Historic Minneapolis Fires - 1895

by Richard Heath



(Note: This article originally appeared in "The Extra Alarmer")

After their fiery trials of 1893 and 1894, Minneapolis firefighters enjoyed an unusually quiet year in 1895. Total alarms dropped 30 per cent, total fire losses 45 per cent. Multiple alarms fell from 53 in 1894 to 25 in 1895. There were several reasons for this. The new year brought an end to drought that had contributed to high fire incidence the past two years. More significantly, the economic depression that had gripped the country since 1893 slowed Minneapolis growth and industrial activity. It also shrank municipal tax revenues so badly that Newly appointed chief engineer Frank Stetson could not find money to man and equip Station 20, built in 1894, until August. Worse yet, MFD firefighters suffered a seven per cent pay cut at the start of the year. On top of this, one tragic blaze in 1895 brought MFD firefighters their worst life loss in department history.

The first major fire of 1895 broke out on February 3 at 1:12 PM in the Minnesota Moline Plow Company warehouse at 406-408 3rd Ave. N. Flames starting in the basement of the four-story, 80 x 150-foot brick structure had already worked into its 1st and 2nd floor when firefighters arrived. Within less than half an hour, the warehouse was totally involved. A 1-11 went in at 1:18 and a 2-11 at 1:28. Firefighters set up the Water Tower on 3rd Ave. N., large siamese streams in the rear, and lines on the roofs of adjoining buildings. By 2:30, they had darkened down flames enough to permit hand lines to work up ladders, although a collapse of the roof and top floor about 3 PM discouraged too close attack. Crews working in 10-below weather did not begin to leave the scene until 6 PM.

On February 25, companies responding at 3:27 PM to Box 62 found heavy fire in the Crown Lithographing and Printing Company on the southwest corner of 1st Ave. S. and 7th St. The three-story stone structure had once been the Centenary Methodist Church, predecessor to the 1893 Wesley Methodist Church that still stands a few blocks away. The former church now housed three floors under its high pitched roof, all well involved in flames starting from a benzine flash fire that seriously injured two workers. Other worker suffered injuries jumping from 2nd floor windows as flames spread rapidly up the building's rear from basement to roof. Firefighters responding on three alarms made a good stop, holding damage to the rear half of the building except on the top floor.

A major blaze struck the flour milling district on March 3, 1895. Flames starting in a dust box on the roof of the 5-story stone and sheet-iron Holly flour mill on 1st St. between 5th and 6th Ave. S. spread rapidly into its upper floors. Firefighters called at 8:32 AM lost no time in striking extra alarms: any fire in the congested milling district meant trouble, and this blaze seriously exposed large flour mills on three sides of the fire building. Although hampered by the steep slope of 1st St, in front of the mills, crews got a heavy barrage of streams in action that stopped flame spread at the mill's 3rd floor and soon doused the fire.

At 10:40 PM on June 27, 1895, crewmen at Chemical 1's station on 3rd St. between Nicollet and 1st Ave. S. spotted flames in the the rear of a large warehouse half a block away. They struck Box 18 and responded to find the brick MacDonald Brothers' crockery warehouse at 240-242 1st (now Marquette) Ave. S. very heavily charged with heat and smoke on all four floors. Firefighters struck a 1-11 at 10:43 and a 3-11 at 10:52. As some crews stretched lines into narrow alleys on each side of the warehouse, others worked from ladders to pry open iron shutters covering its side windows so streams could get at flames. The tightly shuttered warehouse held a heavy fire load from packing material such as excelsior that built up a dangerous concentration of gaseous products of combustion, waiting only enough oxygen to flash explosively into flame.

At about 11:10 PM, an enormous backdraft ripped through the building, blowing out its walls onto crews in the alleys on each side. Lt. Frank Uehline and Pipeman Walter Richardson of Engine 6, Tillerman Joseph Hoy and laddermen John Homer and Christian Sande of Ladder 3 all died instantly, crushed by a mass of bricks in the south alley. Five other firefighters suffered serious injury, and a like number in the north alley narrowly escaped. Three civilians across 3rd St. from the warehouse were badly cut by flying glass. The MacDonald building, now wrapped in flames, burned furiously. Uninjured firefighters at the scene performed wonders in preventing further flame spread while they tended to their dead and injured comrades. Although the MacDonald warehouse was a total loss, damage to surrounding structures was minimal. The fire remains the worst single life loss to firefighters of any in MFD history.

Downtown crews were returning from a small fire at 2:25 AM on September 6, 1895, when a citizen waved them in to 7th and Nicollet. Flames shot from the cupola of Westminster Presbyterian Church, on the present site of Dayton's department store. Fire already had a good hold on the church's cockloft. Crews struck a 3-11 and attempted an interior attack with four lines, but were driven out by heat and smoke shortly before a ceiling collapse filled the entire sanctuary with flame. The stone church burned to a shell by dawn, despite a massive exterior attack with heavy streams.

Later that month, on Sept. 27, another loft fire gained tremendous headway before discovery in the Chamber Of Commerce Building at 3rd St. and 4th Ave. S. Occupants of the 5-story mansarded brick structure did not realize the building was on fire until its 5th floor ceiling collapsed in a burst of flame. Firefighters responding on the 8:39 AM alarm found a bright shaft of flame shooting from the building's rooftop skylight. They struck a 1-11 at 8:40, a 2-11 at 8:43, and three specials at 9:00, 9:02, and 9:03 to bring 15 engines, four trucks, three chemical rigs and the water tower to the scene. Heavy streams from the street and interior lines at elevator shafts and stairwells held damage in the spectacular blaze to the top floor and roof, despite high winds and nearby exposures.

The final major fire of 1895 was yet another of the big, costly saw mill blazes so typical of the city's early history. This one broke out at 7:41 PM on October 18 in the sprawling E.W. Backus Lumber Company mill at 32nd (now Lowry) Ave. N. and the river. The 2-story, L-shaped, 175 x 78-foot structure was sprinklered, but flames starting on its 1st floor quickly overwhelmed the sprinklers and spread throughout the open interior of the wood frame mill. Flames burned most spectacularly, ironically, when they involved the wooden tower and water tank of the sprinkler system. Firefighters responding on three alarms could do little except protect surrounding lumber yards. The blaze caused the year's highest loss, $137,000, and threw 400 mill hands out of work.

	Response: September 26, 1895, 3rd St. & 4th Ave. S., Chamber of Commerce Bldg.

   8:39 AM  Box 223         Eng. 1-3-6-5      Lad. 1-3   Chem. 1     Chief, 1st-2nd Asst
   8:40 AM  1-11-223        Eng. 10-11-4-9    Lad. 2-4   Chem. 3-4
   8:43 AM  2-11-223        Eng. 16-7-14-13
   9:00 AM  5-7-18-223      Eng. 18
   9:02 AM  5-7-19-223      Eng. 19
   9:03 AM  5-7-17-223      Eng. 17

   Still in quarters:      Eng. 2-8-12-15,    Lad. 5-6   Chem. 2-5-6-7-8-9



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