Source: North Manchester Journal, September 16, 1897



The Factories of Dunbar & Mathews, Roby & Strauss, Manchester Mfg. Co., Two Barns and a Lot of Lumber Consumed


Fire Breaks Out Early Yesterday Afternoon and Rages for Two Hours with Terrific Fury, Threatening for a Time to Sweep the West End of the City Clean.

Patrons of the city waterworks during this dry weather have made heavy demands upon the supply of water, so heavy indeed that it has been impossible for the engineer at the pumping station to keep up the supply in the standpipe that is necessary for the town's safety in case of a fire during this dry season. The unequalled liberty the present board has granted to the patrons, has been taken advantage of and the liberality of the board abused.

At nine o'clock Tuesday night there was but ten feet of water in the standpipe, and the supply in the reservoir was exhausted. That, as everybody should know, is a dangerous condition to be in should a fire break out. The board cannot too soon adopt such measures as will afford protection to all the citizens regardless of whether a few keep their lawns green or not. Protection against fire is the first, and we might say, the only need of water works.

The foregoing was written at half past one o'clock yesterday and before the printer had it in type the calamity was upon us an hundred fold larger than could have been imagined. Our city was the scene of one of the most disastrous conflagrations ever known in its history which has resulted in the total loss of thousands of dollars worth of property.

At a few minutes after two o'clock the fire alarm was sounded. Fire had broken out in the dry kiln of Dunbar & Mathews' heading factory and a match might just as well have been thrown into the midst of a powder magazine so far as destruction of property was concerned. The dry kiln was in the midst of their lumber yard which was stacked full with thousands of feet of kiln dried heading. Some ten or a dozen piles as big as a two story house were built up on the yard beside half a dozen sheds filled with the finished product ready to ship. The amount of this stock on the yard represented the summer's business and it can readily be seen that there was a vast amount of it.

The dry kiln stood beside a large two story building 40x80 feet filled with heading material in which the fire spread with the rapidity of the wind. At the time a strong wind was blowing from the south west and it was a foregone conclusion that the entire lumber yard was doomed yet at the time no one imagined the extent the fire would take.

The heavy wind together with the heat carried blazing sparks into the air and scattered them all over that part of town. But a few minutes elapsed until every pile of heading, shed and building on the Dunbar yards was ignited, then it became apparent that all that part of town was in the worst danger.

The fire company responded but the inadequate supply of water to fight such a fire was at once apparent. There was not sufficient force on to carry the water any distance from the nozzle and the intense heat from the burning mass of heading made it almost impossible to get in reaching distance of the fire.

The burning faggots dropping all over the surrounding territory started a blaze where one lighted on anything combustible. It was but a few minutes until the new factory just erected by Roby & Strauss, just north of Dunbar's, was a mass of flames. The fire spread with lightning rapidity to the old sheds and buildings belonging to Henry Mills south of Mill street and from there to the foundry of the Manchester Mfg. Co., all of which were soon in flames despite the heroic efforts of the people to save them. All were burned to the ground.

Sparks were carried to the old flax straw barn just northwest of the Big Four depot and before the crowd was aware of it this structure was a seething mass of flames. It was filled with wagon stock owned by Ulrey, Harter & Co. and valued at $1,500. Fire also broke out in the barns and sheds on the lot of John Ennis and Curt Murphy, north and east of the Big Four depot and these structures were soon in ashes.

Fire was breaking out on every board and piece of wood. Fences were ablaze all around. The Big Four depot and elevator as well as the sheds on the ground across the street from the mill of J.A. Browne & Co. were by the vigilance and heroic work of the people put out as fast as they started and prevented any of them from burning. For a time it looked as though every building in that quarter of the town was doomed.

During all this time the stuff on the Dunbar yard was one seething cauldron of flames so hot that no one could approach within 500 feet without suffering from the heat. This prevented the firemen and people from fighting the flames and all they could do was to turn their attention to those buildings not already on fire. The electric light plant, which fortunately is of brick with an iron roof, the Big Four depot and elevator, Brown & Co.'s factory, Shoemaker & Co.'s mill and all the other sheds and buildings threatened were saved. By four o'clock the fire had spent its fury, leaving a pile of burning ruins to mark the place where once stood a thrifty and prosperous business.

A dispatch had been sent to Wabash for assistance and Mayor McHenry and the fire department responded with great promptness. They came over on a special train, making the run in thirteen minutes after leaving the city. They came in time to be of valuable assistance and they went to work with a will. The people of North Manchester are under everlasting obligations to the Wabash people for the generous manner in which they responded to the call for aid and the brotherly spirit with which they came to the work. That city need never call on our people in vain if they should ever have need of assistance in a like time of distress.

There has been much condemnation expressed over the fact that the supply of water was not greater and as usual many hot words were spoken. We have not time at present to discuss this matter or lay a charge at any one's door, yet it does look as though something was radically wrong and this lesson is severed enough to bring a prompt and sufficient remedy for the future.

This fire is a severe blow to the town. Dunbar & Mathews' concern ws the largest factory in town and it not only seriously cripples these gentlemen, but throws about sixty men out of work. The burning of the foundry throws out a dozen or more and all told probably 100 people will be seriously affected by the fir. At this time the full effect of this disastrous occurrence cannot be estimated, but that it was a sorry day for the town is only too true.

We are at this time unable to give much of an estimate of the loss. Everything is in a chaotic state and last evening no one could tell even if he felt disposed to do so what the extent of his loss is. A rough estimate may be given as follows: Dunbar & Mathews, loss $25,000 to $30,000 with about $7,000 insurance; Manchester Mfg. Co. $8,000, no insurance; Roby & Strauss, $1,500, no insurance; Ulrey, Harter & Co., $1,500, no insurance; Henry Mills, $500; John Ennis and others on barns, probably $500. Total loss may reach $50,000 when all damage and breakage is taken into consideration.

By a fortunate circumstance the main factory of Dunbar & Mathews is not badly injured when everything is taken into consideration. The factory is south of where the fire broke out and the wind kept the flames from working back to it and by hard work the men were able to save it without great damage. It is too soon for these gentlemen to express any opinion as to their future plans but it is to be hoped that they can arrange matters so as to continue their business without long interruption. Neither can the others give any opinion on the future outlook of their business.

There is much more that might be said had we the time and space to do so. At the time of going to press last night the ruins were smouldering all that factory part of town bounded by Main street, the Wabash railway and the Big Four railway was one big ash pile. May North Manchester never have such a fire again.

Source: North Manchester Journal, September 23, 1897

Some Notes and Thoughts on the Fire of Last Week that May be of Interest and Importance.

A week has now elapsed since the great fire and, although the excitement has quieted down, the full and far reaching extent of the disaster is not entirely realized. The JOURNAL's account of the fire last week was written hurriedly after the fire was practically over and before the true situation was really known, but it was not overdrawn in one particular and if anything did not disclose the true enormity of the calamity.

To one who has visited the scene of the flames since the fire this is more evident than can be told in cold type. All that heretofore busy factory section is as barren as a plowed field save for a few piles of crumbling brick and broken machinery, and the appearance is desolate enough.

The amount of loss is even greater than was stated last week. In the old stave mill of Mills & Bonner, which was among the buildings destroyed, was a lot of machinery which was unknown to the writer at the time. Mr. Mills estimates the loss at $2,500. In one of the sheds of this property J.A. Browne & Co. had $1,000 worth of finished wagon stock and of course it was a total loss. The property covered in this was estimated at $500 last week. The freight transfer house at the railroad crossing with over a carload of miscellaneous freight in it and a Big Four car loaded with sixty sacks of clover seed standing on the "Y" were also consumed. This loss will add fully another $1,000, the clover seed alone being valued at $600. There are a few other minor losses resulting from the fire but these are all the principal ones not mentioned last week.

As yet those directly affected by the calamity are unable to lay any plans for the future. Dunbar & Mathews, the heaviest losers, we are sorry to say, are badly crippled financially by the loss and they will do nothing until a settlement is made with the insurance companies. Theirs was the best and most important factory in town, employing at times nearly 100 men. At the time of the fire about fifty were on the payroll. The town can illy afford to lose such an institution and all possible financial assistance should be extended them. The JOURNAL understands that they are in such a condition that they will need help of this kind if they start up their factory on an extensive basis. Let our citizens think over these things and come to their succor.

The next heaviest loser is the Manchester Mfg. Co., more commonly known as the Noftzger foundry. While nominally their loss is about $8,000, yet there are so many things destroyed in the shape of patterns, etc., on which a value cannot be placed that it is almost inestimable. This firm will probably make arrangements to rebuild at no distant day, but for the present they have made arrangements to open up a shop in the Excelsior factory where they can to some extent continue their business without serious interruption.

Roby & Strauss, whose factory was swept away before a wheel had turned are two as plucky men as you will find anywhere. They had just completed a small factory for the manufacture of Roby's patent pool ball rack and were going to start the machinery the next day after the fire occurred. All their machinery and patterns representing months of careful study and experiment were destroyed making the loss an inestimable one as far as dollars and cents are concerned. Notwithstanding that they will have to begin all over again. The ground was hardly cold until they had made arrangements to use the old Rex wind mill plant and had their plans going to start a new factory and continue the business. Such pluck and energy certainly deserves the greatest success.

The town has truly received a severe lesson and one that demonstrates the truth of the proposition that people must watch as well as pray. It shows that a first-class system of water works affords no protection against fire unless they are carefully watched and every possible emergency provided for. It is a well known fact that the water supply from the wells has been insufficient to supply the consumption during the hot months, but people rested secure in the thought that direct pressure could be applied at a moment's notice and plenty of water drawn from the river. At the time the fire broke out there was but ten feet of water in the stand pipe and when it was sought to draw from the river it was found that the water box was filled with leaves and trash which had to be removed before water could be had. This took time and the fire was burning rapidly every moment.

Then it was somebody's business--whose we don't know--to shut off the stand pipe, but whoever was charged with that task did not get the valve entirely closed for some reason or other and the charge is made that during the time of the fire ninety feet of water was pumped into the standpipe which should have been thrown on the fire by direct pressure. These two things were blunders which cost the town, or rather some if its citizens, many valuable dollars, and teaches the lesson that every possible precaution should be provided for at all times.

At the beginning of the fire there was hardly any water pressure at all, owing to the circumstances just related, but toward the end it was all that could be desired. Had there been an ordinarily good pressure at the start there is no doubt that much of the property destroyed would have been saved, just how much would have burned is hard to tell, but it is certain that the fire would not have taken the extent it did. The lesson of this fire is plainly apparent to all and, we feel sure, will not go unheeded.

Before finishing this article the JOURNAL must compliment the fire department boys on the gallant and heroic manner in which they fought the fire under such exciting, discouraging circumstances. The old fire engine, which has stood useless for a long time, was brought out and rendered a great service. Taking it all around the department accomplished a great work.

Source: North Manchester Journal, September 30, 1897

Steps are Being Taken by the People to Assist the above Firm which Lost so Heavily in the Fire of Two Weeks ago.

The one great question that has been agitating the minds of North Manchester people this week is what assistance financially will the town extend the firm of Dunbar & Mathews who suffered so severely in the fire of two weeks ago.

As has been said in these columns before the calamity which fell upon this town has financially wrecked this firm, whose loss is stated to be at least $25,000. It has left them in such a condition that they are unable to resume business without financial assistance and the question is what will the town do for them.

The fire swept away the whole of their stock in trade and although the firm has received something like $4,000 insurance money they are so heavily involved by the loss of their stock that they are unable to start a wheel until some help is given them. It took a large amount of money to conduct their business as they have been operating in the past and they had much borrowed capital which the insurance money will only partly repay, leaving them still heavily in debt.

So far these gentlemen have been awaiting the settlement with the insurance companies and to see what action our citizens would take toward assisting them. The time is now at hand for something to be done. The concern has received offers from other towns to remove from this place, but Messrs Dunbar & Mathews say that they do not desire to move away. Their homes and their interests are here and it is not their intention to consider these offers unless they cannot get the financial assistance at home which they will have to have to start their factory.

Theirs was the factory employing the largest number of men of any concern in town. It has run almost steadily, sometimes day and night, for years, and has been prompt in the payment of its hands. The payroll at the time of the fire was a little over $300 a week. Besides this the mill furnished a market for a class of timber that farmers could dispose of in no other way. It has been the means of paying to the farmers of this section thousands of dollars for a class of timber that was unmarketable for any other purpose. This is not the kind of a concern that should perish for the want of a little help. The question is can the community afford to let this factory die out or move to some other place.

What the firm wants is some money with which to operate their mill and buy timber. With sufficient funds the mill can be started and kept going on its former scale. Without money it must, of necessity, be operated in a very limited way if it is run at all. This, as the JOURNAL understands it, is the long and short of the question.

A meeting to consider this matter was held in the Grand Army hall Monday night. A number of gentlemen present spoke on the subject and all expressed a willingness to assist to the extent of their ability. The firm was called on for statement which was made by Mr. Mathews. He stated that their loss was $25,000 and he felt as though one-third of that amount ought to be made up to them. He stated that they would receive timber the same as cash and that he thought the farmers in the country around would help them in this way. No one seemed to have any definite plan or idea how to move in the matter and after some discussion a motion prevailed that the chairman, Mr. D.M. Frame, appoint a committee of seven to formulate some plan of operations for the raising of a subscription. The following gentlemen were named on the committee: Daniel Sheller, J.W. Domer, G.R. Craft, Walter Laidlaw, J.M. Jennings, John Isenbarger and C.F. Reed.

Before adjournment of the meeting Dr. Ginther offered a resolution extending the thanks of our citizens to the Wabash fire department and the officials of that city for the prompt manner in which they responded to the call for assistance at the time of the fire and the excellent service they rendered after arriving on the ground. Also to Superintended Blizard and the Big Four railroad for the special train which brought the fire department over from Wabash without any charge whatever. Also to the Wabash railroad which uncoupled an engine from a train at Columbia City and came with all speed in order to move some cars standing on the side tracks near the fire and in the territory threatened by the flames, and render whatever assistance was possible. The resolution was passed by a unanimous vote after which the meeting adjourned.

The committee appointed, as stated above, met on Tuesday and decided to solicit a popular contribution to be given Dunbar & Mathews. There was some question as to the amount this sum should be but as it is pretty hard to determine the figure in advance it was decided to secure every dollar possible even if it exceeds the amount these gentlemen would like to have. In case the firm decides to accept the donation raised they are to obligate themselves to continue the factory in operation on the same general plan as in the past for a period of not less than five years and to employ at no time less than twenty-five hands. The subscriptions will be made payable in three equal payments within two, four and six months.

The committee and solicitors are now at work and will probably have the amount raised within a few days, so that the wheels can again be turned and the hum of industry be heard again in that section of town. It is hardly necessary for us to say anything further in regard to the matter at this time. Everybody and more especially every business man knows the advantage this factory is to the town. That the firm is deserving of this help cannot be denied and it is therefore the duty of everyone to assist to the extent of his ability.

Source: Frazer Arnold, Town of My Fathers--Reminiscences of a North Manchester Boyhood (1950)

(p. 13) At the time of the big fire which destroyed the Dunbar factory, Herb [Halderman] circulated a report at recess--which may have been true--that "Kitson (the janitor) says we can go to the fire!" Nothing more was needed, and the whole school yard broke and ran like whooping Indians to the West End and to what was, beyond doubt, the worst fire in the town's history. It consumed a number of buildings besides the factory. I remember witnessing a nearby unpainted barn full of hay burst into flames, apparently from the heat, as we could see no fire blow into it, and it was gone in a few minutes.