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Wisconsin Chair Company Fire


That city suffers a heavy blow last Sunday night.
The plant of the Wis. Chair Co. entirely wiped out.
About forty families are left homeless.
Pipeman M. HACKETT loses his life.
Loss $400,000.

extracted from the Cedarburg Weekly News
February 22, 1899
transcribed by Mary Ann Albrecht

One of the most disastrous fires ever known in this county occurred in the city of Port Washington last Sunday night, wiping out the entire large plant of the Wisconsin Chair Company, the foundry building of the Malleable & Gray Iron Co., a portion of the business block and a number of private residences. The fire broke out in the veneering room of the Chair factory at about 9 o'clock in the evening and when discovered by guests at The Wilson house, was only a small blaze in the interior of the veneering room which they observed through the window. The alarm was promptly sounded, and a line of hose from the engine room of the Chair factory attached to their pumps they soon had several streams playing on the burning building. With the assistance of the local fire department after several hours work it seemed as though they had the fire under control, but then the three story brick building above the engine room caved in and thus cutting off the supply of water from that source. The fire department's engine also gave out and the fire got a fresh start, sweeping over to the north side. In the mean time aid had arrived from Milwaukee and Sheboygan, which had been telegraphed for by Mayor MUELLER, but as the facilities for unloading their apparatus were lacking when they arrived at the depot, they lost considerable time in building platforms for unloading, before they reached the scene of the fire. The entire plant was a mass of flames including a portion of the adjoining business and private houses, and the firemen directed their attention to saving the city from destruction, which would have been the case but for the heroic work of the outside fire departments. Everybody for blocks around was moving out, carrying household goods to neighbors, or storing them on the streets in the upper portion of the city. While the Milwaukee company was fighting the fire on Franklin street among the burning business block, a chimney tumbled over from the Neuendorf building , striking two of the firemen and injuring them seriously. A pipeman named HACKETT was struck in the head completely paralyzing his lower limbs, and Capt. LINEHAN received severe bruises about the body. They were carried into The Wilson house and medical aid summoned and the injured men were well provided for, but the case of HACKETT was pronounced fatal by the attending physicians, Drs. HARTWIG and HORNBOGEN of that city, and he died the following day in the hospital at Milwaukee, to which city the unfortunate men were taken by the first train in the morning. The condition of Capt. LINEHAN is said to be improving and he may recover from the shock.

At 2:30 o'clock the next morning, after six blocks had been wiped out, the fire was under control. The territory destroyed includes that portion bounded by Franklin street to the lake, a distance of two blocks, and from Pierce street to Wisconsin street, a distance of three blocks. Every business house in the east side of Franklin street, between Main and Wisconsin street, is in ashes, but the larger tannery of Mayor MUELLER on the opposite corner was saved. The fire did not reach the west side of Franklin street, but all the buildings, among them The Wilson hotel, had a close call. The loss of the chair factory is a serious blow to Port Washington, even if it is rebuilt it will take some time for the people to recover from the setback. A large portion of the population is dependent on it for a livelihood and the six hundred employees besides being thrown out of employment, lost their tools. The Chair Co. is said to have carried an insurance of about ninety per cent, while the others carried one-quarter to one-half insurance of their actual loss.

Port's Worst Night Recalled By Man Who Was There
by Theodore Bode

extracted from Ozaukee Press
February 17, 1949

It was just 9 o'clock that cold February night when the young man bending over a book under the gas light in his father's tavern on Franklin St. was suddenly interrupted by a shrill, persistent factory whistle which split the frosty air.

Grabbing his coat, the young man dashed into the street and fell in with his startled neighbors running toward the noise. As he approached the factory the red flames were already licking through the windows and black smoke was beginning to roll skyward. Within a few minutes the fire was speading through the entire factory.

The young man standing aghast watching the flames destroy the place where he worked was Theodore Bode, and as he sat in his living room last Monday he recalled that night as though it were yesterday. Actually it was 50 years ago, for the scene took place on February 19, 1899, the night the Wisconsin Chair Co. factory and six square blocks of Port Washington were destroyed in one of the biggest fires the state had ever seen.

Theodore was employed at the time as a master mechanic at the Chair Co. He remembers that the fire started when a lamp used by the night crew tipped over in the veneer department on the third floor of the main plant.

The flames quickly spread in the shaving-filled lathe department on the floor below and across the outdoor runway to the next building. Within 15 minutes they had traveled through the entire main plant, and by midnight the main plant was completely destroyed.

At that time the Chair Co. extended like a horse-shoe around the north harbor. In no time the fire had torn through the northern and western wings of the plant and spread to the malleable iron foundry located where the Harnischfeger Diesel plant now stands. Soon the piles containing 2,000,000 feet of lumber were adding their heat to the roaring inferno. The flames, Theodore recalls, shot as high as St. Mary's church steeple.

Fighting the fire was nearly impossible because of the intense heat and poor equipment. The Port fire department had only weak hand pumps and the factory's steam pumps located in the basement under the veneer department had been destroyed almost as soon as the fire started.

Several fire companies were rushed in on railroad flat cars from Milwaukee and Sheboygan as fast as possible, but they arrived in time to save only the boiler room of the factory. With the aid of a strong west wind they did succeed in preventing the destruction of the entire city.

When they had the chair factory blazing well, the flames spread across Pier St. destroying the homes of the Roob, Ubink, Martin, Merent and Oswald families.

The fire also traveled westward to Franklin St. where it rapidly destroyed the Bode home and tavern, (now the Port bakery), the Schuder bakery, the Pelt millinery store, the John Schroling, Zimmerman and Wambolt homes, Peter Sturm's shoe store, the Pilot office and Hugo Neuendorf's residence and harness shop (now Smith Bros.) The only building spared in the block was Eckelt's Jewelry store, where the Shanty Bar is now. A Milwaukee fireman was killed when the chimney of the Neuendorf building fell on him.

Theodore also remembers that as the flames spread down Franklin St. he ran home to help his father carry the valuable cases of whiskey out of the basement store room. Unable to fight the flames, most of the residents of the burning section of the city were carrying their possessions to safety.

The fire, meanwhile, was also moving around the edge of the harbor, destroying the Blake warehouse, which was used by the Chair Co. for storage, Mike Neuens wagon shop, the Wilson horse barns, the Gliebly and Harman homes and the State Trucking Co. on Grand Ave.

500 Unemployed
It was a sad night for the people of Port. Not only had many of them lost their homes and businesses, but almost the whole town was thrown out of work, for the Chair Co. employed over 500 people at the time. The factory was 11 years old then having been started as a shash and door co. in 1888.

As soon as the weather permitted in the spring of 1899, John Bostwick set about building a new factory, the present one, over the ashes of the old. The work was hastened, Theodore says, by the contribution of $25,000 made by the people of the city to construct the spur track from the Chicago and North Western railroad to bring in materials. The plant was back in operation the following year.

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