Home Critical engine Back in the day: the fire of 1879 destroyed 1/8 of the square

Back in the day: the fire of 1879 destroyed 1/8 of the square

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I have shared information in this column about several fires before, but one of the largest in Monroe occurred on Thursday evening May 22, 1879 when the wooden buildings that occupied one-eighth of the public square were destroyed. It was estimated to be a loss of $40,000 and was only partially insured. Photos of buildings similar to those that were destroyed can be seen at the top of page 36 and bottom of page 40 in Monroe’s Illustrated History.

At around eleven o’clock that night, the large three-story brick block, which belonged to John H. Bridge, was discovered on fire. It had been occupied by Bloom & Adams, hardware and tools, Edward Ruegger, grocery store, and Mr. Fuelemann, jeweler. Shortly after the alert was raised, hundreds of villagers rushed to the scene. “The fire-fighting apparatus was immediately on the ground and quickly got to work; but the bursting of the pipe at a critical moment forced an abandonment at this point, where, at one point, it was thought the fire could be extinguished. The flames spread quickly and the large block of bricks was doomed.

The goods come out of the first floor of the building and pile up pell-mell in the street, as is often done during fires. The hook and ladder and engine companies did what they could to prevent the fire from spreading. “A southerly wind was blowing briskly and the flames were carried into adjacent buildings to the north, and thwarted all attempts to halt its ravages. Thomm & Miller’s meat market was licked in a short time, as were Rusch’s tobacco shop, then DS Young & Co’s grocery store, and Adam Vogt’s saloon, and the boot store and Adam Schmidt’s shoemakers took their regular turns to try and satisfy the Fire King, who at one point threatened to take the entire east side. Through tireless efforts on the part of a few men, the Mack & McCracken warehouse at the rear of the Bridge block was saved, and by this the destruction of many other wooden structures, including the stores of Scannel, the South Transport Workshops, and many others were spared the flames.

“The Sentinel office and Foster’s furniture store, along with the row of wooden fire traps to the east, were only spared by the winds, which blew steadily from the southeast.”

They kept a steady stream of water on the blaze until the fire was extinguished on the walls of JB Treat’s store. Men and women then took hold with will and worked well and efficiently to save the goods which had piled up in the streets. “But hundreds of men stood with their hands in their pockets, looking like a bunch of lunatics, without raising their hands to help put out the fire or save property.

“To add to the confusion on one or two points, very indiscreet people were peddling free whiskey, which absolutely prevented some firefighters from occupying important positions, and doing what they could to turn good workers into mobs. Fortunately, this dangerous business was shut down fairly quickly.

The next morning, in broad daylight, men were in the field cleaning up the remains of goods and equipment and housing them. The work of tearing down the dangerous walls continued throughout the day.

The editor added: ‘A good steam fire engine with plenty of good pipes would have saved enough goods on this occasion to pay for itself. It’s a tough thing to get the average man to work on the brakes, and it was killing business trying to pump water up the hill through 600 feet of pipe hour after hour.

A man was seen carrying a double handful of pewter rattles from Young & Co’s down the street to the foundry and carefully setting them down. A burly man carried a box full of lamp chimneys across the street and then dropped them “so violently that they broke everything to break”. The ladies distinguished themselves by doing “more efficient and more preserving work” than many able-bodied men who were too selfish to work. The teachers at the school were particularly brave.

There were lucky people whose injuries could have been much worse. John Sissons was grabbed from the ground where he had fallen just in time to miss a falling wood. Hilmar Stephany had his cork hat crushed on his head by falling wood and nearly lost his mind. CE Adams nearly lost his right hand by having it wedged between beams, one of which had fallen at an angle on the other. A quick jerk saved him, “but the longest finger had its end gripped most mercilessly.”

JD Bebee and his son, Charles, were in the back section of their shoe store when the walls of the Bridge block fell to the north. Some of the bricks fell within two feet of them. Mr. Bebee had just moved from Jackson Street to Rusch’s building when the fire caught up with him.

Sheriff Morse passed by Monticello when the fire was at its height and could see the reflection distinctly; his way back was well lit. Buildings five blocks west of the blaze were set on fire by the flying debris and “required vigilance and great effort to keep them safe”.

“The biggest crowd that has gathered in Monroe in a long time came on Saturday. Many came to trade, some to see the neighborhood burned, and a few to get drunk.

People suffered serious casualties in this fire, which was by far the largest ever seen in Green County at the time. Business interruption was also a big drawback for these enterprising companies. On the bright side, the editor said: “The appearance of the city will be improved in some respects, as no wooden buildings will again be allowed on the site of those who burned down. Mechanics and other laborers will be put to work, and with the help of insurance companies, the burden of loss will be made bearable.

— Matt Figi is a Monroe resident and local historian. His column will appear periodically on Saturdays in The Times. He can be reached at [email protected] or 608-325-6503.