Posts Tagged Phil Stenholm

Evanston Fire Department History – Part 18

Another installment about History of Evanston Fire Department

Although he had steadfastly maintained at the time of the fire that a second steam fire engine could not have saved the Villa Celeste, the mounting calls in the two South Evanston wards for the city to allow itself to be annexed by Chicago led EFD Chief Carl Harrison to go before the city council in April 1909 and request that the aldermen immediately appropriate the funds needed to place the reserve steamer into front-line service at Station # 2. 

The city council refused Chief Harrison’s request because the law-makers claimed there was not sufficient money available in the 1909 budget to do it, but the city council’s fire committee did (somewhat surprisingly) express an interest in purchasing a gasoline-powered motor-driven auto-truck fire engine, at a point in time when automobile fire-fighting apparatus was in its infancy.

The fire committee’s master plan was to purchase an automobile fire engine and place it into service with Engine Co. 1 at Station # 1, move the American LaFrance Metropolitan steamer (the existing Engine 1) from Station # 1 to Station # 3 where it would run with the Davenport H&L / hose tender as a two-piece engine company, transfer the two horses used to pull Engine Co. 1’s hose wagon to the older reserve steamer at Station # 2 since with an automobile pumper in service, the horse-drawn hose wagon at Station # 1 would no longer be needed, and place the older steamer into front-line service, where it would run with the Seagrave combination truck as a two-piece engine company. This arrangement would also mean that with an automobile pumper or a steam fire engine in service at all three fire stations, water pressure in the mains would no longer have to be increased to fight a fire except in extraordinary circumstances, thus saving Evanston’s water mains from further damage and likely eventual collapse.

Chief Harrison and the fire committee traveled to Michigan in February 1910 to examine a motor-driven fire engine – a Webb / Oldsmobile combination pumper, so-called because it combined a pump and hose on the same rig —  that had been in service in Lansing for 14 months. Harrison and the committee were apparently impressed by what they saw, because when they returned to Evanston, the members of the fire committee convinced their fellow aldermen to place a $10,000 bond issue on the ballot in the city election of April 1910, asking voters to decide whether or not Evanston should purchase an auto-truck fire engine.

It wasn’t clear if Evanston voters would support the measure, so the local newspapers expended quite a bit of newsprint in the days leading up to the election explaining to voters that acquisition of an auto-truck fire engine for Fire Station # 1 would actually improve fire protection at all three fire stations – meaning the entire city – because placing an auto-truck fire engine in service at Station # 1 would allow steam fire engines to be placed into service at both Station # 2 in South Evanston and Station # 3 in North Evanston.   

It also probably didn’t hurt that on the eve of the election, a large fire destroyed the Original Manufacturing Company plant at 721 Custer Avenue, as well as a residence to the south at 719 Custer and another across the street at 724 Custer. The EFD did otherwise save the neighborhood and were hailed as heroes by the four South Evanston aldermen for doing so, but the $35,000 aggregate damage estimate from the conflagration was one of the highest losses from a fire in Evanston’s history up to that point in time. Whether the timing of the blaze made a difference in the outcome of the election cannot be known for sure, but the bond issue did pass, albeit by a slim margin.    

Talk of annexation died as fire protection in South Evanston was upgraded in 1911. Although the bond issue had passed in April 1910, Chief Harrison and the three members of the city council’s fire committee were not yet satisfied that any automobile fire engine manufacturer could build what Evanston wanted, that being a so-called triple-combination pumper, which would combine a pump, hose, and soda-acid chemical tank in the same vehicle. At that point in time, a handful of automobile combination pumpers (pump & hose only) were in service with various fire departments around the country, but only one automobile triple-combination pumper had been built in America, and that was a one-off rig built by a local auto truck manufacturer for a volunteer fire company in New Jersey. . 

So not willing to wait any longer and risk losing support from the South Evanston aldermen, the Evanston City Council transferred $2,500 from the Water Fund to the fire department in January 1911  — something they had been unwilling to do in 1909 and in 1910 — allowing an engineer to be hired plus two horses and related equipment to be purchased that would allow the reserve steamer to be placed into front-line service at Station # 2, without waiting for the city to purchase the auto-truck fire engine that was authorized by the bond issue.

The acquisition of the two horses in 1911 brought the number of horses in service with the Evanston Fire Department to 19, the most the EFD would ever have. In addition, an assistant engineer and a fireman were transferred from Station # 1 to Station # 2, allowing the Ahrens steamer to (finally) be placed into front-line service at Station # 2. Thus, Truck Co. 2 became Engine Co. 2 on February 15, 1911, with nine men (a captain, a lieutenant, an engineer, an assistant engineer, and five firemen) assigned to Station # 2, operating with both the Ahrens Metropolitan steamer and the Seagrave combination truck (chemical engine, H&L, and hose tender).    

During the five years that it was in reserve at Station # 2, the Ahrens steamer made one run of significance. On Tuesday, September 6, 1910, the Village of Niles Center (later known as Skokie) sent an urgent message to the Evanston Fire Department, requesting assistance in battling a conflagration that threatened to destroy the village.

Chief Harrison detailed a squad of Evanston firemen to respond to Niles Center with the Babcock chemical-engine, a hose wagon, and the reserve steamer pulled by a team from the street department. Drafting water from Blameuser’s Pond, the EFD’s Ahrens steamer supplied water used to extinguish the blaze. Eight structures — two saloons, a barber shop, a furniture store, two barns, and two sheds — were destroyed, but the village was saved.

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Evanston Fire Department History – Part 17

Another installment about History of Evanston Fire Department

The Villa Celeste
The Village of Evanston annexed the Village of South Evanston thereby 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 fiery 3rd Ward Alderman Pat O’Neill —  insisted that the brand-new unified City of Evanston should 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 — especially 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. And 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 firefighters to attack the fire in the attic with soda-acid from one of the chemical-engines. By using only chemicals, 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.

Firefighters 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 third 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 firefighters were making absolutely no headway. Frustrated, homeowner McKinnie demanded that Chief Harrison send for the steam fire engine (old “City of Evanston No. 1”) that was 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. Chief 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 firefighters 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 Edward Johnson – foot injury;

              Fireman John Wilbern – smoke inhalation;

              Fireman William Wilbern – smoke inhalation / bruised when struck by falling debris.                                       

  As a coup de grace, the stubborn blaze rekindled at about 11:30 PM, five hours after the EFD  had left the scene. Firefighters dutifully returned, and spent another hour pouring water into the ruins.

The final damage estimate was $40,000, the fourth highest damage estimate from a fire in Evanston’s history up to that point in time. The only previous fires with a higher damage estimate had been the tragic Mark Manufacturing Company fire in 1905, the Lincoln Avenue schoolhouse blaze in 1894, and the Willard Block conflagration in 1872.

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, Fire Marshal 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.

And 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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Evanston Fire Department History – Part 16

Another installment about History of Evanston Fire Department

The Big Stick

On Sunday, December 23, 1906, Isaac Terry was killed instantly when an explosion rocked the Northwestern Gas Light & Coke Company works at Clark & Maple after Terry inadvisedly dumped burning ashes into an oil and coal pit. The pit was 45 feet across and 15 feet deep, with 80,000 gallons of oil in the well. 

Initial firefighting efforts were hampered when the horses pulling Engine 1’s hose-wagon became frightened and ran away immediately upon arriving at the scene after one of the many explosions thundered from the pit, with the horses and the hose cart eventually ending up at Greenwood Boulevard and the lakefront where the fully loaded hose wagon overturned.   

The entire Evanston Fire Department, most of the Wilmette Fire Department — who responded to the blaze aboard their brand new Seagrave combination truck — and two engine companies from the Chicago Fire Department battled the conflagration until 8 PM, with firefighters pouring nearly a million gallons of water onto the inferno. Chicago F. D. Truck Co. 25 changed quarters to Evanston Fire Station # 1 at the height of the blaze.    

A couple of months later, on Saturday February 23, 1907, at 2:30 AM, fire destroyed the garage of Edwin F. Brown at Milburn Street & Sheridan Road. The garage was only worth $3,000, but three luxury automobiles — two valued at $5,000 each and one valued at $2,500, — a gasoline engine, a pool table, a sailboat, and miscellaneous tools and furniture were also destroyed, for a total aggregate loss from fire of $20,000, the seventh highest loss from a fire in Evanston’s history up until that point in time.    
Two weeks later, Evanston firefighters had to contend with hazardous chemicals caused by spontaneous combustion of phosphorous while battling a blaze at the Northwestern University Science Hall. The next day, the Evanston City Council appropriated funds to purchase a horse-drawn, 85-foot windlass-operated aerial-ladder truck (HDA) with a four-horse hitch from American-LaFrance, something that had been recommended by Chief Carl Harrison just two weeks earlier. Costing $6,700 and financed with a down-payment and three installment payments made each year 1908-10, the truck was placed into service with Truck Co. 1 at Fire Station # 1 after it arrived in July 1907 (and after the west bay of Station # 1 was lengthened to accommodate the new truck).  

Because the city council declined to appropriate funds to acquire the four new horses needed to pull the HDA, Hose 2 and Hose 3 were taken out of front-line service and placed into reserve, and the four horses that had been used to pull the two hose carts were reassigned to the new HDA. At this point in time (1907), mostly only large cities had aerial ladder trucks in service, and even then, only half of the Chicago Fire Department’s 32 truck companies operated with aerial-ladder trucks.      

To replace the hose carts at Station # 2 and Station # 3, the 1885 Davenport H&L (ex-Truck 1) was transferred from Station # 1 to Station # 3, and hose boxes with capacity for 850 feet of 2-1/2 inch line and a 150-ft lead of 1-1/2 line were installed on both the Seagrave combination truck at Station # 2 and on the Davenport H&L now at Station # 3. Hose Co. 3 was re-designated as Truck Co. 3 at this time, as the EFD now had one engine company and three truck companies in service, with two of the trucks equipped with enough hose to allow the companies at Station # 2 and at Station # 3 to attack fires using direct pressure (plug pressure). 

Evanston Fire Department manpower stood at 30 by the summer of 1907, with nine men (the assistant chief, a lieutenant, an engineer, two assistant engineers, and five firemen) assigned to Engine Co. 1, nine men (a captain, a lieutenant, and seven firemen) assigned to Truck Co. 1, six men (a captain, a lieutenant, and four firemen) assigned to Truck Co. 2, three men (a captain and two firemen) assigned to Truck Co. 3, two chief’s buggy drivers (one primary and one relief), and the chief, with the 29 line firefighters working a 112-hour work week (24 hours on / 12 hours off, with meal breaks taken away from the firehouse, either at home or in a nearby restaurant). So 19 or 20 men were usually on duty at any one time, although men were coming & going constantly.   

The aerial ladder wasn’t needed very often, but on July 4, 1908, Truck 1’s stick was extended to the roof of the First Congregational Church at Lake & Hinman to help suppress a blaze caused by errant fireworks. Chief  Harrison ordered soda-acid chemicals from the Babcock chemical engine and from the Seagrave combination truck to be used to extinguish the blaze, rather than water supplied from the ALF Metropolitan steamer or from direct plug pressure, so as to minimize water damage to the sanctuary.  

The summer of 1908 was unusually hot and dry, and the EFD responded to a record 28 calls over the first five days of August. Firefighters were going out constantly, and on August 5th three alarms were received within a five-minute period, the most serious being a blaze that heavily damaged the C&NW RR platform at Davis Street. Five days later, Evanston firefighters saved the Weise Brothers planing mill and lumber yard on Dodge Avenue after a large prairie fire communicated to a pile of lumber.  

In January 1909, the Evanston City Council approved a pay raise for 27 of the 30 members of the Evanston Fire Department, including a $10 per month increase for the chief, a $5 per month increase for the assistant chief, and a $2.50 per month increase for all other members of the department except for the engineer and the two assistant engineers.    

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Evanston Fire Department History – Part 15

Another installment about History of Evanston Fire Department


In March 1906, the Evanston Fire Department took delivery of a new American LaFrance “Metropolitan” 700-GPM second-size steam fire engine with a three-horse hitch. It was the first apparatus acquired by the EFD that required more than two horses to pull it, and it cost $5,500, plus $250 for a new horse that was added to the two already assigned to Engine 1. The new Metropolitan steamer was heavier and more-powerful than the Ahrens Metropolitan 600-GPM second-size steamer with a two-horse hitch that had been in service with the EFD since 1895. 

The plan was for the older Ahrens Metropolitan steamer to be sent to the American LaFrance factory in Elmira, NY, for a complete overhaul, after-which it would be returned to Evanston and placed into service at Station # 2. However, the Evanston City Council declined to appropriate funds to purchase two additional horses and hire additional manpower that would be needed in order to place the second steamer into front-line service, so while the older steamer was indeed moved into Station # 2 after it came back from Elmira, it was kept in reserve status for several years until such time as more horses could be purchased and additional manpower could be hired. 

The Metropolitan was the most-popular steam fire engine of the day, and while Evanston’s new Metropolitan steamer was built by American-LaFrance, the EFD’s older Metropolitan steamer was built by the Ahrens Manufacturing Company of Cincinnati, OH. The Metropolitan was invented in the 1890’s by Chris Ahrens, founder of the Ahrens Manufacturing Company, and along with Button, Clapp & Jones, and Silsby, Ahrens was one of four steam fire engine companies that merged to form the American Fire Engine Company (AFEC) in 1891. This was the era of monopolies and trusts, and the purpose of establishing AFEC was to reduce or maybe even eventually eliminate competition, consolidate the sales force, and maximize profits. Although each of the four companies maintained their own separate corporate identity, AFEC production facilities were located at the Ahrens Manufacturing Company plant in Cincinnati and at the Silsby Manufacturing Company plant in Seneca Falls, NY. However, because the other two major steam fire engine manufacturers of the day — Amoskeag and LaFrance  — did not participate in the merger, the overall benefit of the AFEC consolidation was minimal.

While there were four steam fire engine manufactures under the AFEC umbrella, Ahrens was by far the biggest and most-successful. Ahrens built its Metropolitan steamer in various sizes, and it was sold to fire departments — including the Evanston F. D. — across the country throughout the 1890s. Ahrens also manufactured the radical / eccentric, overly-heavy, and not very successful “Columbian,” which was built for and displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition at Jackson Park in Chicago in 1893. The Columbian featured both a standard steam engine AND a hose supply-bed on the same rig. The common practice at the time the Columbian was being introduced and marketed was for an engine company to operate with a steam fire engine and a hose cart running as separate rigs, and unfortunately for Ahrens, most fire chiefs at that time just could not see the advantage of combining the two functions in one apparatus.

While the American Fire Engine Company was attempting to establish itself as the “big dog” in the world of steam fire engines, the LaFrance Fire Engine Company was busy acquiring patents for both the Hayes and the Babcock aerial-ladders, the two most popular aerial-ladder designs of the 19th century, effectively giving LaFrance control over the manufacture of all aerial-ladder trucks built in the U. S.  It was not until 1900 — when the American Fire Engine Company merged with LaFrance, Amoskeag, and a number of other manufacturers of firefighting equipment and apparatus such as the Rumsey Company, Gleason & Bailey, the Charles T. Holloway Company, and the Macomber Fire Extinguisher Company to form the International Fire Engine Company, that the trust was fully established.

The International Fire Engine Company name was changed to American-LaFrance Fire Engine Company as all production moved to the LaFrance plant in Elmira, NY, in 1904, but just as with AFEC ten years earlier, post-merger profits were not as great as had been anticipated, in part thanks to a new kid on the block.

The Seagrave Corporation was located in Columbus, OH, and while Seagrave did not build steam fire engines, it did manufacture first-rate horse-drawn chemical engines and hook & ladder trucks, as well as the very popular “combination truck,” so-called because it combined a chemical engine and a hook & ladder truck in one apparatus. Seagrave combination trucks were in service with fire departments across the U. S., and then beginning in 1900, Seagrave started manufacturing horse-dawn aerial-ladder trucks that competed successfully with the American-LaFrance aerial-ladder truck.

Meanwhile, tired of living the life of a retired independently wealthy squire, Chris Ahrens rediscovered his latent entrepreneurial spirit and sold his share in American-LaFrance in 1904. Together with sons John and Fred and son-in-law and Cincinnati Fire Chief Charles H. Fox, formed a new company called the Ahrens Fire Engine Company at the old Ahrens Manufacturing Company plant in Cincinnati. The company’s name was changed to the Ahrens-Fox Fire Engine Company in 1908 when Charles Fox became company president, and it quickly became the # 2 steam fire engine manufacturer and American-LaFrance’s chief competitor in the area of steam fire engines. But it wasn’t easy.

Because American-LaFrance retained all patents held by the various companies that formed ALF — including the Metropolitan patent originally filed by Chris Ahrens in the 1890s  — Ahrens-Fox could not build the Metropolitan. And so instead, Chris Ahrens invented, developed, and built a completely new steam fire engine called the “Continental” that did not infringe on any existing patents, and in fact the Ahrens-Fox Continental sold very well, and might even have eventually matched or even exceeded American-LaFrance’s Metropolitan in sales, except the steam fire engine era came to a rather abrupt end in 1915.

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Evanston Fire Department History – Part 14

Another installment about History of Evanston Fire Department

The Aftermath: 

“It was said of George Stiles… as a fireman, none better… that he was one of the most-popular men in the Department… that he had a kind word for everyone…. so shall we not then cherish his memory, and think of these splendid men more highly than ever before?”  
— Dr. Wilkinson, Pastor of Wheadon Methodist Church, speaking at the George Stiles funeral, December 14, 1905 

At 9 AM on December 14, 1905, the day after the Mark fire, an Evanston Fire Department honor guard — Lt. John Watson, and firemen Henry Newton, Harry Schaeffer, and Walter Hubert — escorted the earthly remains of Fireman William Craig from his residence at 1924 Jackson Avenue to the Davis Street C&NW RR depot. A “fire helmet” of fresh cut flowers with Craig’s badge number “123” worked into the center of the arrangement was displayed atop the Engine 1 hose wagon that carried Craig’s casket. EFD Assistant Chief Jack Sweeting accompanied the Craig family to Knoxville, Illinois, where the deceased firefighter was laid to rest.  

At 2 PM on the same day, Evanston firefighters and town residents attended the funeral for Fireman George Stiles at Wheadon Methodist Church on Ridge Avenue. Dr. Wilkinson officiated. Pallbearers were Capt. George Hargreaves, Lt. Thomas Norman, Engineer J. A. Patrick, and firemen William Sumpter, John Eckberg, and John Reddick. Among those present at the service was former EFD Chief Norman Holmes. After the service, the Evanston Fire Department honor guard led the funeral procession (with the casket of deceased fireman Stiles aboard the same hose wagon used to transport William Craig’s casket to the C&NW RR dept earlier in the day) down Ridge Avenue to Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago, where the fireman was laid to rest.

The next day (Friday December 15, 1905), with Stiles and Craig dead, firemen Ed Johnson and Thomas Watson still in the hospital, and Assistant Chief Sweeting in Knoxville, the undermanned Evanston Fire Department led by new EFD Chief Carl Harrison had a tough time battling a large fire at Lyons Hall at 621 Davis Street. Before it could be contained, the blaze caused heavy damage to the third floor and rear of the venerable structure, as well as significant smoke and water damage to the rest of the building.  

Built in 1868, Lyons Hall had served as a popular spot for political meetings, wedding receptions, dances and proms, and other events for almost 40 years. The first meeting of the aboriginal Pioneer Fire Company of Evanston took place at Lyons Hall in January 1873. The aggregate damage to the building was $12,000, including $8,000 to the structure itself, and an additional $4,000 in damage to a photographer’s studio, tailor shop, shoe store, fruit shop, and real estate office on the first floor, and to apartments on the third floor. 

In January 1906, Lt. Thomas Norman was promoted to Captain and replaced new EFD Chief Carl Harrison as company officer of Hose Co. 3, and Fireman William Sumpter was promoted to Lieutenant and was assigned as assistant company officer of Engine Co. 1. George Stiles was next on the promotional list for lieutenant, and so he would have been the new lieutenant if he hadn’t been killed in the Mark fire.  

Also in January 1906, the Evanston City Council approved a pay raise for all members of the Evanston Fire Department, except the chief. Included in the package was a $5 per month increase for the assistant chief fire marshal and the three captains, and a $2.50 per month increase for all other members.   

After becoming chief, Carl Harrison instituted wide-ranging training lectures for Evanston firefighters. Among the speakers were an architect and an electrical engineer. Harrison also proposed using rocket flares and balloons to facilitate communication between firefighters on the scene of an alarm and others still en route. In the days before radio communication, fire companies responding to an alarm could not be contacted prior to arriving at the scene, and then firefighters would have to hurry back to the firehouse in case an additional alarm was received while they were on the road. Although it might have sounded like a good idea at the time, Chief Harrison’s communication plan involving rocket flares and balloons was not implemented.  

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History of the Evanston Fire Department – Part 13

Another installment about History of Evanston Fire Department

The Unlucky 13th 
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 and the son of former EFD Chief Sam Harrison, the new Chief Fire Marshal of the Evanston Fire Department, replacing Norman Holmes.

Harrison accepted the 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 acting chief 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 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 available, 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 from Truck Co. 1, led by Lt. Thomas Norman on the north side of the pipe mill 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 firefighter 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 firefighters 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 firefighters 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, firefighting 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 firefighters were 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, served two tours of duty with the Evanston Fire Department, eventually leaving 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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Evanston Fire Department History – Part 12

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.

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Evanston Fire Department History – Part 11

Another installment about History of Evanston Fire Department

Annual EFD salaries in 1901 ranged from $1,500 (Fire Marshal) to $960 (Engineer) to $780 (Captain and Assistant Engineer) to $720 (Fireman). All company members worked 24 hours on duty followed by a 12-hour furlough. A fireman absent during a scheduled tour of duty was not paid, no matter the reason for the absence (illness, injury received on duty, or furlough). Meal breaks were taken at home or in a nearby restaurant.

At 11:20 AM on a bitter cold  Sunday December 15, 1901, and a fire was reported at the Hoyt Flats at 1301 Judson Ave. All residents were evacuated safely, but the Evanston Fire Department was unable to control the blaze, so assistance was requested from the Chicago Fire Department. Three firefighters were injured battling the blaze, as fireman Al Hofstetter of Engine Co. 1 sustained a sprained shoulder after falling from a ladder, fireman John Steward of Hose Co. 2 suffered frostbite to both feet, and fireman Charles Harvey of Chicago F. D. Truck Co. 25 sustained multiple bruises after falling from a frozen ladder. $15,000 damage to the flats was caused before the fire was extinguished, making it one of the top ten highest damage estimates from a fire in Evanston’s history up to that point in time.      

August 1902 saw Evanston firefighters Al Hofstetter, John Eckberg, Ed Johnson, and William Pruter and EFD horses “Bob” and “Dan” return triumphantly to Evanston after winning the prestigious “Firemen’s Competition” in Blue Island. The Evanston Military Band met the champs on Main Street, and, after a victory parade up Chicago Avenue, Davis Street area merchants hosted a dinner for the victors at the Avenue House hotel. The firemen won the contest by driving a harnessed team (that would be Bob and Dan) 1/3 of a mile, leading-out 150 feet of hose line from the hose cart, connecting the hose to a hydrant and a nozzle to the lead, and throwing water, all in 18.2 seconds. The firefighters collected a $75 prize, and it was extra oats for Bob and Dan.
The Evanston Firemen’s Benevolent Association (EFBA) was chartered with the State of Illinois on November 5, 1902. For more than ten years — until the Evanston Firemen’s Pension Fund was fully funded in December 1915 — the EFBA was the main source of support for disabled Evanston firemen, and for the families of deceased firefighters. An EFBA benefit show was held each December through 1912, usually a vaudeville show, musical revue, or play.

The first benefit show in 1902 was a screening of the now-classic Edwin S. Porter silent film melodrama The Life of an American Firemen, and the final show in 1912 was a performance of a play called The Still Alarm, featuring several Evanston firemen and two beloved EFD horses named “Sharkey” and “Buttons.” (Besides biting the buttons off the clothing of anyone who might come near, “Buttons” could also turn on a water faucet by himself, a feat he performed in the play).

Beginning in 1903, the City of Evanston purchased life insurance for each member of he fire department that would pay a member $5 per month in case of disability or illness, with a $1,000 survivor benefit in case of death. 

From 1900 to 1904, the Evanston Fire Department doubled in size. Manpower was increased  from 14 in 1900 to 28 in 1904, and the number of horses increased from eight to 16, as one engine company, two truck companies, and one hose company were in service in three modern fire stations by 1903.  

February 15, 1903 (in particular) was a big day for the Evanston Fire Department. 

1. The new (rebuilt) $6,000, three-bay Fire Station #2 at 750 Chicago Avenue opened:
2.  Manpower at Station #2 was increased from three to six (a captain, a lieutenant, and four firemen), as Hose Co. 2 was reorganized as a truck company (Truck Co. 2); 
3. A Seagrave combination truck (a combined hook & ladder and chemical engine) was placed in service at Station #2;     
4. The 15-man Engine Co. 1 was split into two companies, as Truck Co. 1 was organized at Fire Station # 1; 
5. A captain, a lieutenant, an engineer, an assistant engineer, and five firemen were assigned to Engine Co. 1, and a captain, a lieutenant, and four firemen were assigned to Truck Co. 1, with Engine Co. 1 operating with the Ahrens steamer and a hose wagon, and Truck Co. 1 operating with the Davenport H&L and the Babcock chemical engine;
6. George Hargreaves was promoted to captain, joining Jack Sweeting, Carl Harms, and Carl Harrison as the EFD’s four company officers, and firemen Albert Hofstetter, Thomas Norman, and John Watson were promoted to lieutenant (assistant company officer).

Only Hose Co. 3 at Fire Station #3 continued as a three -man company (as they did until 1912), with just a captain and two firemen operating with a four-wheeled two-axle hose wagon. 

All EFD rigs — the steamer, the H&L, the chemical engine, the combination truck, the three hose wagons, and the chief’s buggy — had a two-horse hitch.   

From the outset, Truck Co. 1 gained a reputation as the “bad boys” of the Evanston Fire Department. One member of the company was fired by the Civil Service Board in 1904 after being convicted of insubordination, and three more members of the company were fired and another was suspended when they were discovered drinking alcohol on-duty at the firehouse. The man who was suspended but not fired did not deny he was intoxicated, but he claimed he had been drinking at home prior to reporting for work, and that he would never drink while on duty. 

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Evanston Fire Department history – Part 10

Another installment about History of Evanston Fire Department

20th Century Man

Ever since the annexation of the Village of South Evanston by the Village of Evanston and the forming of the City of Evanston in 1892, the populace of South Evanston had felt politically neglected. But in 1901, mayoral candidate James Patten actively sought the South Evanston vote, and it helped him capture the election. Patten promised improved city services for South Evanston should he be elected mayor, and after the voters delivered for him, he delivered for them. 

Patten was the prime mover behind the establishment of Evanston Hospital in 1891 (which was initially located in a large residence at the southwest corner of Emerson & Sherman, before moving to its present site on Ridge Avenue north of Central Street). He was also a major donor to Northwestern University, so he already was a popular figure in the 7th ward (northeast Evanston), and now he was popular in the two South Evanstion wards (the 3rd and 4th) as well.  

On April 23, 1901, newly-elected Mayor Patten discharged long-time Evanston Chief Fire Marshal Sam Harrison. The flamboyant Harrison had made numerous enemies during his tenure as chief, and Patten was one of them. Officially, Mayor Patten cited three reasons for the dismissal: 

1. Conflict of interest. Harrison held two full-time jobs, Fire Marshal, and Township Constable;  

2. Laxity in discipline: Harrison supposedly allowed civilians to “visit” firemen in firehouse bunk-rooms;  

3. Malfeasance: Harrison purchased equipment without first attempting to find the cheapest price.  

Immediately after relieving Harrison of his duties, Patten selected Engine Co. 1 Assistant Engineer Ed Mersch to be the new Fire Marshal. Mersch was certainly a surprise choice. He was not a company officer, he wasn’t even the EFD’s senior engineer. But from Patten’s point of view, Mersch was the perfect choice to succeed Harrison as EFD chief. Although he was only an assistant engineer, with no experience as a company officer, Mersch hailed from South Evanston, and he had a college education, extremely rare for a fireman in 1901.

After selecting Mersch to be the new chief of the EFD, Mayor Patten proceeded to outline how he and his new Fire Marshal intended to bring the Evanston Fire Department into the 20th century. First and foremost was the upgrading of fire protection in South Evanston: more manpower, new apparatus and equipment, and renovation of the building that had served as Fire Station #2 since the annexation of South Evanston in 1892. 

By 1901, three firefighters (Hose Co. 2) occupied a large administrative-type building that was originally designed as a combination village hall/firehouse/police station-jail. The Evanston Police Department operated a South Precinct at the facility 1892-97, but by 1901 just the EFD occupied the building. The apparatus bay was small with room for just one hose cart and one horse. Patten and Mersch planned to have the facility remodeled, but after cost-estimates showed that the remodeling would cost almost as much as a new building, the mayor and the Fire Marshal decided to push for a new fire station instead. And the city council concurred. 

Although only 15 years old and in good condition, the former South Evanston village hall was demolished and replaced on the same site by a new, $6,000. three-bay fire station. Opening on Sunday February 15, 1903, new Evanston Fire Station #2 at 750 Chicago Avenue now boasted six firefighters including a captain, a lieutenant, four firemen, and four horses. The two rigs assigned to the new Fire Station #2 were a four-wheeled, two-axle hose cart with a two-horse hitch and capacity to carry 1,250 feet of hose, and a modern 1902 Seagrave “combination truck,” so-called because it combined hook & ladder and chemical engine functions in one vehicle. The Seagrave combination truck was very popular at the time. The Wilmette Fire Department  operated a Seagrave combination truck from 1905-1923, and the Chicago Fire Department assigned Seagrave combination trucks to most of the truck companies located in outlying areas of the city.  

While Patten and Mersch together engineered the upgrading of fire protection in South Evanston, Mersch used his mechanical engineering background to make several technical and safety improvements to EFD apparatus during his tenure, including the refurbishing of the Babcock chemical engine in 1902 that kept the rig in service for another 15 years. The team of Patten & Mersch would not last as long, however.

Mayor Patten served just one, two-year term, and Mersch’s tenure was marred by disputes and conflicts with the firefighters he commanded. He was fired by Mayor James Barker in May 1905, amid loud protests from the residents of South Evanston who claimed he was fired only for political reasons, and he died at the age of 38 in 1911. Meanwhile, deposed Chief Fire Marshal Sam Harrison had far greater success going forward. He served several terms as a Justice of the Peace in Evanston, and he also served as a Deputy County Assessor and City Building Inspector. He died at the ripe of old age of 86 in 1939. 

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Evanston Fire Department History – Part 9

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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