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1909 Fire in the Opera House
"The Fairfield Daily Journal"
Tuesday, May 18, 1909
Pages 2 and 3
One of the largest and most destructive fires which has visited Fairfield for many years occurred last night when the Grand Opera House and several adjoining buildings were totally destroyed by fire and a number of business firms suffered heavy losses.
The alarm was turned in about 9:30 o'clock and the fire burned rapidly until after one o'clock. The total loss is estimated at nearly $50,000. The conflagration is the worst which has visited Fairfield since the Parsons College buildings burned about seven years ago.
The Grand Opera House was leased by a moving picture concern which gives shows every evening. The first show last night had been well attended and the larger part of the audience had left the come to her. Miss Ketcham not (sic) Opera House. The second show was just starting and Miss Pearl Easter who had finished her solo at the commencement of the second entertainment stepped back on the stage to get her wraps, saw the fire around the electric meter. Hurrying to the stage door, she called the musician, Miss Gladys Ketcham to realizing what Miss Easter wanted hurried up on the stage and she too saw the flames rolling around the meter.
With rare presence of mind Miss Ketcham stepped out before the audience, numbering about forty people, and walked rapidly down the aisle to where Mr. West, the leasee was standing. She told him plainly and quickly of the situation and then hurried back to the front of the Opera House to get her wraps and music.
Mr. West hurried down the main aisle to the front and quietly told the audience the building was on fire, and for them to leave it as soon as possible but to keep cool and not crowd one another. Under his direction everyone passed out orderly and remained a short distance away to watch the fire.
Miss Ketcham after obtaining her own things displayed great courage and throughfulness for her employes, for she hurried to the balcony and in blinding smoke got possession of the box of films which the firm was using. The firm was under a heavy bond for the safe return of the films and had it not been for Miss Ketcham's courage they might have been lost.
When the fire alarm was given and people learned that the Grand Opera House was on fire citizens of Fairfield became nearly paralized with fear until it was learned that the building had been emptied safely and no one was injured.
Thousands of people congregated hurriedly on the Court House square and oin (sic) the streets and the members of both the "Ellis Hose Company" and "The New Chicago Company assisted by hundreds of willing men fought the flames furiously and just at the time when it was thought that the fire was subdued and the danger was past the large water mains near the city water works bursted and left the firemen practically helpless to fight the fire.
In the Grand Opera House building is J. S. Kelley's cigar factory, Wilson & Bowermaster's Barber Shop and Griffith & Piersons Plumbing Shop most of the contents of these three establishments were saved.
With the bursting of the water mains the supply of water was cut off and the best efforts of the firemen and assistants were utterly helpless in staying the rapid progress of the flames. In a very short time it was seen that the entire Opera House building was doomed(.) Soon the flames enveloped the Opera House Pantatorium a small frame structure just south of the Opera House and completely razed it to the ground in a very short time. The two story brick building to the south of the Pantatorium is occupied by Dan Stout's Pool room on the lower floor and the G. A. R. on the second floor. This building was damaged to some extend and it was in it that the fireman at last gained control of the fire. After the windows and casings had been burned out protectors of sheet iron were fastened on the inside over the windows and it was only these protectors together with the brave fireman which finally checked the terrible on-rush of the fire fiend.
Fire Chief C. U. Emry sent hurried calls to Burlington, Ottumwa, Albia and Creston for aid after the water mains had bursted and although Ottumwa was ready to send aid it was learned that it could not be gotten here in time to be of any material assistance.
Nothing short of a miracle saved the entire block on the Northwest corner of the square from destruction and had there been the slightest wind it is difficult to tell where the fire would have been stopped.
For the first time in many years Fairfield last night realized what it meant to be without a good water supply in case of fire. A bucket brigade of nearly 200 men was organized as soon as it was learned that the supply of water had been cut off and the volenteer (sic) firemen worked like troopers to aid the hose boys. Hardware stores around the square were emptied of buckets and tin pans and ropes for the work. As a last resort just before the fire was gotten under control barrels of salt were rolled to the scene and quickly used to good advantage in stopping the mighty onrush of the flames.
At one time during the progress of the flames it was thought that the only thing to be done to gain control of the flames would be to dynamite the buildings near it. Ropes were stretched and the crowds ordered back and preparations made to use dynamite when those in charge were persuaded to wait a short time longer and soon found that it would not be necessary to use dynamite at all. Had the flames eaten through the G. A. R. Hall and reached Emery's Egg store it is probable that nothing could have saved the entire block. Fire Chief Emry realized this and he and his men fought furiously keep the fire away from that store. Mr. Emery had just received a large shipment of eggs valued at nearly $2,000 and these were removed from the building about 11:30 o'clock and later taken to the Rock Island depot and loaded onto cars.
The residence property owned by Company M 54th Regiment I.N.G. which stands just west of the Opera House was in danger of being burned to the ground several times during the progress of the fire and it was only by the vigorous efforts of several scores of men that it was saved. The old cooper shop to the south of the cottage was on fire several times but was not seriously damaged.
Several cables of the Jefferson County Telephone Company's lines were greatly damaged and as a result a number of telephones are out of order today.
Occupants of the buildings burned, saved nearly all of their goods although several suffered by water, at the Grand Opera House Mr. West saved his machine but lost the econemizer one of the important and valuable parts of the machine. The piano in the building was also lost.
The heroic work of the hose companies and the volenteer firemen is the subject of much comment today and the city certainly owes a debt of gratitude to those who so valiently fought the flames for hours. In justice to Mr. West the leasee of the Grand Opera House it would be stated that the fire did not originate from the moving picture machine but was simply one of those unaccountable accidents likely to result at ant time (sic).
Louis Thoma will be the heaviest looser as he carried only a very small insurance on the Grand Opera House building which he valued at about $25,000.
"The Fairfield Tribune"
Wednesday, May 19, 1909
Front Page and Page 2
Fire broke out in the Grand opera house Monday evening about 9:30 o'clock, and, with the fire department helpless as a result of a broken water main, the conflagration raged unchecked to the solid brick walls of the Richsher building next to The Tribune office, sweeping out of existence property valued at $25,000. It was only by the utmost efforts of the big crowd of citizens that the fire was prevented from taking out the entire block, including the postoffice building. Many times it looked as though the fire would be communicated to the Richsher building. All the windows were burned out on the north side next to the pantatorium, and there is not a doubt but for the quick work of Dillon Turney, assisted by willing helpers, this building would have been gutted and the fire communicated to the other buildings of the block in spite of every effort. As soon as it was seen that the fire would reach the Ricksher building, Mr. Turney suggested that the windows be closed from the inside by tacking up sheet iron. This was done and effectually blocked the flames, although all the window frames were burned out and the casings on the inside of the building were in flames a number of times.
Supplementing this work a bucket brigade was formed from wells across the street and in this manner, by passing buckets from hand to hand, an almost constant stream of water was kept directed on the roof and the flaming window casings. As fast as the blaze licked and caught at the wooden frames, the water was dashed on them. In this manner for more than an hour, while the heat scorched and the smoke almost suffocated them, the workers in the Ricksher building held back the advance of the conflagration and confined it to the doomed section of buildings where it originated.
On the roof another set of willing and heroic workers labored unceasingly, spreading salt over the roofing and wetting it down with water pulled up over the front cornice by ropes and buckets. In this manner two or three barrels of salt were scattered and this had a great deal to do with holding in check the fire.
Watchers on Roofs.
With the flames raging in a solid sheet over almost the entire quarter block, watchers were stationed on the roofs of surrounding buildings and put out the fires that started occasionally in untouched properties from the flying sparks. There was little of the confusion that usually marks such a catastrophe. The workers worked steadily and sensibly, with few shirking. When it was necessary to carry out the contents of a building it was done quietly, orderly and with comparatively little damage by breakage. The work was in most cases quietly directed by leaders and throughly effective.
Tear Down Buildings.
When it was seen that it would be impossible for the workers to do anything at saving the property north of the Ricksher building, the efforts were directed toward tearing down the light wood structures next, with good effect. A heavy rope and iron hook were used. Hooking it over the tops of the fronts, a hundred or more of the workers swung to, tearing down the structure with unmeasured strength. In no case was the full power of the workers tried. In this manner the building in front was brought at the top to a mere framework and undoubtedly this reduced the heat considerably when this portion was attacked. The plan was continued until it was impossible to longer mount the ladders for fastening the cable.
While, owing to the quietness of the night, there was little danger of the fire taking the buildings across the street east, a careful watch was kept constantly here and men on the roof of the Sense& Mitchell livery stable kept the front constantly moistened to prevent the hay in the mow from heating and bursting into flames. The Spence implement establishment sustained no damage, though the heat on the windows was such as to make the building inside sufficiently hot.
At the Court hotel, just north across the street, employes and guests were located at the windows and by constantly wetting the glass, kept the temperature down so that there was no damage aside from a trifling amount by water.
How It Started.
The fire started in the northwest corner of the theater building from unknown cause; the only explanation suggested being that of a live wire in contact with some inflammable substance. It was noticed while the last show was in progress at the moving picture performance and the crowd got out without confusion. The department made a quick response and had very little difficulty in getting the fire out, as it was supposed. The water was shut off and L. Thoma, proprietor, was just closing the building preparatory to going home, when another small blaze was noticed up among the scenes. Again the alarm was sounded and the department prepared to throw water, but when the pressure was turned on there was no responding flow. While this was being investigated, the fire gained headway and when the back doors of the play house were thrown open, the flames with a mighty rush, spread to all corners of the big building and it was doomed. The fact that there was no water paralyzed the fire fighters for a few moments, but as they fully realized the danger that threatened the city, they pulled themselves together and began an almost hopeless effort, to check the spread of the fire, which, was sweeping all before it.
During the first outbreak the movable stuff had been taken from the Kelley cigar factory, the Wilson & Bowermaster barber shop, the Griffith & Pierson plumbing establishment and the pantatorium, and when the blaze had apparently been stopped, the work of replacing the goods was begun. With the second alarm all the stuff was removed to a safe distance and a general fight against the flames was started.
Many Prepare to Move.
While the fire was at its worst it appeared very probable that it would take the entire block around to and including the postoffice, preparations were made by the occupants of the various buildings to remove their stuff. All books and valuable papers were gathered together for a quick rescue if it proved necessary, and in a number of instances the actual work of removing was begun. The safe in The Tribune office was brought up to the door ready to be rolled out, and plans were made for removing the lighter machinery, paper stock and finished and unfinished work.
At the G. B. Baker piano store, actual removal of the stock was undertaken and a number of the pianos were rolled into the street and taken to the park, where some of them remained until Tuesday morning. The flat dwellers in the block were all very badly frightened and valuables were hurriedly gathered together for flight at a moment's notice should it become necessary.
Big Crowd Helps.
Owing to the fact that the fire broke out before people generally had gotten to sleep, there was an immense crowd on the scene in a very short time and this was a great advantage in the fight that followed. Had it broken out in the early hours of the morning with everyone soundly asleep, there would have been a much more serious time experienced than the event provd (sic). Mingled with the crowds on the street were many women who remained as anxious spectators until it was controlled.
In connection with the fire were many interesting incidents. One of the most stirring was the removal of a large tank of gasoline from the rear of the doomed building occupied by the Griffith & Pierson plumbing shop. A half dozen men attempted the job and in spite of the size of the tank, which was well filled, they succeeded in rolling it out and into the alley. Wth (sic) the flames licking at the scattered timbers all about them the men rolled the tank a rod or more, while the gasoline poured from the unclosed top and swirled in a stream about their feet. Seeing their danger, they finally made a rush away from the fluid and a moment later, the flames caught it and there was a mass of fire twenty feet high over an area a rod square. The tank was melted to pieces and the flames licked up the fluid in a short time with no damage.
Fire Extinguishers Used.
When it was seen that there was no possibility of fighting the fire in the ordinary manner, and there appeared no chance of controlling it, a run was made with the fire team to the Turney wagon works for fire extinguishers and several were secured. In spite of the fact that the buildings were all a mass of flame, these were used to good advantage in stopping the fire at the Ricksher building.
Call for Help.
As soon as the seriousness of the situation became apparent, and at a time when it appeared that the whole block might go if help were not secured, Water Superintendent W. L. Long made telephone calls to Burlington and Ottumwa for chemical engines. These were freely offered, but with the statement that they would probably be of little avail in a really big fire. At Ottumwa, immediately after the offer of the chemical engine had been made, a fire broke out at home and the engine was sent out on it. It was to have been sent to Fairfield by special train but when it came time that it could be spared, the fire here was fairly under control. An attempt was made to get help from Albia and Washington, but in the latter case, only companies were of avail, and they would be of no use. It was impossible to get a steamer from Albia before 2:30, and by that time the fire was out.
The Break in Main.
The break which put the fire company out of commission was in the ten-inch main leading from the stand-pipe to the city. It was bursted open by the pressure for a distance of four feet and it was impossible to get a bit of force past it. As soon as the break was located a force of men was put at work and worked constantly until 10:30 in the morning, when the job of making temporary repairs was completed. The piece of main broken was a part of that installed by contract years ago, when light weight pipe was used, and an examination of the removed section showed it to have been defective.
Up to a year ago no repairs for the ten-inch main had ever been ordered, but at that time Superintendent Long decided it might be well to have a section of it on hand and it was secured. This proved a piece of practical wisdom as the present event proved.
While the fire was at its height and there was considerable excitement the idea of using dynamite was strongly urged, but wiser counsel prevailed and this plan was abandoned. It is believed the use of dynamite unskilfully might have added greatly to the damage. The walls of the Ricksher building would have undoubtedly shattered and this would have been a fatal error. The explosive was even secured for the project, but was taken away by direction of those who interfered. As it all appears today, the fire was handled in the best possible manner under the circumstances and the people of Fairfield have much to be thankful for in saving the thousands of dollars of valuable property that was threated. Especially should the people of the threatened section be thankful for the splendid and daring work of the people who fought the flames with such good effect, and The Tribune, together with others most interested, takes occasion to express its deepest gratitude.
"Jefferson County Republican"
Friday, May 21, 1909
Opera House Burns.
Monday night about 9:30 o'clock Fairfield was visited by one of the worst fires it has had for a number of years. The Opera House had been leased some time ago by a moving picture company, there being two shows each evening. The first show had ended and the second well begun when Miss Pearl Easter, who had just finished singing a solo, noticed the fire around the electric meter. She quickly called Miss Ketcham to her and she notified Mr. West who asked the people to leave the building as quickly and quietly as possible. All escaped and no one was hurt.
Just at a time when it seemed as though the fire would soon be out, the large main near the water works bursted and it was soon seen that there was no hope of extinguishing the flames in the usual way.
A bucket brigade was formed and together with chemical extinguishers and salt, a determined fight was made. Sheet iron was tacked over the windows the Ricksher building and the fire was stopped at last but not until the Opera House, Kelley's Cigar Factory, Wilson & Bowermaster's Barber Shop, Griffith & Pierson's Plumbing Shop, and Mrs. Stout's Pantatorium had burned to the ground(.) Most of the contents of all the buildings but the Opera House were saved.
Fire Chief C. U. Emry called for assistance from Burlington, Ottumwa, Washington, and Albia but they were unable to get here in time to be of any assistance.
The losses and the insurance are as follows:
Louis Thoma, opera house and brick block; loss $20,000; insurance $4 000.
J. C. Kelly, cigar factory; loss $1,000 to $1,400; insurance $700.
Wilson & Bowermaster, barber shop; loss $150; insurance to cover.
Griffith & Pierson, plumbing; loss small; no insurance.
L. Mendenhall; loss $1,000; no insurance.
Joseph Ricksher; loss $200; no insurance.
Dan Stout, Billiard Hall; loss $50; covered by insurance.
Mrs. Ona Stout, pantatorium; slight loss; no insurance
J. A. West, moving picture outfit; loss $60; no insurance.Jefferson County Telephone Company, damaged cables; loss $150 to $200.
Fairfield Gas & Electric Company damaged wire and poles, loss $50.
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