1906: Holyoke Endangered — Big Fire on High Street

by Laurel | December 8th, 2011

Holyoke fire on the corner of Dwight and High Streets. Very cold windy day, a lot of damage but ultimately a successful test of Holyoke’s responders with city departments working well together. Check out the ice on the lines where water is being sprayed by the water tower. Also notable is the militiaman near the bottom right with rifle over his shoulder, called in by the fire commissioner for crowd control. I believe this to be the tail end of the fire, when everything was essentially under control and the fire was extinguished — most of the crowds are gone. I think you will agree with me if you read the article.

Fighting Holyoke's Big Fire, View Looking Up High Street. This Fire damaged the buildings and contents to the extent of some $200,000, the heaviest losers being Fay & Shumway, Footware, and McAuslan Wakelin, Department Store. John B. Sutcliffe, publisher, Holyoke, MA

Fighting Holyoke's Big Fire, View Looking Up High Street. This Fire damaged the buildings and contents to the extent of some $200,000, the heaviest losers being Fay & Shumway, Footware, and McAuslan Wakelin, Department Store. John B. Sutcliffe, Holyoke, MA

07 December 1906

Damage more Than $180,000

Two Large Blocks Destroyed

Militia Company is Called Out

And Help Summoned From the Springfield Fire Department — McAuslan & Wakelin’s Department Store and Fay & Shumway’s Shoe Store Burned Out — Spread of Fire Checked by Hard Fighting.

Fire broke out near the corner of High and Dwight Streets in Holyoke early yesterday morning an before it could be checked destroyed the Fay & Shumway shoe store, The McAuslan & Wakelin department store, and a large number of offices and rooms of tenants, causing a total loss of $180,000. The high wind and intense cold made the fire so difficult to handle that a large part of the business section of the city was seriously threatened. It was found necessary t0 call out Co. D of the 2d regiment to assist the police in maintaining the fire lines and to summon aid from the fire department of this city. Intense excitement prevailed in Holyoke, and the surrounding communities until noon, when it was clearly seen that the fire was under control and that the area of its ravages have been comparatively limited. The fire was probably the hardest to handle and the most threatening in the history of Holyoke, although in point of fierceness it was not so bad as the Windsor Hotel fire in 1899.

The Losses and Insurance

The following tabulation represents the entire loss and insurance, so far as it could be approximately estimates last night. Many of the losers whose insurance is not given are doubtless covered:–

Loss Insurance
Ray A. Shumway $18,000 $15,000
McAuslan & Wakelin, on store $43,000 $43,000
McAuslan & Wakelin, on stock $90,000 $75,000
Mrs. Sarah A. Wolcott, on stock $30,000 $30,000
Dwight O. Judd Insurance Co. $500 $500
Holyoke Co-Operative Bank $500 $500
Attorney J. D. O’Brien $200
Judge John Hildreth $200
William J. Howes, Architect $200
Dr. Mathew Mahoney $500 $500
Knights of Columbus $200
Odd Fellows $500
Business Men’s Association $250
Uncas Tribe, Red Men $100
Total …………………. $183,250 $164,500

In the Wolcott building were the offices of D. J. Landers, contractor, who removed a large share of his office furniture; C. P. Lockwood, real estate, who also saved everything, and the rooms of Mrs. Mary Washburn, hairdresser, who saved most of her belongings. No insurance was carried by any of these tenants. The tenements on the third floor were rented by P. J. Cronin, Michael McGurk, Mrs. Mary Mahoney and Mrs. Bachnac, and aside from damage from smoke, no loss will result.

The fire in itself was not spectacular owing to the fact that it did not have an opportunity to break through the walls or roof, but the fighting of it afforded a sight that kept a large share of the Holyoke population interested spectators in spite of the penetrating cold. The fire started in the basement of the Fay & Shumway shoe store, and was supposed to have originated from empty shoe boxes which had been placed too near the furnace. It was discovered at 5:40 o’clock by a little girl who ran across the street and told a man who was passing that the basement was all afire. He at once turned in an alarm from box 48 in front of the city hall. Chief Lynch saw almost at once that the fire in the basement would be no trifling affair, and sent in a second alarm, calling all the engines. At 6:20 the general alarm was sounded and fears of the destruction of the entire business section were voiced on all sides. By this time a large crowd had assembled and rapidly increased as rumors of a conflagration spread. By 7:40 it was seen that the police would be unable to patrol the then extensive fire lines and the alarm of “double nine” was sounded for the first time in the history of Holyoke. This brought Co. D of the 2d regiment to its quarters in the armory and at 8:10 Capt. A. F. Foote reported with his men to the Assistant Marshal Herbert, who had the arrangements in charge.

When chief Lynch saw that his men would have difficulty in checking the spread of the flames, he asked the department of this city to hold itself in readiness to lend its assistance. A second call from Chief Lynch at about 9 o’clock brought the Bond street engine, with 10 men, under Capt. Burton Steere, to the scene. Capt. Steere’s force was increased by eight extra men at 11 o’clock. They made the run by trolley in the record time of 26 minutes. Their arrival on High Street was greeted by prolonged cheers from the crowds and their engine was assigned to the hydrant opposite the Marble Hall hotel. By 10 o’clock the firemen began to make their first impression on the progress of the flames, although from the first they had kept them so enclosed that the wind did not have an opportunity to sweep them southward. By 11 o’clock it was evident to all the onlookers that the firemen had definitely confined the fire to the corner and that all that remained was to drown it. A little before noon the number of streams was diminished and the water tower was taken down, at 1 o’clock the Springfield engine and crew left and by the middle of the afternoon there was not enough of the fire left to attract the attention of many but those who were hastening its extinction.

When first discovered the fire had nearly consumed the interior of the Fay and Shumway basement, and from that time it continued to gather headway, in spite of the efforts of the firemen. The fact that the danger of the situation was appreciated from the outset is shown by the close succession of the later alarms. Not long after the first alarm, C. L. Newcomb, chairman of the commissioners arrived, and assisted Chief Lynch in directing the fight. It was Mr. Newcomb who decided that the seriousness of the situation warranted the sounding of the militia call. The Springfield company which promptly answered Chief Lynch’s call brought with it 1100 feet of hose, which was added to the lines already in use. At the height of the fire 17 lines were laid, and were pouring 5000 gallons of water a minute upon the blaze.

In spite f the volume of water with which it was drenched from the first, the fire steadily advanced toward Dwight Street and the basement of the Wolcott building. The thick clouds of smoke made it almost impossible for the firemen to come to close terms with the seat of the flames, and mad it necessary for the nozzle-men to be relieved at short intervals. Several times during the morning the firemen were overcome temporarily by the smoke, and were brought to the open air to recover. The efforts to confine the fire entirely to the basements proved unavailing, and it was not long before it was climbing from story to story in teh McAuslan building. It was here that the water tower was brought into play with telling effect, and proved so effectual in drowning the fire that it broke out but once through the front of the building.

The Fight in the Tunnel

The fight was waged the most desperately and with the greatest danger to the firemen in the alley back of the McAuslan store. This alley, which is about 20 feet wide, runs along the entire read of the block and separates the rear McAuslan & Wakelin store on Dwight Street from the one on High street, which was destroyed. The two stores are connected by a tunnel and it was at this underground point that the firemen concentrated their efforts to prevent the fire from creeping through and up into the rear building. By the time the men firs reached this spot dense clouds of smoke were pouring through the tunnel and had already filled the rear store. At this point many of the firemen were overcome. The smoke was so dense that it was impossible for them to face it but a few minutes at a time. The tunnel was not equipped with fire doors and the men had only their own determination and the water to depend upon in waging the fight which was successful in the end. In the alley above a spray of water was trained on to the rear of the front building to prevent the fire from breaking through on the ground floor. About 10 o’clock the fire penetrated to the fourth floor of the McAuslan building and the situation seemed desperate, but soon after that the firemen began to see that their efforts were telling and at 11 it was evident that the fire was under control.

The construction of the blocks did not assist in a successful fight with fire, the buildings having been erected 20 years ago when fireproof construction was not receiving much attention. the situation of fire, together with the dense volumes of smoke, made it almost impossible to tell just where to direct the streams. It was not until the basement of the buildings were practically filled with water that the smoke seemed to diminish in the least degree. The water supply of the city was more than adequate to the demand made upon it. The first stream was turned on soon after 5:40 and stream after stream was added until 17 were in operation and after five hours the pressure had only dropped to 63, five points below the normal. The Whiting Street reservoir was then turned into the mains ant the pressure at once rose to normal where it was maintained until the fire was completely out. Rumors were heard from time to time among the bystanders that the reservoir was being drained, and it was amusing to learn after the fire that although it was roughly estimated that 2,500,000 gallons of water had been used the total fall of water in the city reservoir was about one-fourth of an inch, with other sources of supply that it had not been found necessary to turn in.

No Serious Injuries

No serious injuries were reported and considering the extreme cold and the ice it is remarkable that the number of seven slight bruises was so small. Hoseman Welch of the Emerald Hose Company was struck on the head by a falling beam which knocked him to the floor. He was seen to fall by Lieut. James Gately, who brought him out. Michael Donohue of the South Holyoke Company was overcome by smoke and taken to a near-by barber shop and it was some time before he was able to go back to work. Capt. Burton Steere of the company from this city slipped on the icy pavement while helping to carry a ladder and wrenched his knee badly. He was attended by Dr. P. A. Woods of the Red Cross Emergency Corpe. who was on hand during the entire progress of the fire. Capt. John Welch of No. 5 Company was the most painfully injured. He fell through a grating and scraped and bruised his legs and body.

Rumors Arouse Springfield

Holyoke thought that a catastrophe had come and its people sent messages of their distress all up and down the valley until by the middle of the morning Holyoke was on the lips of everyone in this city, and wild rumors, even of total destruction spread, But Holyoke was saved a conflagration by the energy and skill of its firemen, and will all the confusion, uproar, smoke and martial display, the loss was comparatively small. The calling out of the militia added the final touch. At the time the soldiers first appeared the fire was at its worst and the citizens felt that they were indeed facing a great calamity. The rumors of the militia call rang from phone to phone and soon everyone in this city, Westfield and the up-river communities, pictured Holyoke in dire distress. All the morning a more serious impression of Holyoke’s condition prevailed outside than in the city itself. All of the north-bound trolley cars and trains were crowded with those who could possibly find an excuse for leaving their affairs. It was with difficulty that the younger men were kept from leaving some of the factories in the city and Chicopee. The fact that so many were attracted shows the far-sighted wisdom of the commissioners in calling out the militia, for while the police force might have been adequate to control the Holyoke crowd, it could not have maintained the fire -lines against the increase poured in from outside.

From the time when the first fireman peered into the basement of the Fay & Shumway store to find it a roaring mass, the fire steadily increased in seriousness and it was when those in charge felt that a general conflagration was threatening that the militia call was sounded. This was done in order to have a sufficient force to rope off the entire block bounded by High, Suffolk, Maple and Dwight Streets. As it finally developed it was not necessary to extend the lines farther down High Street than Steiger’s store, but nevertheless the militia rendered excellent service, keeping the crown well back and amply supplementing the police without friction or difficulty. The men wore their blue overcoats, some having the capes buttoned over their heads to protect their ears, leggings, empty cartridge belts, and carried their guns with bayonets fixed. They afforded the most striking detail in the whole spectacle. Capt. Foote established guard headquarters in the Dwight Street entrance to the Ball block, and the men were relieved every two hours. At first some of the militiamen were used at salvage work, but in the main their duty was confined to keeping straggling citizens outside of the fire lines, and often returning to some unfortunate his hat which had been blown into the lines by the gale.

In itself the fire was not a brilliant spectacle. Almost the first thought of the firemen was to keep it confined to the inside of the buildings so that the high wind would have no chance to sweep the flames and sparks all over the southern part of the city. With their entire force concentrated at the original fire other parts of the city would have been almost helpless had the sparks been spread. At no point did the flames break through the roofs, in fact it is doubtful if they reached the third stories except in a few places.

The Scene on Dwight Street

From 9 o’clock until noon at High Street in front of the City hall dense clouds of smoke and steam poured from the burning buildings, and were supplemented by an equal volume from the seven fire engines which were throbbing on all sides. This smoke was swayed by the wind like a huge blanket, now shutting out the whole area of combustion from view and the next moment swirling off over the city. Under the smoke pall a large crowd of spectators stamped its feet and rubbed its ears while the firemen without disorder directed their increasing efforts to the attack. The street was covered with a sheet of ice into which was frozen the network of hose lines and for a time the trolley cars, which had been stopped by the first alarm. These were later pried up and moved away to make more room for the firemen. The fronts of the burning blocks were covered with ice, and the various wires below sagged with the weight of the icicles. The firemen and the soldiers whose duties kept them within close range were continually drenched with the spray scattered by the wind, and soon their clothes were frozen and glazed. Another torch was added by the men and boys who carried hot coffee and baskets of doughnuts to the chilled firemen, policemen and militiamen. These rations were sent out by the Young Men’s Christian Association and the women’s auxiliary to the Sons of Veterans. The Young Men’s Christian Association alone distributed 40 gallons of coffee and 20 dozen donuts, and added to their work C. E. Ball served hundred of free cups of hot chocolate in his drug store.

Basements Flooded With Water

At least 20 streams of water were kept playing upon the burning blocks for hours, and in spite of the fact that the buildings became so dull that the water poured out of the cellar windows, yet the pressure was unimpaired and at no time was it necessary to turn on the auxiliary supplies. The fact that there was all along plenty of water and of sufficient pressure was what saved Holyoke yesterday. Although the fire did not in the end approach very near to Steiger’s and other stores situated below in the same block, yet the occupants of all of them will suffer considerable loss from water damage. The street sloped southward from the burned area, and soon after the firemen began their operations the basements all along the block began to fill with water. By 11 o’clock there was five feet in the Steiger’s basement, and the others were in a similar condition. Aside from the damage that was done to goods by the water, a large amount on inconvenience and trouble will ensure for the tenants of the block until the basements can be pumped and the heaters started again. The water tower did excellent work at several points and when it was set up on High Street the crowd had an excellent opportunity to observe its possibilities.

Departments Work Together

What proved highly pleasing to the city was the utter absence of friction in the different departments working at the fire and the lack of confusion that existed. Soon after the alarm was turned in Chairman C. L. Newcomb and the board of fire commissioners appeared to second the efforts of Chief J. T. Lynch. The police force were on hand at the start of the trouble and kept perfect order.. The bard of public works stationed men on hand where needed, and the gas and electric light departments had men on the spot to shut off the gas when it was feared that there might be an explosion of a gas main, and the electricity was shut off from the district of the fire during the day. The water department had men stationed at hand, and within a few minutes from the extinguishing of the fire the street department had teams and men at work shoveling and carrying the ice away from the streets and sanding the street and pavement.

The work of the “Newcomb” nozzle on the water tower was efficient, and contributed largely to the extinguishing of the fire. This nozzle was invented by Chairman C. L. Newcomb of the board of fire commissioners about 10 years ago, being designed for the Springfield department, and played an important part in the fight with the Marble Hall fire of four years ago.

The thermometer steadily dropped during the day from 22 above zero in the morning to 4 above at 6 o’clock last evening., and all day the wind blew from the northwest with a high velocity/ The tenants of the buildings were bustling yesterday afternoon to find other locations. The Wampanoag tribe of Red Men have offered the use of their rooms to the Holyoke lodge of Odd Fellows. The Park Lyceum has invited the Knights of Columbus to make their home with the for the present. Attorney T. D. O’Brien, Judge John Hildreth, with the Judd insurance agency and the Co-operative bank, will probably locate for the present in vacant rooms in the Marble building.

Few Arrests Made

The arrests were few during the fire. One arrest, for drunkenness was reported, and one man was arrested on the charge of making away with articles from the McAuslan & Wakelin store building. David Burke of 125 Sargenat Street was overcome with the cold and removed to the House of Providence Hospital, where he was attended by Dr. S. A. Mahoney.

Mayor N. P. Avery was at his office across from the fire or on the ground all day and it was at his suggestion that the permanent firemen were given a breathing spell after the fire had been gotten well under control, and the reserves places on the firing line altogether in order to give the permanent men a little rest, in order to be prepared should another fire break out during the afternoon. There was no rest for Chief J. T. Lynch or his assistants, however, and they were everywhere present directing the fight.

Adapted from The Springfield Republican, image from my personal collection.

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