From Phil Stenholm:

105 years ago today…

The Village of Evanston annexed the Village of South Evanston (forming the greater City of Evanston) in 1892. The proponents of the annexation argued that if the two villages did not unite and form “a strong city of our own,” that separately they were both almost certain to be annexed by the City of Chicago. This domino theory was soon given further credence, as the Village of Rogers Park (South Evanston’s neighbor to the south) was annexed by Chicago in 1893.

After Chicago annexed Rogers Park, some of the residents of South Evanston (led by 3rd Ward Alderman Pat O’Neill) insisted that the brand-new unified City of Evanston should also allow itself to be annexed by its larger and more powerful neighbor to the south. The rationale was that a large city such as Chicago could provide significantly better city services (such as police and fire protection) than a smaller city like Evanston could. This was especially important to the wealthier residents of South Evanston, who felt that because they paid a larger share of property taxes, that they should receive better municipal services. Chicago did, in fact, attempt to annex Evanston in 1894, but Evanston voters declined the offer, and it appeared that the annexation issue was laid to rest. However, the issue was unexpectedly resurrected 15 years later.

On Thursday, March 11, 1909, at 12:30 PM, the Evanston Fire Department responded to an attic fire at the “Villa Celeste,” the palatial South Evanston home of P. Leonard (“Guy”) McKinnie, located at 721 Sheridan Road. Directing operations at the scene, Chief Fire Marshal Carl Harrison–as was his usual practice–initially ordered fire fighters to attack the fire in the attic with soda-acid from one of the chemical-engines. By using only chemicals (soda-acid), Chief Harrison hoped to minimize water-damage to the rest of the house. But because the fire was entombed within the walls and ceilings, firemen were unable to locate and extinguish the seat of the blaze.

Fire fighters soon found themselves utilizing water-flow from some 3,000 feet of hose-line (two 2-1/2” lines from Engine 1, one 2-1/2” line directly from a nearby hydrant, and a line from the chemical apparatus) in a vain effort to suppress the fire in the attic and 3rd floor. With the fire department using 2-1/2” hose-lines, water damage to property located on the lower floors became a problem. All firemen were busily engaged in fire suppression and ventilation efforts, so neighbors enlisted the aid of children from nearby Lincoln School to assist the McKinnies in removing their priceless art collection and valuable antique furniture from the lower floors.

As minutes turned into hours, it was becoming increasingly obvious to everyone present that fire fighters were making absolutely no headway. Frustrated, homeowner McKinnie demanded that Chief Harrison send for the steam fire engine (old “City of Evanston No. 1”) kept in reserve at Fire Station # 2 on Chicago Avenue. McKinnie even offered to dispatch a livery-team of his own to Station # 2 to bring the steamer to the scene. Harrison refused, explaining to McKinnie that lack of water was not the problem.

For six hours, the men of the EFD struggled mightily to contain the blaze. However, the flames encroached further into the ceilings and walls, and by nightfall the “Villa Celeste” was gutted. Six Evanston fire fighters suffered injuries while battling the blaze:

Chief Carl Harrison – finger severed when cut by glass shards
Assistant Chief Jack Sweeting – smoke inhalation
Fireman William Hofstetter – hand laceration
Fireman Ed Johnson – foot injury
Fireman John Wilbern – smoke inhalation
Fireman William Wilbern – smoke inhalation/bruised when struck by debris.

As a coup de grace, the stubborn blaze rekindled at about 11:30 PM (five hours after the EFD had left the scene). Fire fighters dutifully returned, and spent another hour pouring water into the ruins. The final damage estimate was $40,000. Chief Harrison would later say “… dozens of engines couldn’t have saved the house … the only way to extinguish the fire would have been to submerge the house into the lake …” (Which Harrison probably would have done if it had been an option!)

The fire was extinguished, but controversy simmered and boiled. Guy McKinnie and other wealthy South Evanston residents asserted that Evanston should (once again) invite itself to be annexed by Chicago. However, James Horan, chief of the Chicago Fire Department, threw cold water onto the idea. Chief Horan candidly explained that some outlying areas of Chicago had no fire protection, and that if annexed, Evanston would be mainly ignored until other more-pressing needs were addressed. Horan claimed that major fire protection improvements were needed at the Stock Yards, and that Chicago also needed a high-pressure waterworks in the downtown “high value” district.

Talk of annexation died as fire protection in South Evanston was upgraded in 1911. Three fire fighters were transferred to Fire Station # 2, and two new horses were acquired (bringing the total number of horses in service with the Evanston Fire Department at this point to 19 … the most it would ever have), allowing the Ahrens steamer to be placed into front-line service at Station # 2 on February 15th. (“Truck Co. 2” became “Engine Co. 2” at this time).

Chief Horan’s analysis of Chicago’s fire protection needs would be proven tragically (and ironically) correct. Horan and 20 other Chicago firemen were killed when a wall collapsed onto them while they were fighting a fire at the Stock Yards on December 22, 1910.

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