July 1916 Fires

In this month’s column, I present historic fires or significant events in the fire service from July 1916. A reminder: Readers are encouraged to share information from their departments.

July 1, 1916: Emporium, Pennsylvania: Eleven men were killed by an explosion at the Aetna Powder Works. The blast took place at 2:45 p.m. while workers were trying to rush through some large orders. Apparently, 75,000 pounds of smokeless powder, not yet sufficiently dried, exploded. Six men were killed instantly. The remaining five were seriously injured and trapped inside the building. The badly damaged, one-story building was a mass of flames within seconds. The fire spread to several nearby buildings, but arriving fire units were able control the exposure problem quickly. A difficult and dangerous extrication from the burning structure was accomplished, but all five of the remaining men later died in the hospital.

July 4, 1916: Columbus, Ohio: An overheated oven touched off a fire that destroyed the Columbus Bread Company. Hundreds of sacks of flour were consumed in the fire, and one firefighter was injured. The company was under contract to furnish 10,000 loaves of bread a day to the Ohio National Guard at Camp Willis. Since other nearby bakery plants were not equipped to handle such a large contract, part of the camp’s bread supply had to be shipped in from other cities.

July 19, 1916: The July 19 issue of Fire and Water Engineering ran a short article listing the hours worked and pay scale earned by many of the nation’s largest fire departments. To put things in historical perspective, even the highest paid firefighters were only receiving 29 cents per hour while working 24 hours a day. Chicago firefighters led the pack with seven dollars per day with one day off in three. New York was second with six dollars per day but only one day off in five. Cincinnati and Cleveland firefighters were paid four dollars per day, and Youngstown, Akron, Toledo, Lynn, Wheeling, and several others were paid three dollars. The Wheeling West Virginia Firemen’s Protective Association, which was lobbying the city council for better hours and pay, provided the list. Its members were working 24 hours a day for 11¼ cents per hour with one day off in seven. They were hoping for a better deal.

July 20, 1916: Newhall, Iowa: An exploding gas stove ignited a wind-driven fire that tore through this small town, burning 17 buildings to the ground. The town, near Cedar Rapids, was built mostly of wood. Within seconds, the explosion sent flames into the buildings on either side. In two hours, the entire business district was in ruins. The wind had protected the residential section of town, but with all the stores destroyed, there was only the food left in each home’s pantry.

July 23, 1916: Austin, Texas: A 12:55 p.m., a gasoline explosion tore through the first floor of a three-story, 26- à— 160-foot structure known as the Kreisle Building. The building was constructed of bricks with wooden partition walls on the first floor. People were unable to reach the nearby telephone booth because of the tremendous radiant heat, thus delaying notification to the fire department. When the alarm was finally received, Chief Woodward and his companies found fire on every floor of the commercial building. As his units rolled in, Woodward directed the placement of the Seagrave motor ladder truck, two combination chemical and hose wagons, and six hose wagons.

Despite not having pumping engines, deluge sets, or water towers, the chief and his 30 firefighters aggressively used high-pressure hydrants as a water source. These hydrants were spaced 100 to 300 feet apart. Firefighters stretched more than 4,000 feet of cotton rubber-lined hose. In all, 12 lines were placed in operation.

At the height of the fire, a hose stream was operated from a wooden ground ladder. The lead firefighter was about to open his nozzle when he was knocked unconscious by a falling brick. His backup man caught him, stopped his fall, and helped the unconscious man to the street.

Shortly afterward, the walls of the three-story building collapsed onto the adjoining two-story S.W. Telegraph and Telephone Building. This destroyed the building and the telephone switchboard inside, valued at $1,000. It also caused the collapse of the two-story wall onto another adjoining one-story building.

Amazingly, the only fire damage was to the original fire building. All the damage resulted from the collapses. In all, six firefighters were injured battling the fire.

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