Danbury News - Nov 17, 1890 - Foster Brothers' factory fire

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Danbury News Article describing the events of the Foster Brothers' factory fire as it unfolded. Included in the article are the reactions of the citizens, Fire Chief Meyers, and the superintendent of water works. Fire Chief Morris Meyers is accused of mismanagement and some of the paid firemen are accused of inaction.

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1890-11-17

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[Danbury News, Nov. 17, 1890]

SWEPT BY FLAMES.
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Foster Brothers’ Factory Destroyed.
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An Incendiary Fire Consumes the Lumber Yards and Sheds and Stables, and Destroys a Portion of the Factory – A Tenement House Destroyed – The Losses and Insurance.
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For the second time Foster Bros. have suffered severe loss by fire, their factory, stables and lumber yards being destroyed early Sunday morning.
Fire, wind and water, combined with accident and mismanagement have left the big planing mill and its surroundings in ruins and ashes.
The fire broke out in the lumber sheds bordering the railway tracks and swept across the yard, through the tall piles of lumber to the stables, and beyond to the tenement houses in the adjoining lane.
The firemen got the flames under control, but in their anxiety to save the lumber piles and horse sheds from total destruction, they failed to protect the big three story factory, and it slowly took fire, and half the upper story was in flames before an appreciable effort was made to save it. Then it was too late.
To add to this the fire alarm failed to work properly, in the beginning, and the department was short handed, and then at the most critical moment the engineers found themselves unable to control the steamer, and the firemen were left with an insufficient water supply.

THE BURNED PROPERTY.
Foster Brothers’ planing mill is situated at the corner of Delay street and Railroad lane, the Main building facing the former thoroughfare. The mill and carpenter shop is the largest of the kind in the city, occupying a three-story frame building. Adjoining this on the south are the works of the Danbury Furnace company, and upon the east, facing the Housatonic railway yards, Fry & Co.’s hat wire shop. Below this extended a long line of lumber sheds, forming the north boundary of a large square. Along the south line of the square were Foster Brothers’ stables and another line of lumber sheds, the whole surrounding the lumber yard. Almost the only entrance to the yard is through the alley between the planning mill and the furnace works. A lane runs along the south of the furnace works, and bordering this are several dwelling houses and small buildings.

THE FIRE AND ITS DISCOVERY.
It was just half-past two when an engine whistle sounded a long blast, and a moment later a chorus of shrill shrieks aroused half of the eastern portion of the city.
Policemen Fisher and Dittmar saw the blaze from White street a moment or two before the whistle blew.
A brilliant light is frequently seen at the gas works, and the officers thought for a moment that it was there, but they quickly decided that it was a fire and Fisher ran to alarm box 25, at the corner of Main and White streets, while Dittmar hurried around the corner to the fire department quarters.
Fisher pulled box 25, and the mechanism appeared to work well enough, but the large bell did not sound. The small bell in the box sounded the number twice, and then the large bell in the tower struck two blows.
The firemen were already on the way to the fire, and the officer, seeing that it was useless to try to sound the bell, hurried away to the fire.
Horace Dean, Foster Brothers’ driver, lives in the house adjoining the factory on the south, and he was awakened by the light several minutes before the alarm was given. He ran down into the lumber yard crying fire, and went to work to liberate the horses.
The fire was then burning in the lumber shed, on the north side of the yard. Mr. Dean said: “I ran into the stable, and when I returned, not two minutes later, the whole north side was afire and there was a small blaze down at the lower end of the stables. The fire seemed to run along the front of the shed as if it was oil. It was all done in a flash, and before I got the last horse out the whole yard was on fire.”
One of the neighbors who was among the first to reach the fire said that there were flames in three distinct places on the north side of the yard, and at the same time there was fire on the south side. The sheds were wet, but the fire seemed to glide along, and leap over obstructions, in a way that led him to believe that the flames were fed by oil.
Isaac Leach, who was among the early arrivers, saw the flames follow a straight course over a pile of lumber, and he hurried around the pile, and found a quantity of kerosene oil upon the wet boards. The odor was very perceptible, and in order to convince himself that he was right, he placed his hand in the oil. There was a distinct odor of kerosene upon his fingers.
A brisk breeze was blowing and the flames were driven across the lumber yard in an incredibly short time.

THE FIREMEN SHORT-HANDED.
Hose companies 1 and 2, the steamer, and the truck, were quickly at the fire with the few men who sleep in the quarters, but as the alarm failed to arouse the call men the companies were short-handed. A line of hose was laid along the railway line, and a successful effort was made to cut off the flames between the lumber shed and Fry & Co.’s shop.
A strong wind was blowing and the flames were carried away from the firemen, and before they could appreciate the situation the stables on the opposite side of the square were in a blaze.
The steamer was located at a hydrant on the Delay street side and the engineers were endeavoring to get up steam.
Before they succeeded the whole side of the sheds, towards the railway tracks, was on fire, and the building fell in just as the steamer commenced to work.
This was a quarter of three, nearly fifteen minutes after the alarm was given.

THE WIND CREATES HAVOC.
Just then an unusually spiteful gust of wind swept a solid cloud of flames clear across the yard, driving back the firemen, who were endeavoring to get at the flames through the alley.
There were two streams of water playing on the flames now, and they were almost useless. It seemed as if the destruction of the factory was inevitable.
The firemen, short-handed as they were worked with a will, and two more lines of hose were laid from the steamer, one around on the north side, and the other on the south.
It was just five minutes of three when the flames burst through the sheds on the south, and were blown against a tenement owned by Henry Bernd, at the farther end of the lane.
Peter Sweeney occupied this house and the people were already hurrying away with what effects they could gather.
All the hose was in use and for fifteen minutes the flames had their own way on the south side of the lumber yard. The tenement house was afire from cellar to attic, and the flames were sweeping up the sheds towards the furnace works when the supply wagons rattled up with loads of hose and a line was laid down the lane. It seemed an hour, although it was but a few moments, before the steamer sent a powerful stream down the lane, effectually beating back the flames from the furnace factory, and saving the house on Delay street. A second stream was soon at work there and though the flames were by no means extinguished, the firemen were soon masters of the situation.

CONTINUED TO THE REAR.
At three o’clock the flames had made havoc from the railway tracks to the lane on the south, and the lumber and building were burning fiercely.
The planning mill was as yet almost untouched, and it became apparent that unless something unforeseen should occur, that building would be saved.
The Bernd tenement was all afire at that time, and it was evident that it would be destroyed.
The stables were in ruins, and the firemen were getting control of the fire all around.
The department was working against great odds, and had it not been for the blunder which was made a few minutes later, they would have accomplished a splendid piece of work, under the circumstances.

THE ALARM SOUNDS.
It was exactly three o’clock when Chief Meyers succeeded in sounding a general alarm from box 32. This brought the companies from the outlying districts. The bell awoke hundreds of people, and the flames which illuminated half the city attracted a great crowd.
The fire police established their line and the spectators were kept at a respectable distance.
The several hose companies which responded to the alarm laid lines of hose from all directions, and practically under control as the fire was, it should have been extinguished without further damages.
The factory was not on fire, and as it did not appear to be in particular danger it was left almost unguarded, and the hose men directed their efforts towards the lumber piles.

THE TOWER TAKES FIRE.
At the southeast corner of Foster Brothers’ factory, a tower supported a tank, which supplied the automatic sprinklers, with which the building was provided.
A few minutes after three a piece of moulding on one corner of this tower caught fire, and blazed up quite briskly.
The factory was then out of danger, and as there was no water in the immediate vicinity, the fire on the tower had its own way for a few minutes, and in that short time it grew to quite a blaze.
Joel Foster, one of the owners of the building, was among the first to notice the headway the fire was making on the tower, and he went inside the building where a stream was playing onto the ruins in the rear, and asked the firemen to extinguish the fire on the tower.
His request met with no response and ten minutes elapsed. There were three streams playing on the piles of lumber on the south, and Mr. Foster ran to them. He said last evening: “I asked them to leave the lumber, as it was of no value, and protect the factory, which was in considerable danger. One of the men replied, ‘Our orders are to stay here, and we will do so until the chief comes’. I then started to find Chief Meyers,” continued Mr. Foster, “but I was unsuccessful. When I returned the whole corner of the building was afire, and nothing had been done towards saving it.”

CITIZENS GO TO WORK.
One of Foster Bros.’ employees had a small line of hose from the factory and he endeavored to make the stream reach the top of the tower, but the water fell several feet short of the mark.
Ex-Chief Elwood and F.B. Crofutt were among the bystanders, and they assisted the carpenters to raise a ladder to the roof. After some difficulty two ladders were so arranged that a man managed to reach the top of the factory and he pulled the hose up after him.
There was little or no pressure upon the stream and the water did not check the flames in the least.
The flames had been making their way around under the eaves, on both sides of the tower, all this time, and it soon grew so hot that the man on the roof was obliged to drop the pipe and scramble for a place of safety.
Then the men mounted the ladder and tried to reach the fire in that way.
“That won’t do no good,” called out one of three members of the paid fire department who were standing by and watching operations without offering to assist.
A spiteful gust of wind blew the fire and smoke against the men on the ladder, and they were obliged to drop the hose. F.B. Crofutt was severely scorched about the face before he could get beyond the reach of the flames.
Chief Meyers came up then and took in the situation. It was exactly three o’clock when the tower of the factory first caught fire, and already a half hour had elapsed. The fire spread along the roof so rapidly that the building was in greater danger than it had been at any previous time. Still no firemen appeared.
Five minutes later, three men dragged a line of hose into the alley, and ten minutes was spent in getting it up a ladder.
Word came that the steamer had given out, and another five minutes was consumed in getting a stream from a hydrant. By that time the whole south end of the third story was on fire and the firemen began to wake up to the situation.
Chief Meyers directed the work of the men and two streams were played upon the burning building from the roof of the furnace works.
There appeared to be little force to the streams, and the fire had already gained such headway that it seemed impossible to save the building.
A few minutes later there was an increase in the volume of water, and for a time the chances seemed about even for victory between the two elements. The patent sprinklers with which the shop was equipped, commenced to operate for the first time, and they had a perceptible effect upon the fire.
At four o’clock the streams, which had at that time been directed against the factory about ten minutes, began to have some effect, and there appeared to be some chance of saving the factory, though it was yet difficult to determine which of the forces had the stronger hold.
At just three minutes past four the steamer was started up again, and two powerful streams were thrown upon the fire, with its aid. They had telling effect, and in ten minutes the firemen had the flames in the south end under control. All the streams, with the exception of one in the lane, had been directed against the south end and east side of the factory and the side was left unprotected.
Unnoticed by the firemen, the flames obtained a good hold at the extreme north end of the building, overlooking the railway yard.
The fire first appeared near the center of the third story, and it was then exactly twenty minutes past four.
For nine minutes the fire burned steadily, a portion of the roof falling in, and the front catching fire, before a stream was sent around to that side.
Then the north side, and half the front were in flames, and there appeared to be little prospect of saving any of the building.
A lack of water undoubtedly hindered the firemen in getting to work on the south end, but there appeared to be no excuse for the delay in getting water on the north side.
The firemen had up and down work for the next half hour, first fire and then water getting the upper hand. At the end of that time they had the flames well under control and before the daylight the fire was out.
The two lower stories of the mill were saved from fire, but the third story and the roof were completely destroyed. A portion of Fry & Co.’s words remain intact, on the north side, and the furnace works were unharmed on the south side. Back of this everything was destroyed to the eastern limit of the lumber yard.
Henry Bernd’s tenement house on the south was nearly destroyed, and the greater part of Mr. Sweeney’s effects were burned.

THE LOSSES AND INSURANCE.
Joel Foster said last evening that the firm’s loss would reach $15,000, and might possibly run as high as $20,000, although the latter figures are high.
There is insurance of $8,450 on the property through the agencies of George C. Stevens and Timothy Jones. Of this amount $3,000 was upon the main building, and the remainder upon the machinery, sheds and stock.
Fry & Co.’s loss is about $800. They had no insurance.
Henry Bernd estimates his loss at about a thousand dollars. He had five hundred dollars insurance.
Peter Sweeney, who occupied the house, will lose about eight hundred dollars. He was insured for four hundred dollars.

MISMANAGEMENT CLAIMED.

Those men who witnessed the fire were loud in denouncing its management, and the matter formed the principal topic of conversation throughout the city yesterday.
A News reporter questioned fully fifty people during the progress of the fire, and after it was under control, and in every case the reply was the same. The main building should not have been damaged. The insurance men declared that the fire could easily have been extinguished on the water tower before it gained the headway that it did, and several persons commented upon the apparent indifference of some of the firemen as they stood by and watched the citizens at work. One paid member of the hook and ladder company stood leaning upon an axe for thirty-five minutes, watching citizens in their endeavor to extinguish the fire on the tower.
Two practiced engineers stated that the steamer was not properly managed, and that a practical engineer would not have done what the steamer’s engineers did, under the circumstances.

WHAT CHIEF MEYERS SAID.
Chief Meyers said this morning: “if we had been given water we would have saved the factory. The men were bothered from the first by a scarcity of water, and when the engineer came to me and said that there was no water in the boiler, I did not have a stream upon which I could depend.
“I had lines of hose laid from Main and Liberty streets, and it was from them I got water to play on the south end of the factory. If I could have gotten water in time I would have saved that portion of the building.
“When No. 2 attached to the hydrant on the corner near the railway yard, they were obliged to abandon it as they could get no water at all.
“As for the steamer, I do not know whether or not the engineers did right in drowning the fires. That must be investigated.”
The chief said that he could not account for the scarcity of water. He sent a policeman to notify the water department, and a very few minutes later there was a much greater pressure.

WHAT MR. FOSTER SAYS.
Joel Foster, of the firm of Foster Brothers, said Sunday evening, that he does not wish to say anything against the firemen, although he did not think they worked as they should. He spoke especially of the number of paid men standing idle, and making comments upon the efforts of the citizens.
Mr. Foster said that he had no doubt that the fire was of incendiary origin, and from all he could learn it was started in several different places at about the same time. “It would be impossible for fire to gain such headway,” said Mr. Foster, “unless there was oil or something of that nature used, for lumber in piles burns very slowly. I am told that the flames ran up over the lumber and leaped from place to place without apparent cause.”
The firm employs about twenty-five men at present, and is very busy, having several contracts on hand.
Work was commenced this morning clearing away the debris, and carpenters will be set to work at once, rebuilding the burned portions of the factory.
The tools owned by the men were all saved from the fire.

THE FIRE ALARM.
Chief Meyers told a News reporter this morning that the only difficulty with the alarm was that two boxes were pulled at the same time. Box 25 was pulled by officer Fisher, and box 7 by a factory watchman. This of course caused a confusion in the apparatus.
The bell worked properly when he gave the general alarm at three o’clock.

THE INCENDIARY.

There is absolutely no clue to the scoundrel who started the fire, and no reason is known for such an act, other than pure devilishness, a quality which has characterized the work of Danbury incendiaries since they commenced their work two years ago.
Policeman Fisher passed Foster Bros.’ factory just as the City Hall clock struck two. He was taking an intoxicated man home, and of course walked very slowly. He heard no noise, nor discovered any sign of fire or smoke.
A half hour later the whole lumber yard was on fire.

PREVIOUS FIRES AT FOSTER BROS.
Foster Bros. planing mill was destroyed by fire August 1st, 1885, the building being struck by lightning. The loss at that time was $15,000.
The lumber yard and buildings adjoining had a narrow escape at the burning of Davenport & VonGal’s factory, June 26th, 1889.

THERE WAS PLENTY OF WATER.
Water Commissioner Mason said this afternoon, that, so far as he was able to ascertain, there was no scarcity of water at the fire. There was an even pressure of eighty-five pounds on the four-inch main continuously and he had no way of increasing it.
The water could not have been increase[d] in response to the telephone message. The hydrants were all in order when he tested them Sunday morning, after the fire.
[END ARTICLE]

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“Danbury News - Nov 17, 1890 - Foster Brothers' factory fire.” WCSU Archives, 9 July 2019. Accessed on the Web: 22 July 2019.

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