Wisconsin Chair Company Fire
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.
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.