Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Fires and Fire Protection in the Southside

This year, 2012, is the centennial of the professional Jefferson City Fire Department. A volunteer fire department existed as early as the 1840s, but the spectacular Capitol fire of 1911 showed the need for a funded professional fire department, which was organized in 1912. The Old Munichburg district of Jefferson City can contribute to this history.

A century and more ago, people had a constant fear of house fires, especially flue fires. Everyone burned wood or coal for cooking and heating. They had kerosene (coal-oil) lamps for lighting. There was plenty of fire danger around. Sparks showered out of chimneys onto roofs of combustible wood or, later, asphalt shingles and set roofs on fire.

Early on, house fires were fought with water hand pumped from cisterns into buckets that were thrown onto the fire. Later on, fires were put out with “chemical,” most likely hydrochloric acid with baking soda as a propellant. Church records show that as late as 1943 the Jefferson City Fire Department refilled the six soda-acid fire extinguishers of Central United Church of Christ for $3.00.

Before the professional Jefferson City Fire Department was formed, the volunteer fire company’s main station was on High Street. A branch was formed in 1890 in Munichburg on the northeast corner of Dunklin and Washington, on the Moerschel Brewery property. The large brewery itself had two water wells with air-compressor pumps and “48 fire dust hand grenades.”

The 1890s were a decade of major construction in Munichburg. Central Church built its present building in 1891, and Farmers Home (the ECCO building), the Nieghorn House (Bassmann Apartments), Western Steam Bottling Works (J&D Bike Shop), and a new Moerschel Brewery were built and added to the existing Tanner and Morlock mercantile stores and Tanner Foundry and Staihr tinsmith shop.

The “Muenchberg City Hose HQ” had a cart with 500 feet of two-and-a-half-inch rubber hose. The cart was pulled either by volunteer men or by horses.

The Munichburg Fire Department building fell into disrepair, and the cart became obsolete when the professional fire department was formed in 1912 and outfitted with a motorized truck. The Southside Boosters appealed to the city to do something about the dilapidated “shack in which the old time honored reel is housed.” Firemen were afraid “the old structure will topple down upon the man who rings the fire bell.” But the Munichburg Fire Department was not updated and was lost to the Southside. Quite a few German-speaking men of old Munichburg had been volunteers with that former neighborhood fire station.

Several Southside fires have made the newspapers over the years. On May 3, 1916, when horses were still stabled behind buildings, the Fire Department was summoned to the Southside “to extinguish a blaze in a stable in the rear of the Southside Hotel [Bassmann Building]. Some lad had dropped a match in the manger and the blaze quickly made itself apparent. The halter around the horse’s neck was burned before someone extinguished the blaze with a bucket of water. The horse was slightly singed.”

After cars and gas stations came, the March 27, 1919, German newspaper relates the following incident on East Dunklin:
On Thursday evening, while the truck of South Side merchant J. B. Doerhoff [he had the secondhand store later taken over by Milo Walz at 126 E. Dunklin] was at the Waters-Pierce Oil Station and being filled with gasoline, a young rascal went by, lit a cigarette with a match, and threw the still-burning match under the truck. The dripping gasoline on the ground blazed forth in flame and the fire spread over the truck. The fire company was called. It was feared that the Gasoline tank would explode and set the oil station on fire. The fire company pulled the truck away from its place and then extinguished the fire with chemicals. The front part of the truck, where the driver sits, was destroyed.

In the next issue of the newspaper, it was reported that Doerhoff bought a new Republic truck from Heisinger Brothers, using the partially destroyed delivery truck as part of the deal.

In January 1919 a fire destroyed the house of Mrs. Mary Nilges, 805 Jefferson Street. It sat right next to the Nilges Grocery Store on the southeast corner of Jefferson and Ashley. This was doubly tragic for Mrs. Nilges, because only six weeks before, just before Christmas, her husband Theodore Nilges was killed by a broken neck in a car accident nearby. A successful grocer, Nilges had been a city councilman and president of the Southside’s Cole County Bank. The widowed Mrs. Nilges then moved into the second floor above the store, and the house was later rebuilt and rented. The Nilges Store building and house were demolished in 2009.

One of Jefferson City’s most memorable fires occurred on November 10, 1922, when the Lohman mansion, built in 1893 at 933 Jefferson Street, burned. According to the newspaper, the Lohman mansion “for many years was by far the handsomest structure in this city.” Mrs. Amelia Lohman was preparing an elegant tea party that day to announce the engagement of her daughter Margaret, when a neighbor boy, Willie Zuendt, rushed into the house to inform her that the roof was on fire.

In fact, tenants of the Central Trust building six blocks away on High Street saw the fire before Mrs. Lohman was even aware of it. It had already burned for an hour under the third floor roof when the fire department arrived.

The Louis C. Lohman mansion, prior to the 1922 fire.

“Everything was ruined,” according to the paper. Part of the multiturreted roof fell in, causing firefighters to retreat. The cause of the fire was never known. The mansion was later rebuilt and restored to its grandeur, but without the third floor and turrets.

By the way, the dainty petits fours and charming finger sandwiches that Mrs. Lohman had prepared for her ladies’ party that afternoon did not go to waste: She served them to the firemen while they fought the blaze. The beautiful Lohman mansion was demolished by the Salvation Army in 2003. (The image of the pretty sandwiches was copied from here.)

Within more recent times was the tragic arson fire of Central United Church of Christ on April 29, 1994. The nighttime fire raged through the balcony, narthex, and rear of the sanctuary and caused heavy smoke damage throughout, but firemen prevented further damage to the historic church. The sanctuary was completely renovated, six new stained-glass windows were installed to replace the originals too heavily damaged from the heat, and the badly damaged organ was totally reconstructed.

Such tragedies have led to increased security measures for historic and invaluable properties.

Southside residents and business owners today no longer fear fires to the degree their predecessors did, because of better building materials and construction, safer energy sources, and a well-trained, professional fire department.

Copyright 2012 by Walter A. Schroeder.


The Old Munichburg Association joins the Jefferson City Fire Department in celebrating its centennial, 1912–2012!

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