Another installment about History of Evanston Fire Department

In addition to the fire at the Lincoln Avenue schoolhouse in 1894, the spectacular blaze aboard the steamer Morley on Lake Michigan in 1897, and the conflagration on the Harvey Hurd estate in 1899, the Evanston Fire Department battled a number of other significant fires in the years 1894-99: 

On Sunday morning February 25, 1894, at 9:20 AM, choir member Walter Clark discovers and reports a fire at the First Presbyterian Church at 1427 Chicago Ave. The blaze was apparently caused by a defective furnace which had been fired by the church janitor at 4:30 AM. As was the case when the church was destroyed by fire on May 2, 1875, this blaze also extends to the roof. Firefighter Ed Densmore is struck by falling bricks while battling the flames, but does not sustain serious injury. Chief Sam Harrison is trapped briefly in the basement when he gets lost in the thick smoke, but is able to escape before being overcome. Firemen keep the blaze from communicating to houses south of the church, although one does sustain some exterior heat damage. The church is destroyed. The $30,700 loss is the third worst by fire in Evanston’s history up until that point in time.   

At 3 AM on Tuesday, April 14,1896, the Evanston Fire Department responds to a report of a fire in the basement of the Bartlett Building at the northwest corner of Davis & Chicago. Crews encounter heavy smoke and burning natural gas upon arrival. Flames extend up through the basement ceiling, and the entire structure is soon enveloped in fire. Firefighters are able to save the Oliver Building to the west and a frame residence to the north, but a millinery shop, a plumbing shop, a barber shop, a jewelry store, and a dress shop, as well as the Bartlett Building itself are heavily damaged. Aggregate loss is $13,500. Capt Jack Sweeting (commander of Engine Co. 1) injures his foot after a fall from a ladder, and rookie Firefighter William Wheldon Ely suffers a disabling eye injury. Just five months earlier, Ely had gained local fame by racking up a perfect score on the first-ever Civil Service test. There is no benevolent association or pension system in place in 1896, so Ely’s injury means his employment as an Evanston firefighter is immediately terminated.  

On Tuesday, October 26, 1897, at 6:20 PM, 5th Ward Alderman and gasworks foreman Thomas Ryan rescues a two-month old infant from a burning house at 1720 Emerson Street. Unfortunately, Kate McDermott McDonnell, the mother, perishes in the blaze, the fourth person to die in a fire in Evanston since the advent of organized firefighting in 1873. Then on New Year’s Eve 1899, Ryan dies after being overcome by gas fumes at the gasworks. Alderman Ryan was leading a city council investigation into the Evanston Fire Department — and Sam Harrison in particular — at the time of his death, but foul play was not suspected. 

It’s 10:30 AM on Thursday, February 3, 1898, and fire breaks out at 806 Ridge Ave in the St. Nicholas school at the St. Nicholas Catholic Church parish house. Four teachers and 140 children are safely evacuated, but Sister Martha is overcome by smoke before being rescued by firefighters. Poor-quality fire hydrants in South Evanston that were inherited by Evanston after annexation impair the initial fire attack. Fireman George Hargreaves is knocked unconscious and suffers severe cuts to the leg from broken glass when he falls backward through a window. Hargreaves is out of action for more than six weeks as a result of head and leg injuries sustained while battling this fire. The parish house is gutted. $10,475 damage.             

Now it’s Friday, January 6, 1899, 1 PM, and the Evanston Fire Department responds to a fire at the Oliver Building at 609 Davis Street, located next-door to the west of where the Bartlett Building was destroyed by fire just two years earlier. Fire starts in the basement and communicates upward to a hardware store located on the 1st floor. Two large stoves and a furnace collapse from the 1st floor into the basement as supports weakened by the flames give way. EFD operates five leads of hose, including two lines from the Ahrens steamer and three from hydrants by use of direct pressure. Although it is very cold, a large crowd of spectators watches firefighting efforts, mostly from inside stores across the street. The hardware store is heavily damaged before the fire is contained. Flames rekindle later in the evening after firefighters have left the scene, and this time the entire building is destroyed, including the hardware store, a real estate office, an architect’s office, and McConnell Hall. Total loss is $13,000.

Thursday, February 9, 1899, 10 PM, and the Evanston Fire Department responds to a fire at the opulent residence of Zalmon G. Sholes at 1402 Chicago Ave. Sholes is the heir to the Remington Typewriter fortune, and he, his wife, his son, his daughter, and two family servants, are rescued by firemen. Fire appears to be under control and firefighters are beginning to overhaul, when a natural gas explosion knocks five firemen off the front porch. Other firefighters escape injury or death when they narrowly miss being struck by two falling chimneys while they are attacking the blaze from the exterior. Firefighters play four streams of water onto the flames and believe they have extinguished the fire ten separate times, only to have the blaze regain strength each time. Meanwhile, a crew from the Northwestern Gas Light & Coke Company works for 2-1/2 hours to dig-out the gas shut-off valve and stop the gas-flow feeding the flames. $7,000 loss. 

To read all the installments of this history, click HERE

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