Posts Tagged history of the Evanston Fire Department

Evanston Fire Department history

From Phil Stenholm:

120 years ago today…

“Lincoln Avenue” is what Main Street was called at the time Evanston annexed South Evanston in 1892. By 1894, the street name still hadn’t been changed. The Lincoln Avenue schoolhouse was the only school in South Evanston at the time. It was located at the southeast corner of Lincoln & Benson (Main & Elmwood), the future site of Central School, and consisted of the original school building (a three-story brick structure–two floors plus attic, with a full basement), and an attached annex (wood-frame & brick) that was built in 1890. This incident occurred on the first day of Spring (Wednesday, March 21, 1894) at 10:20 AM.

“SOBS AND MOANS FILLED THE AIR AS THE FLOOR WHERE THE CHILD WAS LAST SEEN BROKE AND CRASHED DOWNWARD. BUT THEY WERE SUDDENLY CHANGED TO SHOUTS OF JOY AS BRAVE SAM HARRISON AND GEORGE HARGREAVES CAME INTO VIEW BEARING THE LIMP FORM OF THE CHILD FOR WHOM THEY HAD RISKED THEIR LIVES. THEIR FACES WERE BLACKENED AND THE BLOOD WAS RUNNING FROM A PAINFUL WOUND IN HARRISON’S HAND.

THEY FOUND THE CHILD IN ONE OF THE AISLES, LYING FACE DOWNWARD. THE SMOKE WAS SO THICK THAT IT WAS WITH DIFFICULTY THAT THEY RETAINED STRENGTH TO REACH THE DOORWAY LEADING TO THE STAIRS. ONCE HARRISON FELL, BUT FORTUNATELY RETAINED HIS SENSES. IT WAS THEN THAT HE INJURED HIS HAND.

JUST AS THEY REACHED THE HALL OF THE REAR ANNEX, THE FLOOR AREA OVER WHICH THEY HAD GROPED WENT DOWN. HAD THEY BEEN A MOMENT LATER, BOTH RESCUERS AND JENNIE JOHNSON MUST HAVE PERISHED.”

– Chicago Herald, March 22, 1894. ____________________________________________________________________

Fire destroyed the school, but all of the children were rescued, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Evanston fire fighters (Sam Harrison and George Hargreaves in particular) and an expressman named Sam Mack. Mack was passing by the school en route to the Lincoln Avenue C&NW RR depot when he noticed smoke pouring from the school’s windows, and children crawling out onto a second floor ledge. Mack calmly directed the children to jump into his arms to escape the flames, repeating the drill until the arrival of the Evanston Fire Department. Chicago F. D. Engine Co. 70 assisted Evanston fire fighters in quelling the blaze. (The EFD would return the favor the following August, responding to a request from the citizens of Rogers Park to help fight a large fire involving several buildings at Clark & Greenleaf… The City of Chicago had recently annexed Rogers Park, but had not yet extended its water-mains to the neighborhood).

The Lincoln Avenue schoolhouse fire would stand for more than ten years as the single worst fire in Evanston’s history, until the Mark Manufacturing Company fire of December 1905. In the aftermath of the Lincoln Avenue schoolhouse fire, the EFD was given virtual carte blanche to improve its operations. Chief Harrison successfully lobbied for acquisition of a “fire alarm telegraph” (with placement of fire alarm boxes on street corners) to provide citizens with the means to report a fire quickly. (In the case of the Lincoln Avenue schoolhouse fire, a citizen ran three blocks to report the fire in person at Fire Station # 2).

At a cost of $4,000, a “Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph” (initially with 20 fire alarm boxes) was installed in Evanston over a period of three months between November 1894 and February 1895. By 1905, 37 boxes were in service, and by 1935 there were 51 boxes in service. The fire alarm boxes and telegraph system were replaced by a network of 80 police/fire “emergency telephones” (manufactured by Western Electric) in 1958.

LOCATIONS OF THE 20 FIRE ALARM BOXES PLACED IN SERVICE FEBRUARY 15, 1895:

12 Church & Benson
14 Chicago & University
15 Maple & Foster
16 Foster & West Railroad (later known as “Green Bay Road”)
18 Ridge & Noyes
21 Emerson & Ashland
23 Dewey & Noyes (intersection obliterated by canal construction in 1908)
25 Dewey (later known as “Eastwood”) & Central
27 Livingston & Grosse Point Avenue (later known as “Prairie Avenue”)
28 Harrison & McDaniel
31 Maple & Lake
32 Wesley & Grove
34 Asbury & Crain
35 Washington & Asbury
37 Oakton & Custer
41 Hinman & Davis
42 Chicago & Dempster
46 Forest & Lee
47 Judson & Keeney
48 Forest & Greenwood

In addition to providing to the public the means to report a fire, the fire alarm telegraph also had another function. Members of the Fire Department (normally a company officer or the chief’s “buggy driver”) could communicate updates and “progress reports” from the scene of an incident to the chief’s residence, the city’s fire stations, and/or the police switchboard. Messages could be sent (via telegraph) both ways, so that a fire fighter monitoring a particular alarm box could be advised of another alarm elsewhere in the city or other important information.

Shortly after the Fire Alarm Telegraph was placed in service, the Evanston City Council purchased an Ahrens 2nd-size 600 GPM steamer with a two-horse hitch from the American Fire Engine Company. The rig was christened “City of Evanston No. 1” and was placed into service at Station # 1 in April 1895, just two months after installation of the fire alarm telegraph was completed. A second steamer (a 700 GPM 2nd size “Metropolitan” steamer with a three-horse hitch built by American-LaFrance) was placed into service in 1906.

Former Waterworks engineer J. A “Dad” Patrick was hired as the Fire Department’s “Engineer” in 1895, and Edward Mersch was hired as the “Assistant Engineer” in 1896. (Mersch would later serve as Chief 1901-1905). A knowledgeable engineer was worth his weight in gold in the “steam era.” The position of “Engineer” was the second highest-paid member of the EFD (second only to the Chief) in the years prior to World War I. In fact, as late as 1904, the salary of Engine Co. 1’s assistant engineer was as much as the salary of its company officer!

“Civil Service” was mandated & established for City of Evanston employees in 1895. Only five members of the ten members of the EFD (Jack Sweeting, George Hargreaves, Carl Harms, Edwin Whitcomb, and J. A. Patrick) qualified under Civil Service. (The position of Chief was exempt from Civil Service). Just like being on active duty in the military, all firemen were on duty at all times, although each man was permitted to take meal breaks away from the firehouse each day, and an occasional furlough at home.

A Fire & Police headquarters was constructed at the northwest corner of Grove & Sherman in 1897. Fire Station # 1 (at 807 Grove Street) featured four large bays for apparatus, with an adjacent fifth bay used as a garage for the police ambulance. The facility was abandoned in the summer of 1949, and the structure was razed. The land was used for more than 25 years as a parking lot for the Valencia Theatre, before one of one of Evanston’s first high-rise office buildings (originally known as “One American Plaza”) was built on the lot in the 1970’s (with construction of the 18-story structure beginning in December 1975, before being completed in 1977).

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Evanston FIre Department History (more)

More from Phil Stenholm:

December 13, 1905, was the first day on the job for new Evanston fireman George McKimmons. And at the weekly City Council meeting the previous evening, Mayor John Barker had appointed Carl Harrison (company officer of Hose Co. 3) the new Chief Fire Marshal of the Evanston Fire Department, replacing Norman Holmes. Harrison accepted Mayor Barker’s appointment, but, because he did not wish to begin his tenure as Fire Marshal on the “unlucky 13th,” he requested that he not assume his new post until Thursday, December 14th. Thus, Assistant Chief Jack Sweeting would be the acting Chief Fire Marshal for one more day. Little did anyone know that it was to be the darkest day in the history of the Evanston Fire Department.

Located at 1900 Dempster Street, the Mark Manufacturing Company was Evanston’s largest employer in 1905, with a work-force of 1,000. Established in 1901 by Cyrus Mark and his sons, Clayton and Anson, the company (a subsidiary of the Youngstown Steel & Tube Company) manufactured wrought-iron pipe. The company’s plant actually consisted of several different buildings, including the pipe mill, the engine house, a warehouse, and several smaller buildings and sheds.

At 12:50 PM on Wednesday, December 13, 1905, the Evanston Fire Department was notified of a fire at the Mark Manufacturing Company plant. Crude oil leaking from a pipe in the mill’s socket room had ignited, and the 200 employees in the building were safely evacuated. Mark employees battled the blaze with the company’s own fire fighting equipment while the EFD was en route.

Upon arrival at about 1 PM, firemen from Station # 1 (Engine Co. 1 and Truck Co. 1) encountered heavy fire inside the pipe mill. Because the plant was located on the outskirts of town, water-pressure was low, and direct-pressure from hydrants was not effective. The fire was much too large for the chemical-engine to be useful, and the Fire Department’s lone steam fire engine–the 600 GPM ”City of Evanston No. 1”–could supply only two 2-1/2” hose-lines. With few options left, Assistant Chief Sweeting ordered Truck Co. 1 to make entry and attack the fire through the front door on the north side of the building, and Engine Co. 1 to play a second stream through a door at the southeast corner of the building (from a position in the alley between the plant’s pipe mill and engine house). Although firemen on the north side of the pipe mill (Truck Co. 1, led by Lt. Thomas Norman) were driven-back while attempting to make entry (Fireman Thomas Watson was overcome by smoke and gas and had to be rescued by other fire fighters), the crew at the southeast corner of the building (Engine Co. 1, led by acting assistant company officer George Stiles) was able to direct its stream through an open doorway onto the seat of the fire.

At about 1:15 PM, Stiles told one of his men–rookie fire fighter George McKimmons–that the hose-lead was too short, and that he should go out front and pull up the slack. With McKimmons 30 feet away at the north end of the alley, and with Engine Co. 1 pipemen Stiles, Edward Johnson, and William Craig playing their stream through the southeast door of the pipe mill from a location inside of a storage shed adjacent to the alley, an explosion from the interior of the pipe mill caused the south wall to totter. Seeing that the wall was unstable, Stiles yelled for the crew to evacuate.

As Stiles, Craig, and Johnson came around the corner of the alley, a second more-powerful explosion occurred, and the east wall collapsed onto them. Craig, in front of the other two, was buried under the collapsed wall. Johnson, in the middle, was struck by falling debris, but was not buried. Stiles, at the rear of the column, was buried under burning debris.

George McKimmons called to the other firemen working in front, and Assistant Chief Sweeting and Truck Co. 1 (Lt. Norman and fire fighters Jack Eckberg, Walter Hubert, William Ludwig, and Joseph Steigelman), along with Engine Co. 1 teamster George Gushwa, hurried to the rubble with the other hose-line. As their fellow firemen poured water onto them to protect them from the intense heat, Eckberg and McKimmons were able to extricate Craig within five minutes. He was pulled out–alive, but disoriented–and reportedly asked McKimmons, “Where are we going?”

Evanston Police officers W. J. Schultz and John Keane transported Craig to St. Francis Hospital in the police ambulance. While en route, Craig was asked if he was hurt, to which he supposedly replied, “Not much.” However, Craig died shortly after arrival at the hospital.

After rescuing Craig, firemen spent another few minutes extricating Stiles. He was located lying face-down with two large pulley-wheels around his neck, unconscious from a severe head injury. Stiles was transported by other fire fighters (aboard Engine Co. 1’s hose wagon) to St. Francis Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

William Craig, a native of Knoxville, Illinois, was 35 years of age, and had just returned to the Evanston Fire Department the previous summer after spending four years as a dining car conductor on the Illinois Central Railroad. He had originally joined the EFD on January 31, 1901, but left after less than a year. Craig was survived by his wife, child, mother, father, and sister.

George Stiles was 32 years old, and had served nearly five years with the EFD. Like William Craig, Stiles also joined the Fire Department on January 31, 1901. He was to have been promoted to Lieutenant in January 1906. He was survived by his wife of 11 years (Caroline), a nine-year old daughter (Stella), a seven-year old son (Howard), his mother, and a sister.

In addition to the deaths of William Craig and George Stiles, three other Evanston firemen were seriously injured: Thomas Watson suffered burns, bruises, and smoke and gas inhalation, and was reported “critical and near death” upon arrival at St. Francis Hospital; Edward Johnson sustained lacerations to the back of his head and severe bruises to his hands and knees when struck by the wall; and Jack Eckberg suffered burns and bruises while working to extricate Craig and Stiles. Another fireman (Joseph Steigelman) was spared serious injury when he was struck on the helmet by a falling brick. With two firemen dead and three others injured, fire fighting efforts were furthered hampered by freezing temperatures, high winds, and a damaged valve on the steam fire engine. The Chicago Fire Department was summoned, and eventually extinguished what was left of the blaze amidst the rubble and ruins. Superstitious Carl Harrison (The Man Who Would be Fire Marshal) arrived sometime after the wall collapsed, maintaining he was only there as a “spectator.”

The Mark Manufacturing Company sustained $115,000 damage; the pipe mill was destroyed, the engine house was severely damaged, much machinery and stock were lost, and several freight cars located on a railroad siding on the west-side of the plant were heavily-damaged or destroyed. The $115,000 loss was the highest amount recorded in an Evanston fire until Boltwood Intermediate School was destroyed by fire ($308,500 loss) on January 9, 1927. And no more Evanston fire fighters would be killed in action for almost 80 years–until the afternoon of July 22, 1985, when Marty Leoni died after he was trapped on the second floor of a residence following an apparent backdraft explosion at a house fire at 1927 Jackson Ave.

George McKimmons, the rookie fireman whose first day on the job was December 13, 1905, would serve two tours of duty with the Evanston Fire Department, eventually leaving the EFD for good in 1915 to join the Chicago Fire Department. After being promoted to the rank of “Captain,” McKimmons organized CFD Truck Co. 44 at Engine Co. 55’s house at Sheffield & Diversey in 1928. His brother Dan was an Evanston fireman for 31 years, retiring as a Lieutenant in 1943.

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