Fires and Floods
As soon as the first sawmills were in operation at Oconto, there was a constant danger and a great fear of fire. The mills that used steam power had high metal with screen spark catchers at the top of the stacks. Barrels of water were placed about the premises. A platform was built above the ridge of each mill roof on which a row of large barrels were kept filled with water. Firemen’s axes and pails with rounded bottoms and other fire fighting equipment were kept at each mill.
In case fire broke out the mill whistle would be blown and the mills would be shut down. With good teamwork the mill crew could put out the fire.
Since most of the houses, stores, warehouses and shops and all the lumber mill establishments, including boarding houses, barns and mills, were constructed of lumber, townspeople were constantly on guard watching for fire. The town was well stocked with wooden sidewalks and fences. There were some picket, some rail and many board fences. The streets were filled in many places with sawdust and slabs, all making a greater fire hazard.
On August 3, 1859, the large Brunquest building was destroyed by fire. Storekeeper S. W. Spencer and A. Aspinwall, John Renick and W. B. Mitchell, who had shops in the building, suffered heavy losses.
In the 1860’s, such careful precautions were taken that there was no great configuration at Oconto.
After Oconto became a city, one of the first ordinances adopted by the common council provided for the appointment by the mayor of two fire wardens for each ward in the city. One of their duties was to inspect buildings, taking care to watch for fire hazards.
In the great fire of Northeastern Wisconsin, now known as the Peshtigo Fire of October 1871, fires made more inroads in the city of Oconto and all the area would go up in smoke.
At times a dark pall of smoke hung over Oconto as well as other communities on the shores of Green Bay as forest fires were burning. For a month before Peshtigo burned, lurid flames could sometimes be seen at night in nearby forests. Many children and grown-ups suffered with sore eyes from the strong smoke odors that penetrated the sir everywhere.
On the north side of Oconto, fires advanced to the north end of what is now Memorial Park, and there were scattered fires south and west of Oconto, too.
The day after the
Peshtigo burned, torrents of rain
drenched all the land of the area and Oconto was spared.
Located on Pecor Street near the Northwestern Railroad tracks.
By 1880 the Oconto Fire Department, headed by the fire commissioner and his committee, consisted of two companies. Each company had 15 members. J. H. Driscoll was fire chief and Gilbert morrow was Assistant Fire Chief. Fire station No. 1 was located north of the Funke block, facing Congress Street. Station No. 2 was located east of the Northwestern Railroad tracks on the north side of Pecor Street.
On August 16, 1881, the Anson Eldred mill (formerly the Mix and Orr mill ) burned to the ground. Two scows loaded with lumber nearby also burned. Over 130 men were out of work. Another mill was not built in its place then, so Oconto suffered a great loss at the time.
On June 12, 1886, another great fire occurred at Oconto. The Oconto Company’s flour and shingle mills burned, along with much of Oconto company lumberyard. As these buildings were located north of the sawmill and there was a strong breeze from the south, the sawmill was saved. The fire was so great and so hot the fire department could do nothing but keep the fire from spreading.
Three years later, September 28, 1899, the Oconto Company sawmill caught fire about seven o’clock in the morning. Both the Oconto Company sawmill and planning mill whistles gave the fire alarm.
In Mr. W. A. Holt’s account of the fire he wrote that he considered it to be “the most dangerous fire we ever had in Oconto.”
Sparks and pieces of burning boards flew through the air to the east, falling with live coals on the Holt Lumber company’s lumber yards. In the yards the entire sawmill crew were putting out fires as they started there. Mose Thompson, Henry Macfarlane, Albert Arnold and Frank Waters succeeded in keeping the fire from spreading all over the city.
The Wal Phillips
livery stable on the corner where
the post office now stands and Ullman’’s Sales
Stables on Huron Avenue
began to burn but the fires in those places were put out by the fire
THE SECOND PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH BUILDING. Located on the corner of Main Street and Ellis Avenue, it was destroyed by fire at the time Fire Station No. 1 burned
In December 1890, the No. 1 fire station or “fire house” on Congress Street and the Presbyterian Church on Main Street caught fire. The fire engine in that station was burned so that there was only one pump left to fight the fires. The remaining pump was placed on the bank of the river near the Holt Lumber Company’s mill. However, the pump was not strong enough to throw a stream of water over to the church or fire station and both buildings were completely destroyed. At that time there was no city waterworks. The city had public pumps for drinking water scattered throughout the city. Fires were fought by bucket brigade and the fire department pump took water from the river and forced it on the flames.
On October 1, 1897, a big fire in the wood yard of Holt Lumber Company threatened all the houses on the west side of Collins Avenue. About midnight the Marinette Fire department arrived in Oconto on the Northwestern train to help fight the fire, which was under control.
Other big fires around the turn of the century were at the Cook Brother’s big barns in the East Ward, the Gregor Roth Hotel on Park Avenue south of Wilbur M. Lee’s Studio, and the first armory on Main Street The armory was a frame building and it, too, burned to the ground. The Spies mill, formerly the Jones steam mill, burned in 1900.
Several comparatively small fires occurred in the Holt Lumber Company mill and yards through the years. In 1903, the sorting shed burned and in 1911 the lumberyard caught fire but was put out by the fire department. In 1917, the sawmill caught fire too, but this to was put out. In 1933 the boiler room of the sawmill caught fire and the next year there was another fire in the sawmill. The last sawmill fire was on September 19, 1941. The mill had been shut down and had been sold to Mr. Arnovitz to be wrecked. The mill building burned to the ground. A big fire occurred at the Holt Hardwood Company May 5, 1924.
Both the Holt Lumber Company and the Oconto Company had big horse barn fires that completely destroyed the stables. Some horses at Oconto Company barns were lost in the flames.
High board walks surrounded and led into the building
THE COURT HOUSE FIRE OF SEPTEMBER
The east end of the DonLevy Flat Iron block on Main Street burned after 1911.
Many years later, one very cold winter night, the Brazeau block and American Legion buildings between the Thiele Clothing Store and Taylor’s Store and what is now the Davis Insurance Agency and Wiebucsh law office burned.
Jim Smith’s Hotel, the American House, on the west side of Smith Avenue near the Frenchtown Bridge was an old Oconto landmark, which made a big fire when it burned. It was never replaced.
OLD VIEW OF CORNER OF MAIN STREET
AND PARK AVENUE
this shows part of the Music Hall which was the Stanley Toy Factory when it was destroyed by fire.
The second armory building, which was built on the same site as the first and third armory buildings, caught fire and was completely ruined in the 1920’s. That fire, too, took place at night and was to far advanced when it was discovered to save the building.
The interior of
the old Millidge store, now Art’s Market,
was also burned out in the 20’s.
When the Davis building which stood west of the O. K. tavern, William VanGaal, who ran a grocery store there, decided to close his business, R. F. Hass later built a brick store building in it’s place. The Stanley Toy Factory on the corner of Park Avenue and Main Street, owned by Chester Schwedler, burned about 1949. The building was originally the Music Hall, then the woolen mill, and later Andrew Schumacher’s Grocery and Meat Market before the toy factory located there.
For years, nearly every spring fires broke out in the woods up north, too. In the 1920’s a big fire started near Archibald Lake in the town of Townsend. Company M of the Oconto National Guard unit was sent to fight the fire. It was extinguished after two days and one night and the men returned to Oconto.
END OF MAIN STREET "BUSINESS" DISTRICT
Through the years the people of Oconto have also had their share of floods. Many homes and other buildings had been built on what had been marshland and swamp. In the old days, every spring when the snow melted fast and there was a lot of rain a food could be expected at Oconto. The river would overflow its banks on the west end of Chicago Street and along Brazeau Avenue, as well as in other places. When the ice broke up and collected at each bridge on the river, people would go to see the rising water and estimate how long they believed it would be before Oconto would be flooded.
The first of the
bigger floods that filled Oconto’s
Main Street deep enough with water to float a boat was in June 1880.
water mill dam at Susie’s Hill gave out and caught the
unaware. A lot of store goods ruined. The dam was repaired and the
was held in check for many years.
Holt and Balcom Mill. Building marked 2 in the picture is Clarence LaViolette's "Reminder" office today (1969).
In later years, after the water mill dam had given way and was not repaired, danger came from fast melting of excessive snow and ice. In the spring the banks of the Oconto River would overflow on mill property and homes near the river.
along the river prepared for the floods
ahead of time.
DELIVERING MAIL ON PARK AVENUE - MARCH 10, 1922
In the background is the Walter (Foxy) Roy home, now the Joseph Augustine home.
Looking west on Main Street, showing the Thiele and Brazeau Blocks, the Modern Woodsman Hall (later headquarters of the American Legion), the Chinaman's Laundry, the T.A. Pamperin Building, Joseph Heller Meat Market, Odd Fellows Hall, and Sharrow's Barber Shop. - Picture by Clyde Lee
Oconto had a rather severe in the spring of 1922. At that time the river overflowed and water was rushing down Main Street. Many side streets were flooded, also. Basements all over town were filled or overflowing.
Forgetting the damaging effects of the water, a carnival spirit seemed to hit the town for many. There was a run on the boot and shoe stores and soon there wasn’t a pair a boots to be bought in Oconto. Men, women and children appeared in boots and waded in water. Boats were rowed in places down Main Street, and in the spirit of fun people shopped in the flooded stores, clerks and customers alike in boots.
HOLTWOOD PARK UNDER FLOOD WATERS
In a few days the water subsided, the novelty and fun of the flood over, the people were busy and disgruntled counting their loss.
With new and
well-constructed dams at Stiles and Oconto
Falls on the Oconto River there is little danger of floods at Oconto
In the spring of the year, however, when the water gets high in the
you can see old-timers heading for the three river bridges fascinated
the turbulent, swirling, fast flowing waters of the truly beautiful