Thanks for subscribing! Please check your email for further instructions.
GREAT MONMOUTH FIRE’ PRECEDED CHICAGO BLAZE BY MONTHS
(Picture courtesy of medium.com) Jeff Rankin, Monmouth College Historian
8, 1871, a devastating fire destroyed more than three square miles of the city
of Chicago, leveling 17,500 buildings and leaving 100,000 people homeless.
Monmouth residents hearing the news of the Great Chicago Fire could empathize,
as just five months earlier nearly half of their city’s business district had
been wiped out by a fast-moving blaze.
causes of the Monmouth fire, which occurred 148 years ago this Thursday, were
similar to Chicago’s, although a particularly hot, dry summer contributed to
the latter fire’s intensity. The key factors in both conflagrations, however,
were buildings constructed entirely of wood and a stiff breeze.
night of May 9, the fire broke out in the alley behind Monmouth’s T. J. Thorpe
Marble Works, at the southeast corner of First Street and Broadway. An
inexperienced person turned in the alarm, causing the fire department to be
slow in responding to the blaze, which burned rapidly toward the west, engulfing
John Babcock’s hardware store, which stood on the current site of Monmouth City
point, the wind shifted to the south, causing the fire to leap across Broadway
to Carr’s block. Soon, according to the Monmouth Atlas, the fire on both sides
of Broadway burned “as if rivaling the other”—the fire on the north extending
to Main Street, while the fire on the south was stopped by the solidly built
Churchill’s Hall, a brick structure with a fireproof slate roof. Had that
building (which today house’s Market Alley Wines) not stopped the fire, it was
believed it would have continued west, perhaps to the city limits.
might also not have been stopped had there not been an earlier disastrous fire.
Three years earlier, the destruction of a row of business houses on East
Broadway had led the city council to appoint a fire marshal and two assistants.
The council also gave the marshal the authority to organize a 30-man hook and
ladder company, and issued bonds of $10,000, which the mayor used to purchase a
pump engine with a circulating boiler.
two hours on the scene of the 1871 fire, the hook and ladder company managed to
control the fire with the old steam pumper. Another change of winds assisted
the company in its task.
the Chicago fire, which killed 300 people, the Monmouth fire resulted in no
fatalities, although there were a number of close escapes. Four firefighters
were standing on a roof adjoining the Babcock store when a barrel of gunpowder
blew up, hurling a column of debris high into the air. The men were hit by
flying embers, but not seriously injured.
sun came up the next morning, the citizens of Monmouth surveyed in horror the
smoking rubble of much of their downtown. The fire had caused a loss estimated
at $300,000-$500,000, leaving 45 firms without a place to carry on their trade.
The businesses, which employed 150-200 workers, carried insurance policies
totaling less than $84,000.
the charred district was a diversity of businesses, offices and public
buildings—clothing stores, boots and shoes, a news depot and book store, the
Odd Fellows hall, attorneys, a millinery, a tailor, grocers, a jeweler and even
a sewing machine dealer who did not fare particularly well. Of the 40 machines
he had in stock, only five were saved.
businessmen were resilient. Within two weeks, J. W. Scott had begun work on a
new two-story brick building on the site of his former grocery, while hardware
merchant John Babcock and attorney James Madden were preparing to begin their
new buildings. Many of the other businesses had relocated—a couple of them to
like politics, apparently make strange bedfellows. The editor of the Atlas
remarked: “It was a neighborly sight, last week, to pass around the square and
notice a butcher and barber shop, a book and millinery store, etc., crowded
together in the same room, but the novelty was lost in the number of such
after the fire, safes belonging to W. D. H. Young, John Babcock and James
Madden were pulled from the rubble and their contents found to be in good
condition, with even the books and papers being perfectly preserved. The elated
Babcock immediately wrote an effusive letter to the Herring safe company of
Chicago, which the company used in testimonial newspaper ads for several
merchants and downtown landlords considered whether to rebuild, some community
leaders saw a potential boon in the tragedy. City weighmaster C. K. Smith
initiated a petition to have the city purchase the lots burned by the fire and
extend the public square east to First Street. Signed by many of the town’s
leaders, including Monmouth College president David Wallace, the petition
prompted a community meeting in the courthouse, presided over by Mayor William
Boyd. Enthusiasm for the project was nearly unanimous, with a proposal to build
a new courthouse in the center of the enlarged square being a key attraction. A
committee was formed to determine the value of the real estate that would need
to be purchased.
later, however, the city council met and quickly quashed the idea, deeming it
too expensive—with upper estimates approaching $80,000. The editor of the Atlas
was crestfallen, writing: “The square as it has been is an eye sore, and must so
continue. It gives no opportunity for improving in any particular. We may
succeed in raising it above the level of a common mudhole, but anything like
beauty, convenience or utility is out of the question.”
15 decades since 1871, a handful of other large downtown fires have further
transformed Monmouth’s business district. These include the 1953 Elks Club
fire, the 1974 Centennial Block fire and the 1975 Larson Furniture fire. Only
the 1974 fire was determined to have been set on purpose, but arson is
inevitably rumored in all such blazes. Even the 1871 Monmouth Atlas noted that
while the origin of that fire was unknown, it hinted that it might have been
set “either by design or from the pipe of some drunken outcast.”
Maple City Memories, I’m Jeff Rankin.