Fire Buffs promote the general welfare of the fire and rescue service and protect its heritage and history. Famous Fire Buffs through the years include New York Fire Surgeon Harry Archer, Boston Pops Conductor Arthur Fiedler, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and - legend has it - President George Washington.

Ready to roll from Springfield Fire Headquarters on North Fountain Avenue

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


Steam pumper from Engine Company No. 2 pictured at the ruins of the East Street Shops in 1902. Fire Chief George Follrath is pictured to the left of the steamer, according to the hand-written caption. At the front center of the photograph is a Lowry Hydrant, a portable device that tapped the municipal water system. It was carried on the engine. [Phoenix Project, North Charleston and American LaFrance Museum ]


The Champion reaper ... formed the foundation of an agricultural empire. By the 1870s the phenomenal success of this tool ushered in a golden age of manufacturing in Springfield, Ohio which became known as the "Champion City." Demand for Champion products was so large that the firm of Whiteley, Fassler & Kelly moved their operations to the East Street Shops in Springfield, one of the largest manufacturing operations in the world at that time, which covered 54 acres and employed 2,000 workers. -

On Feb. 10, 1902, a wind-whipped general alarm fire leveled the East Street Shops industrial complex and threatened the city's downtown.

Inadequate water pressure and antiquated fire apparatus contributed to the staggering loss to the city and its economy.

Constructed in 1882, the plant - stretching for 800 feet along East Street, and extending for 1,200 feet along the Detroit Southern railroad line - was the largest of its kind under a single roof. (By the turn of the century, the complex had been surpassed in size by Germany's famous Krupp Gun Works.)

The original occupant - William Whiteley's harvesting equipment company - failed after a few years and the shops sat idle for about a decade. (``By 1880, Whiteley's two man shop had become a giant trust producing more farm machinery than all the factories in Chicago put together,'' according to the Ohio State University Extension. `` At a meeting of some of his rival reaper barons, one competitor asked how they could improve business and another answered tersely, `Kill Whiteley!''')

Nonetheless, the East Street Shops got a new lease on life.

A renewal effort by civic leaders, attracted 15 businesses to the shops, including the Krell-French Piano Co.

Westerly wind

Newspapers across the country carried accounts of the fire, with The New York Times reporting in its Fed. 11 editions: ``A strong westerly wind was blowing, and with amazing rapidity the fire ate its way across the buildings, which were all under one roof.''

Box 63 - some accounts say Box 27 - was struck that day at about 9 a.m.

Approaching the fire from a half mile away, the members of Company 1 could see flames bursting out of the attic, according to Captain Calvin Roberds' 1978 book ``From Buckets to Diesels.'' There were no fire stops in the roof, Roberds said.

Firefighters attempted to advance a line from the fourth floor to the attic, but were hampered by the low water pressure. Crews operating on the exterior of the building, ``could not get streams stong enough to break the window panes on the second floor,'' according to The New York Times.

At the time, the fire division relied almost exclusively on hydrant pressure for its hose lines and kept its two steamers in reserve - a practice that had proven inadequate before, including a blaze at the hilly campus of Wittenberg College.

`Criminal negligence'

The lack of modern apparatus at the East Street Shops caused an uproar in the community. ``I consider it criminal negligence on the part of the city,'' said Albert Krell of the Krell French Piano Co., according to Roberds' book. (Krell's company had requested a six inch water main and three additional fire hydrants but the request was denied.)

Municipal finances - and/or perhaps objections to raising taxes - seemed to be at the root of the fire protection problem, based on comments from N.H. Fairbanks, who was in charge of leasing for the East Street Shops:

In a way this is what the people need here, but the lesson is a severe one. There are always come cranks and misers who fight against spending any money no matter for what purpose, but the fire today may open their eyes. ... There is no city in the state of this size which is not equipped with steamers.
In his book, Roberds said:

The general consensus of opinion of all concerned was that if steam fire engines had been on the scene at the start of the fire, the loss would have been small and the fire would have been controlled. While the city's steamers were eventually pressed into service, it was too little too late.

Narrow escape

As the fire gained hold of the attic, timbers started to fall and bystanders ``cried to the firemen to come out if they wanted to save their lives,'' Roberds wrote, quoting the morning Sun newspaper of the next day.

The firefighters escaped, with one man - Robert Moseman - jumping through burning timbers and tumbling down a flight of steps.

The New York Times said: ``Ten firemen were caught in the office of the Krell French Company, and to escape they had to jump from a window.''

The fire division's aerial ladder was also damaged.

Employees of the Detroit Southern Railroad averted a greater disaster by coupling up and moving several cars filled with benzine at a siding along the shops. ``If these cars had not been removed, most of the center of Springfield would have been lost,'' Roberds wrote.

(Coincidentally, a day earlier and several hundred miles to the east, the center of the industrial city of Paterson, New Jersey, had been leveled by a wind-whipped conflagration. That city was known as the ``Silk City'' for its textile industry.)

In an effort to save their plant, employees of the Indianapolis Switch and Frog Co. dynamited the walls west of their plant. (A ``frog'' is a device on intersecting railroad tracks that permits wheels to cross the junction, according to the American Heritage Dictionary.)

Aggravating the problem of low water pressure, people with homes near the fire used garden hoses to douse flying embers.

The crowd of spectators also posed problems for the firemen and the National Guard was mobilized to maintain order and prevent looting.

Chemical explosion

The cause of the blaze, according to The New York Times, was ``the explosion of some chemicals from the Champion Chemical plant, situated in the south west corner of the shops.''

By the time it was all over, the ruins of the East Street Shops resembled Richmond, Virginia, at the end of the Civil War in 1865. Nothing but fractured walls were left standing a few hours after the fire broke out.

Fire Chief George Follrath told the newspapers: ``When we got into the building and we were prepared to fight the flames, the pressure was so weak that we could not strike the rafters with the stream ... I have pleaded with the (city) board for fire protection for our factories; perhaps I will get it now.''

Inadequate water pressure was just part of the problem.

According to Jillian Benjamin in The Wittenberg History Journal:

The fire department was more of a political entity than a skilled profession at the turn of the century. Firemen came and were let go at the slightest comment. The result was a department staffed with incompetent men, who were afraid to voice their opinions or lose their jobs ... The problems that arose from the East Street Shops fires were buried under a mountain of bureaucracy.

The total fire loss for Springfield leaped to $406,682 in 1902 in the aftermath of the conflagration from $66,272 a year earlier - or roughly $8 million in 2005 dollars.

The businesses reporting the biggest losses at the East Street Shops were: Owen Machine Tool Co., Champion Chemical Co., Springfield Foundry Co., Progress Stove and Furnace Co., Indianapolis Frog and Switch Co., Miller Gas Engine Co., Green Manufacturing Co., Krell French Piano Company.