DECATUR FIRE, 1909
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$800,000 FIRE - WHOLE BLOCK IS BURNED
Originally published in the Sunday Review, Decatur, IL, 22 Aug 1909
Fire Started in Morehouse & Wells Store, Eats Gradually to West, East and North Until Most of Block is Cleared
Springfield Firemen Here - Morehouse and Wells Will Rebuild
Fire starting in the Morehouse & Wells store about 1 o'clock Sunday morning did $800,000 damage, perhaps more. A dozen business houses in that neighborhood were damaged and most of them were wiped out. At this hour, 4:40 a.m., the fire was not under control and was spreading slowly to the north on Merchant street, and to the east on East Main and north on Water street. Business men as far north as Prairie street were moving out. There was a certainty that all of the block would be destroyed. (Sentence has been reconstructed.)
EFFORTS OF FIREMEN
The firemen were working hard, but apparently with small effect so far as putting it out was concerned. The Morehouse & Wells fire was beyond reach when they got there, and from there the fire spread gradually to the east, west, and north, in spite of their best efforts.
They did good work in retarding the spread of the fire and enabled many to save their goods. On the east they held the fire in check for hours at the Cole shoe store. Relief was asked of Springfield and Bloomington and at 3:30 it was stated that Springfield was loading a special train to send and engine and crew to Decatur. Electric wires were given as the origin of the fire.
At 4 a.m. one of the leading insurance men of the city estimated the total loss at $800,000. The insurance might be estimated around 60 per cent of that, or $500,000.
At 5:10 the fire was under control everywhere except in the Curtis store.
The business houses and buildlings damaged were as follows:Morehouse & Wells building - A mass of ruins, walls barely standing.
Rodgers & Clark - Total loss and mass of ruins.
Cole shoe store - Gutted and in ruins.
Shade's shoe store - Same as the other two shoe stores.
Curtis jewelry store - Not damaged except by water.
Armstrong drug store - Not damaged except by water.
Hupp cigar store - Ruined by both fire and water.
Augustine's jewelry store - Walls down and gutted.
Race Manufacturing Co., and Elwood and Handlin store - Gutted and wall falling in. Hutchin shoe store - Damaged by fire, smoke and water. Chodats book store - Upper story damaged some by water. From there to Prairie, along Prairie to bank, and from bank south to meat market of Decatur Packing & Provision company was not reached by fire.
Post jewelry store - Damaged by water.
Harris hat store - By water only.
Decatur Packing & Provision Co. - Damaged by water but not fire.
Theatorium - Gutted.
Empty building and White House pool room - Gutted.
Union Pacific Tea company - Ruined by fire and water.
Danzeisen meat market - Entirely burned out.
Dicks place - Gutted.
City Book store - Total loss.
Peerless soft drink parlor - Gutted.
Sam and Spott's place - Gutted and in ruins.
Bachrach building and store - Total loss. Looks as bad as the Morehouse & Wells ruins.
The fire was discovered about 1 o'clock. At that time it was shooting skyward from the superstructure of the big freight elevator at the rear of the splendid Morehouse & Wells building. It was at once apparent that the fire department or half a dozen such fire departments could not save that building. The streams from a dozen leads of hose were unable to check it at any point.
Within a short time the building was blazing from cellar to roof and afforded the fiercest fire spectacle the citizens of Decatur had ever seen. The total collapse of the building came within an hour. The Rodgers & Clark shoe store was crushed by the falling walls and the Cole store was also partly wrecked. The third floor of the Cheap Charley store across the alley was crushed at the rear.
DOZEN FIRES AT ONCE
The collapse of the Morehouse & Wells building was a relief, as it gave the firemen some chance at the surrounding buildings. The difficulty with which the firemen contended was that there were a dozen fires to fight at once. The fire ate into the heart of the half of the block east of the alley, and on the west side the buildings were fired at the top. The Cheap Charley building will be saved unless it is fired again from buildings adjoining on the north. The fierceness of the fire was apparent in the spirit of the crowd. There was no crowding of that fire even in its earliest stages. They watched it fearfully from a distance. At the transfer house was one crowd, at East Main and Water streets another, at the alley on East Prairie was another. They banked about the front steps of the St. Nicholas hotel. Along Water street in the one hundred block were hundreds of people who could see the blaze over the tops of the lower buildings.
When the front half of the building collapsed at ten minutes after 2 the crowd in Lincoln square rushed panic stricken down South Main street. It was really a fearsome spectacle. It crashed down story by story, the front finally swinging out and falling out and across East Main street almost to the door of the Greider restaurant.
It was thought at 3:40 o'clock that the corner of Water and Main street and the front of the buildings along Water street would be saved. The backs of the latter buildings as far north as the Chodat book store were burning. At 4 o'clock the fire in the Cheap Charley building was out - there was nothing left to burn.
The heat from the building was worse than a terrible furnace. The draft was so fierce as to blow missies out of the window. The window panes were breaking out and falling into the street, making it dangerous for all who were near. It was almost impossible to pass the place on the street. At 1:45 the third floor was falling in and the second was commencing to fall. A few minutes later it was all caved in.
Mr. Hurst asked the fireman to give their attention to saving other buildings as it was utterly impossible to save anything in the hardware store. The building being of what is known as mill construction. Mr. Hurst said he believed it would help to save the other buildings. The walls were built so as to fall to the center instead of outward. In this, Mr. Hurst said, they would form a chimney and confine the blaze and heat instead of allowing it to spread.
FORCED FROM ROOF
At 2:05 the firemen were forced to leave the roof of the Rodgers & Clark store on account of the heat. Mr. Clark of the shoe store came out into the street and asked for two men to rescue a can of gasoline which was in the rear of the shoe store.
The heavy stock was on the fourth floor. When these last floors fell to the first floor, the flames leaped into the air worse than ever. The firemen had eleven leads of hose on the building. There were five on one side, four on another and two on another. Five times the hose burst and caused a great deal of trouble for the firemen. The crowds in several cases were drenched when they burst.
WHOLE BUILDING AFIRE
Just when, at 2:35 o'clock the fire was supposed to be under control, the first floor windows broke out and the entire building was wrapped in flames.
IN BUILDINGS ADJOINING
At 1:40 the Rodgers & Clark shoe store next door east of Morehouse & Wells caught fire and it was thought Cheap Charley's clothing store would start next. People came down out of their lodging rooms carrying clothing and bed clothes.
Chief Devore came out of the alley by the Morehouse & Wells place and said there was absolutely nothing to be saved. He then turned the attention of the firemen to saving other buildings.
Following are the buildings east from Morehouse & Wells around to Water street and the owners:TO EAST:
Rodgers & Clark - Mrs. Frank M. Wood
Cole's Shoe store - R.R. Myers of Peoria
Shade & Lokey shoe store - W.F. Busher estate
Curtis jewelry store - Frank Curtis and Millikin estate
Armstrong drug store - R.R. Montgomery
Young's clothing store - Joseph Michel
Noah's Ark - J.R. Race
Cheap Charley clothing store - Henry Bachrach
Spott's Cigar store and Sam's confectionary - John Ullrich
Peerless soft drink parlor - Leisy company of Peoria
Danzeisens meat market - Danzeisen company
City Book store - Leisy Company of Peoria
OUT OF ROOF
At 1:50, the flames started shooting out of the top of the Morehouse & Wells building. Before this it had just been coming out of the windows. It is not thought the Rodgers & Clark store can burn, however, as there is a big 24-inch wall between the two buildings. The heat only caused the woodwork in the window to catch fire.
There was a constant fusillade of explosions. There was a small stock of cartridges in the southeast corner of the first floor for retail trade, but there was not enough to cause such a fusillade.
The south and east walls of the Rodgers & Clark and the Cole shoe stores were all caved in by the falling walls. No one was hurt when the front wall of the Morehouse & Wells building fell in. The street is a literal mass of debris.
At 2:20, the roof of the Cheap Charley building had caved in and it commenced to look as if the whole Merchant street block was doomed. The wind caught the small blazes, which were thought at first to be under control. The hardware building was then a mere shell.
The walls in the rear of the Rodgers & Clark store caved in to the area way in the rear leaving a smoking mass of ruins. There was not a mere crag of the west wall of Morehouse & Wells standing, the rear wall having fallen in.
ON MERCHANT STREET
At 2:30 the flames were as far around on Merchant street as the city book store conducted by Parr & Parr. The firemen were carrying the hose around to this building where the blaze was shooting out the windows. At 2:40 everything in the rear of the Morehouse & Wells store and east to Water street, and the back of all the buildings on Water street from the King corner to the Chodat book store, was on fire. The buildings and their owners are as follows:Armstrong drug store - R.R. Montgomery
Hupp cigar store, Young clothing store, Noah's Ark and Elwood & Handlin clothing store: J.R. Race
Ten-Cent store, Walter Hutchin shoe store - James Carter
L. Chodat & Sons' book store - Ennis estate.
On Merchant street at the same hour Cheap Charley store was in flames and all the stores north to the City book store were on fire.
At 2:45 o'clock, flames had doomed nearly every building on Merchant street. Men were running through the crowds shouting, "Borchers, Borchers, where's Borchers?" They wanted to call an indignation meeting because Chief Devore had refused to send for the Bloomington fire department, and they thought that Borchers would make the call.
A heavy wind had sprung up shortly after 2:30 and the firemen despaired of stopping the flames at all. It looked as if the entire block might go.
A woman figured in one of the most heroic acts of the night. Miss Jennie Durfee, aided by one man, went into the Curtis jewelry store and carried out the diamonds, watches and other valuable stock. For fear of thieves, all the doors were kept locked.
WORKED IN DARKNESS
Not a light was used and the two worked away in the dark with the flames creeping up on them. At any moment they might have been enveloped in smoke and fire, but they worked on bravely. They succeeded in carrying all the valuable stock into a vault in the rear of the building.
At 2:45 the roof of the Post jewelry store was afire and efforts were being made to keep the flames from the Citizen's bank building next door. It was generally predicted by the firemen that the entire block from Merchant to Water and from Main to Prairie would be ruined before 7 o'clock this morning.
THESE WERE AFIRE
These buildings on Merchant street were afire:
Cheap Charley's Store
The Peerless saloon building which is owned by the Leisy Brewing company.
The City Book store building
Dick's pool room, owned by Louis Steinbach.
The John Spotts cigar store
Danzeisen's meat market
The Union Pacific Ten company room.
AT 3 A.M.
At 3 o'clock the Morehouse & Wells building was gone, the Rodgers & Clark store was gone, the Cole shoe store was gone. The firemen were paying but little attention to the blazing ruins of the Morehouse & Wells building and were endeavoring to save as much of the rest of the block as possible.
The top story of the Cheap Charley building at the rear was partly crushed by the falling walls of the Morehouse & Wells building, but there was a prospect that the building would be saved. Several of the other buildings on the west side of the alley were one fire.
At 3:15 a dray was backed up to the Citizen's National bank and valuables and many other things were being removed to places of safety. Three other drays were busy moving household goods from the buildings. The Curtis jewelry company were carting their stock into the Linn & Scruggs store.
Mrs. John Sharp, living over the Nichelodeon on Merchant street, ran down and pleaded with men to save her bed clothing. Although the building was on fire, they rescued the clothes.
At 3:30 this morning, from the north wall of the City book store south to East Main street everything was swept clean by fire, nothing being left standing except the walls and all the buildings were gutted. From the City book store north to the Decatur Packing and Provision company (Young & Suesens), all the roofs were on fire.
At this time H. Post & Sons had just started to move. George Harris had his entire stock moved out by 3:30, and the Curtis Jewelry company had been moving for some time. The Citizens National bank began moving out everything that could be moved.
At this time it looked as though every building on Merchant street would go, with the possible exception of the bank, and it seemed that all the Water street buildings were also doomed.
IN THE SQUARE
Lincoln square and the sidewalks around the area of the fire were littered with furniture, trunks, etc., moved from adjacent buildings. The owners were guarding their belongings and are prepared to move them further.
At 3 oclock, the Wabash started a special train from Springfield carrying a steamer and one crew of men to help at the Decatur fire. At 5 o'clock all the floors of the Michl building on Water street north of the drug store occupied by Young's clothing store, were burned through and the walls were down to the second story. This was also the condition in Noah's Ark store and the Elwood and Handlin store, all walls being down to the second story of each building and the floors all down. The roof of the Hutchin shoe store was on fire, but firemen were on top with hose and expected to save that building, and everything north of there.
The roof of the Barteau building was all on fire and the flames were gradually eating their way toward the bank. The firemen, however, thought they had the fire under control. Everything south of the Barteau building is lost. The water pressure was good throughout the fire.
ULLRICH WALLS FALL
The walls of the Ullrich building fell a little before 5 o'clock. The front wall bulged out in the middle and went down in a heap.
At 5:15 o'clock there were 12,000 people on the streets. The main crowd was on Lincoln square. The others were scattered through East Main, Prairie, Merchant and Water streets. The crowd was growing larger and larger.
There will have to be new asphalt laid on East Main street and Lincoln square. The heat was so intense that people sank into the pavement two inches. The firemen poured water on this pavement so that they could walk on it.
All the people in the Decatur hotel had their luggage packed and were ready to move on a moments notice. Some did move to other hotels.
Twenty-five young men moved the stock of the Chodat Book store. The Wallins dry goods store also moved, but the Five and Ten-Cent store people did not touch their stock.
Everything was seen on the streets, from a nightgown to a party dress. There were also some garbs that can only be described as dishabille. Some emulated the example of the distinguished statesman from Kansas by appearing without socks.
Central park early took on the appearance of some of those old wood cuts that picture the desolation following the Chicago fire. There was furniture, office fixtures, bed clothes, and odds and ends of all kinds piled promiscuously. Men hurried across the street from stores with armsful of this, that and the other thing and deposited them on the ground.
Some one made the remark that there were enough camera fiends on hand to eat the debris. Just about that time a man had obtained a vantage point one of the fiends would come along and plant a camera in front of him.
Moving vans were early on the scene and helped move much stuff from Water street stores.
STATEMENT BY THE MAYOR
Mayor Borchers was one of the most active fire fighters present. His face was badly bruised and swollen from the flame and falling walls but he remained on the job. Regarding the fire he said: "It looks to me very serious. I believe the whole block will go. I don't think they can stop it.
"My God! This is the most horrible thing in my experience," continued the mayor, who could hardly talk for crying. "I did not hear of it until late and when I did I urged Chief Devore to send for help. He said he thought he had it bottled up. I thought not, and after another look I 'phoned for Springfield. I think the Armstrong corner can be saved. It is horrible, horrible! I can't tell you how it shocks me. My throat is so dry I can't swallow."
SPRINGFIELD FIREMEN HERE
The Springfield fire department got in at 4:45 a.m. The Wabash furnished an engine and three flat cars to transport them here. The apparatus was unloaded at Water street at 5:05 a.m. The Springfield fire department arrived at the scene of the fire shortly after 5 o'clock and the steamer connected with the plug at the corner of North Main and Prairie avenue. Within fifteen minutes after arrival they were ready to throw a stream on the fire. The Springfield contingent is in charge of Assistant Chief Mike Tollen and he has seven men under him. The run from Springfield to Decatur was made in forty-five minutes, or at the rate of a mile a minute. The steamer was unloaded at the freight house.
HOPELESS STRUGGLE FOR FIREMEN
It was a fight against odds, but the firemen struggled manfully. Little more can be said of their work, for the fire early in the game exceeded all power of the firemen to control. Like tiny streams shot from a squirt gun were the streams of water that were being burned on the fire by the department, compared to the magnitude of the blaze.
At the Cheap Charley corner the fire at times was so fierce that much of the water turned to steam before it reached even the base of the fire. But little more could be done than to keep the fire from spreading. Even this seemed to be an impossibility and the steady walk of the fire north along Water and Merchant streets was beyond the power of the firemen to curb.
The steamers were working full pressure all the time, the little needle on the steam-guage hugging the 100-pound mark constantly. The pressure in the mains also was holding up fairly well. It was a hot fight for the firemen, and a dangerous one. Especially was this true along Merchant street after the fire had burned north along the block. Here, hemmed in by walls on both sides, they were in a canyon of terrific heat. Moreover, hemmed in as they were, their chances of escape in case a wall fell were slight.
WORK AT THE WATERWORKS
While the firemen were struggling with the flames in the city, five men on the night shift at the water-works were working like Trojans to keep up the supply of water. Every pump was put into use and plenty of water had been supplied up until 3 o'clock. Authorities at the water-works estimated that 500,000 gallons of water an hour were being thrown on the flames. The entire capacity of the water-works pumps it about 10,000 gallons daily.
Considering the extremely low stage of the river, there was some fear that the supply of water might become exhausted. "I think there is little danger of that happening," said Engineer Fred Litterer at 3 o'clock, "as the intake pipe is well below the surface of the river."
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