Monday, February 27, 2017

The "fire fiend" now --- and then

Chariton's Volunteer Fire Department had a busy week, last --- if the number of times the siren sounded was any indication. So I was interested to come across the following report in The Chariton Democrat of March 3, 1887, of what could have been a disastrous blaze, but wasn't, thanks to the efforts to an earlier generation of volunteer firefighters.

The fire was discovered about 10 p.m. on Wednesday, March 2, in the basement of the north section of the Union Block (above), built at the northwest corner of the square during 1881-82 where it held pride of place well into the latter half of the 20th century, when it was demolished and replaced by the one-story building that now houses Great Western Bank.

The Union Block was called that because it had been financed jointly by Chariton's Masonic and Odd Fellows lodges with additional input from George W. Larimer, builder and entrepreneur. The Masons owned the south third of the building, with First National Bank on the ground floor and offices and lodge rooms above. This part of the building wasn't affected. The I.O.O.F. lodge shared ownership of the north two-thirds with Larmier and had lodge rooms on the top floor. C.R. Kirk, druggist, and A.N. Wright, jewler, occupied the two storefronts below.

Here's the fire story, which appeared under the headlines: "The Fire Fiend: Breaks Out in Chariton's Finest Business Block: But Is Stopped in Its Work of Destruction: By the Best Volunteer Fire Department in Iowa."

Last night about ten o'clock the fire alarm rang out in the city. The Union Block, the elegant three story and basement brick block which is the pride of the city, was on fire. Promptly our excellent fire department and nearly the entire city responded. Dense clouds of black smoke were issuing from the basement and rear end of which is used by C.R. Kirk, the druggist, as a storage room for oils, etc. The great difficulty was to locate the fire, and then to reach it. It appeared to be burning near the middle of the basement 30 or 40 feet from either end. Heavy cellar doors had to be chopped and sledged in, as no human power cold reach their inside fastenings. This occasioned delay.

In the mean time the first story, occupied by A.N. Wright's jewelry store and C.R. Kirk's drug store, was filled with blinding smoke. Soon after the water had commenced playing blindly on the burning basement, the engine house cistern was exhausted, necessitating a moving of the engine. Another delay! And moments were precious. By the time the new water supply was ready, flames had burst through the first floor and were licking up the counters, shelving and other inflammable material, still almost hidden by the dense smoke.

It was the worst fire to handle our boys have ever had. Indeed it was as bad as we have ever seen anywhere. The smoke in the interior of the burning building was such that all the heroism of all the firemen in America could not have kept a man alive more than a minute or two in the stifling gases. To locate the fire was difficult in the first place and to reach it still more difficult. But the boys, although showing a lack of discipline last night more plainly that ever before, were equal to the emergency. Inch by inch they fought their way and conquered, after a heroic struggle of an hour.

This morning, the smoke has clelared away and reveals the following:

The building owned by the Odd Fellows of this city damaged perhaps $1,000, insured in the Merchants and Bankers of Des Moines.

A.N. Wright, jewelry and silverware, stock of $7,000 or $8,000, on which it is impossible to determine the loss at present. Mr. Wright is insured for $4,000 in the Fire Assurance Co. of London, and that amount will probably will cover his losses.

C.R. Kirk, the druggist, probably carried $3,000 of stock, which is nearly all destroyed. He had $1,000 of insurance in the Northwestern National.

But the magnificent building is saved, thanks to the best volunteer fire department in Iowa. The engine paid for itself ten-fold last night. The origin of the fire is a mystery. Nothing was removed until the fire was subdued, from the simple fact that no man could get in to get anything.


The firefighters who did battle with the blaze were doing so under circumstances almost unimaginable today. The fire department at that time consisted of the Engine Company, responsible for Old Betsy, the 1883 Silsby Steamer that still is the pride and joy of the department, and her related hoses and other equipment. The Hook and Ladder Company transported the ladders, the hooks then considered essential firefighting equipment, and firefighters, too. The necessary horse power was housed at the livery stable on the current site of Chariton Ford on South Main Street.

The supply of water was woefully inadequate, consisting of a 200-barrel cistern at the Engine House, located on the site of Chariton's current City Hall and Fire Station, and two 1,000-gallon cisterns on the square. The cisterns were filled by tank wagons, which hauled water from the electric light plant pond, which then filled what now is Yocom Park, or the Chariton River. 

There also were cisterns at Chariton's four school buildings --- two at Columbus and one each at Franklin, Garfield and Bancroft. The Garfield cistern was not sealed, however, and water generally drained out a few days after it was filled. In case of dire emergency, water could be pumped directly two blocks to the square from the electric light pond or if fire broke out in south Chariton, from the Bartholomew Pond. Elsewhere in town, home cisterns were the principal source of water.

About the only apt comparison between firefighting in 1887 and 2017 is the fact that Chariton still is fortunate enough to have one of the best volunteer fire departments in the state.

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