been a regular firetrap. The floors were of pine, and the joists, and the underside of the second floor were not every protected by plastering. We learned Monday morning that the council were strongly urged to put in a concrete floor, or at least a pounded dirt floor. Had this been done the building would have been much more secure. There is little doubt but that the building had been on fire for an hour and a half or two hours before the fire was discovered. The floor of course was thoroughly heated, and ready to burst into flame the moment the door was opened. In proof of this it may be stated that when Mr. Perry, who was among the first to arrive at the building, took hold of the neck yoke of the engine, which was near the door, it was so hot that it completely blistered both his hands. Had the floor been of cement this could not have resulted.

The fire apparatus of the city is burned, the city has suffered a great loss, and the citizens will await with great interest for an investigation and report of the matter. One or two persons only have been found who talk about the fire being the work of an incendiary. But this idea is scouted as being too preposterous to merit a thought. It was gross carelessness instead of incendiarism.

The city council held a meeting Sunday morning and appointed a committee consisting of councilmen G.W. Blake and W.E. Lewis, and W.F. Hatcher, engineer, instructing them to go to Chicago, and purchase a new fire apparatus at once. The committee left on the train Sunday night and we may soon expect the city to be better than ever before prepared to fight the destroying element.

Despite all the editorial bluster, there were no further reports about the cause of the fire. Most likely it was determined to be an accident and everyone decided to move on. The burned fire hall, which also served as City Hall, was located somewhere on the site of the current City Hall --- apparently quite close to the alley.

Once in Chicago, the three-man Chariton delegation discovered that new fire engines weren't immediately available --- at least not a Silsby. So an order was placed and Chariton settled into a couple of months of unease when buckets would be the only way to move water should a fire occur. Here's a report on the outcome of the Chicago trip from The Patriot of Sept. 19, 1883:

Messrs. Ed Lewis, G.W. Blake and Wm. Hatcher returned Thursday from Chicago, where they had been to negotiate purchase of new fire apparatus. They report their efforts very successful, and a full and complete outfit was contracted for on splendid terms. The steamer is of the same pattern as the one destroyed, though a much more powerful machine, and is manufactured by the Silsby Manufacturing Company, Seneca Falls, N.Y. These are the most popular and effective fire engines now manufactured, and the house is considerably behind with orders and the steamer cannot be furnished under sixty days. The necessary delay is to be regretted, but when received the department and citizens will have the satisfaction of knowing that none better are in the market. Two hose carts and 1,500 feet of hose were ordered, which will also be furnished by the same house. The hook and ladder wagon and furnisments were purchased of the Babcock supply company of Chicago, and will be shipped an once. The price paid for the entire outfit was very reasonable. The council will receive the hearty praise of every progressive citizen for their prompt action in this matter and their earnest and successful efforts to secure to our city splended fire protection with the smallest possible expenditure.

Fortunately for Chariton, nothing more than occasional chimney fires occurred during October and November --- stoves and faulty chimneys were the major cause of serious fires in those days.

Work began immediately on a new combined fire station and city hall --- the two-story brick building that survived until 1931, when the current City Hall was built. This time, precautions were taken. The floor was of concrete and, presumably, the ceiling was finished and plastered thickly.

City Council had $2,500 in insurance money to work with and during mid-November authorized the sale of $6,000 in bonds to fund outstanding balances on the building and new fire equipment. The specified purpose of the bonds, to be issued Dec. 1, was "purchasing a fire apparatus for the city of Chariton, consisting of hook and ladders and wagon and buckets, fire engine, hose and hose carriages and such other fire appliances as may be purchased, and in rebuilding an engine house and City Hall."

While awaiting arrival of the new engine, firefighters used the new hook and ladder wagon to transport themselves and their limited equipment to fire scenes.

The great disaster did nothing to deter the sixth anniversary edition of one of Chariton's oldest traditions, the annual Fire Department Banquet, on Thursday evening, Dec. 6. Although the menu was not specified, all comers were invited to share supper in Mallory Hall (the opera house) from 6 until 8 p.m., then enjoy a program of music and speeches.

The prizes that year included an "elegant cane," won by J.H. Stewart; "a live pig," won by John Bentley; and "a beautiful and costly silk quilt presented to the department by the ladies of the city," won by Mrs. A.B. Anderson, of the Bates House hotel. In all, $400 was raised for the firefighters' treasury.

The next day, and whether this was intentionally timed I can't say, Old Betsy arrived --- uloaded at the C.B.&Q. Depot from a freight car of a west-bound train. The Patriot of Dec. 12 reported:

The new steamer and fire apparatus was duly received last Friday, and has the appearance of being excellent in every particular. It was placed at once in the new engine house, which was completed and ready for its reception, with the exception of hanging the doors. In reference to the new engine house and department headquarters, as also to the purchase of the new apparatus, it can only be said that the work has been well and speedily done, and the energy and promptness of our city council, in this emergency, deserves the special thanks of the public. The department building has been carefully constructed, with a view to safety from fire, and it will be as far as possible guarded that there is no recurrence of the loss of a few months ago. This the public will demand and expect.

On Monday, James P. Teller, chief engineer of the Silsby company, arrived in Chariton from Seneca Falls to prepare Old Betsy for her trial, scheduled for Wednesday. Teller had worked for Silsby for 25 years and, according to the Democrat, during that time "has tested so many of the company's steamers that it did not require much time for him to get everything in readiness."

Horace Silsby, vice-president of the Silsby Manufacturing Co., arrived in Chariton on Wednesday morning and at high noon on Dec. 12, with visiting firemen from across southern Iowa as well as many residents in attendance, Old Betsy was put through her paces --- and performed magnificently.

Sitting nearby, waiting to be hoisted into its housing, was the new fire bell, also recently arrived and "weighing upwards of twelve hundred pounds."

"The members of the Fire Department are in fine spirits over the purchse by the city of such a splended Steamer," The Democrat reported, "and the citizens can confidently count on them now in case of an emergency. We have both the machinery and the men for preventing a destructive conflagration."

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