Another installment about History of Evanston Fire Department

By the Summer of 1903, Evanston’s population stood at 21,621, not including the turkeys Capt. Carl Harrison was raising in the basement of Fire Station #3. 

Meanwhile, two fires within four days of each other in March 1904 resulted in close calls for three Evanston firefighters. In the early morning hours of March 10  Capt Jack Sweeting was overcome by smoke while battling a blaze at the Blanchard flats at Grove & Oak, and wass rescued by Capt. Carl Harms and fireman William Pruter. Then a few minutes later, Harms suffered broken ribs when he fell through the floorboards and landed in the basement. Four days later, “blind pig” proprietor Mary Kelly and her daughter jumped out of a second floor window and into the arms of a passing citizen as fire swept through her residence (tavern) at 503 Chicago Ave. Rookie fireman William Ludwig was found unconscious inside the tavern, before being pulled to safety by other firefighters. All injured men recovered and returned to duty.  

Two months later, a late night fire swept through the B. B. Noyes coal & feed store at 1003 Church Street. The fire had to be attacked from the exterior using multiple hose lines — including three lines supplying water to the new Eastman Deluger — because of the fear that coal and grain dust might explode. While firefighters were able to eventually contain the blaze to the structure of origin, water pressure was increased in mains to more than two times normal residential pressure, causing damage to plumbing in some Evanston residences.

The city council received complaints from several prominent Evanston residents who criticized the fire department’s tactics (use of direct plug pressure), but Chief Mersch explained that unless and until additional steam fire engines were acquired and placed into service, the use of plug pressure and increasing pressure in water mains to fight fires must continue. 

Chicago Fire Department Captain Norman Holmes (company officer of CFD Truck Co. 20) replaced Ed Mersch as chief of the Evanston Fire Department in May 1905, after Mersch was fired by Mayor John Barker. Holmes served as chief of the EFD for only seven months, however, before taking a job in the private sector as Fire Marshal of Sears, Roebuck & Company. Chief Holmes’ tenure with the Evanston Fire Department was marked by controversy, and his leaving so soon after his appointment probably had as much to do with the hostile reception he received in Evanston as it had to do with an opportunity to work for Sears.

The problem Holmes had as chief had nothing to do with his competence. Rather, South Evanston residents saw former Chief Ed Mersch as one of their own, and felt that he had been fired for purely political reasons (which was probably true). Though it was Mayor Barker who had sacked Mersch, the residents of South Evanston directed their anger and resentment toward Holmes, making life very difficult for the new chief. Soon after his arrival, a group of South Evanstonians initiated legal action to have the appointment overturned, on the grounds that Holmes had not been an Evanston resident for one year before the appointment.

This issue was resolved when it was decided by a court that the one-year residency rule only applied to individuals running for political office, and not to political appointees. But even with the court ruling in his favor, Holmes had had enough of Evanston politics. Meanwhile, another member of the EFD left for greener pastures, as veteran fireman (and chief’s buggy-driver & secretary) Edwin Whitcomb was appointed chief of the Kewanee Fire Department in October 1905. 

One notable improvement implemented by Holmes before he resigned was the introduction of 1-1/2 inch hose lines and smaller nozzles, which were used extensively by the Chicago Fire Department when he was a company officer there. The smaller-diameter hand lines were easier to carry and would help reduce water damage to property when fighting smaller interior fires.

Holmes also lobbied for the establishment of the new civil service rank of Assistant Chief Fire Marshal, whose duties would include company officer of Engine Co. 1 as well as acting chief if the Fire Marshal was absent from the city or otherwise unavailable. Capt. Jack Sweeting was promoted to the new rank of assistant chief in July 1905.   

On December 13, 1905, two Evanston firemen were killed while battling a fire at the Mark Manufacturing Company plant at 1900 Dempster St. Then a little over a year later, on Sunday, December 23, 1906, a workman was killed in an explosion at the Northwestern Gas Light & Coke Company (“gasworks”) at Clark & Maple. The man (Isaac Terry) made the fatal mistake of dumping burning ashes into a tar and coal pit. The fire that followed the explosion required eight hours and nearly a million gallons of water to extinguish, as the EFD was assisted by the Wilmette Fire Department (responding aboard their brand-new horse-drawn Seagrave  “combination truck”) and two Chicago engine companies.