Although there have been a lot of fires over the history
of the Madison Fire department that are very noteworthy, the following
select few from each time period have been selected for the website.
For a more complete listing of historical fires we urge visitors to find a
copy of the Capital City Courage which has a much more comprehensive list
of historical fires, as well as amazing photographs to look at.
1855, 1856, & 1857 Fires
The City's first major fire was October 28, 1855 when
the planning mill and factory of Campbell, Hogg & Welch and another
small dwelling owned by a Mr. McConnell were destroyed. Another
destructive fire occurred March 2, 1856 on Webster Street. It
threatened the City's main business district but by the efforts of
citizens the fire was contained in the buildings housing Cronen's Saloon,
Noyes' Shoe Store, and Bradley's Drug Store. On June 6, 1857, all
the buildings on Washington Avenue from the corner of Webster Street up to
Bruen's block were totally destroyed by fire. The newspaper
reported, "The firemen were on the ground, and worked as only
firemen work, but in consequence of the lack of water, their exertions
were in great manner wasted. However, but for them, the best portion
of the city would assuredly have been burned up."
1900 - 1930s Fires
Capitol Burns - A fire on February 27, 1904
destroyed the State Capitol building. The flame from a gas jet in a
cloak room on the second floor caused the fire which began around 2:45
am. By noon it was burning out of control. The disaster
destroyed a number of historical gems; possibly the most sentimental loss
of the 20 hour blaze was the preserved body of "Old Abe" the
famed eagle mascot of Wisconsin's Eighth Regiment in the Civil War.
Firefighters from Janesville and Milwaukee arrived by train to aid in
battling the blaze. The newspaper reported that Chief Bernard was
injured early in the fire and the north wing was saved by "the heroic
work of Jay H. Snell and his brave fellows." Losses for the
uninsured building were estimated at $800,000 to $1 million.
Construction of the present Capitol began in 1906 and was completed in
July of 1917 at a cost of over $7.2 million.
J. H. Findorff & Son Planing Mill Fire - On
May 13, 1909, a destructive fire at the four-story J. H. Findorff Planing
Mill was considered a major threat to the City. Losses were
estimated at $200,000 and included the nearly completed millwork for
portions of the new Capitol building. The fire threatened two nearby
fuel companies and records show that over 20 other buildings caught fire
from flying sparks.
Main Hall Fire - October 10, 1916, a large number
of students worked with firefighters to bring a blaze at Main (later named
Bascom) Hall on the University of Wisconsin (UW) campus under
control. The fire was confined to the ornate dome which was
destroyed and never replaced. Some accounts suggest that rainwater
which had accumulated in the base of the dome on top of the UW's Main Hall
saved the building from total destruction as efforts were hampered by a
lackof water pressure.
Parkway Theater Fire - On October 17, 1925, the
roof of the Parkway Theater on West Mifflin Street collapsed as fire swept
through the movie house. Several people were overcome by smoke and a
panicked crowd of 1,000 reportedly stampeded. All apparatus was used
at the fire. An estimated 20,000 spectators were on hand due to UW
Homecoming celebrations. Firefighters could be seen jumping from the
roof several times as portions gave way beneath them. Chief Heyl
described their efforts as "the most energetic battle against fire"
in his memory stating that it was the most threatening fire he had
fought. Said Heyl: "I thought the entire block was going...I
never saw a fire go so quickly."
Mary Ann Bake Shop - On June 10, 1939, Judson H.
Holocomb and Adolph N. Habich were attacking a basement fire from the main
floor stairway at the Mary Ann Bake Shop, 602 South Park Street, when the
floor collapsed. The collapse was blamed on a 15-ton bakery oven
which had improperly overloaded the floor along with a weakening of the
floor supports due to the fire below. The men were crushed by the
oven as they toppled with it into the basement. They were the first
Madison firefighters to die in the line of duty. Because accounts of
the incident varied, details were provided in a statement by the Police
and Fire Commission. The statement concluded: "We are
satisfied that the deployment of the men...was proper and necessary and
that no practical safety measures were neglected. At any fire the
consideration of personal safety always conflicts with the necessity of
reaching the fire. This tragedy could not have been foreseen by the
men and demonstrates the hazards which constantly confront the Department."
1940 - 1960s Fires
Winter of 1946 - Three major fires fought in the
bitter cold of winter made 1946 a memorable year. First came the
Nuss Implement Fire; then the Garver's Supply fire; and finally the
Heidelberg-Hofbrau fire. In the Garver's Feed and Supply fire, a
wing of the building leased to six other businesses burned with explosions
of stored oils, anti-freeze, and liquor hampering efforts to put out the
blaze. The Heidelberg-Hofbrau fire was a four-alarm fire that damaged
the Heidelberg-Hofbrau Restaurant, Rennebohm Drug and The Hub
Clothing Store on West Mifflin Street. Three firefighters and one
policeman were hospitalized and losses were estimated at $500,000.
Several times the fire was brought under control only to be set off
again by explosions of the large quantities of stored liquors. Chief
Page said, "I believe to the best of my knowledge, the Hofbrau
fire was the most hazardous and serious threat to the safety of our high
hazard district that Madison has ever seen."
Bassett Street Explosions - Failure of a
regulating valve allowed natural gas to rush at high pressure into low
pressure valves causing explosions which rocked the Bassett Street
area. Five buildings were destroyed and two people killed. Fed
by the gas, flames erupted continuously, leaping through cracks in the
street to surround firefighters as they positioned themselves to attack
the fires. A witness compared the perilous scene to "an
artist's picture of hell". Bassett street losses were
expected to exceed $1 million. A proud Chie Page said of the
incident, it was "probably the most disastrous conflagration that
the City of Madison has ever experienced. The esprit de corps and magnificent
courage demonstrated by the officers and men of the Department, as well as
the Police Department, Water Department, and other City and County units
is worthy of the highest commendation." The bravery and
performance of the firefighters drew praise from a grateful city.
One Bassett Street resident commented, "This city should get down
on its knees and thank God that we've got a fire department like that."
State Street Fire - A fire began at the El-Kismet
Restaurant, 450 State Street, and spread to six adjacent businesses.
Eight additional businesses and a rooming lodge were damaged by smoke and
water causing an estimated $500,000 in damages. After 12 hours, and
with the fire under control, Chief Page reported, it "was the
largest conflagration that this City has experienced since the Bassett
Street explosion...Great credit must be given to the officers and men of
this Department, who during the most adverse of conditions, successfully
brought this major fire under control."
1970 - 1990s Fires
Math Research Building Explosion - On August 24,
1970, at 3:42 am an unidentified caller warned police dispatcher: "Hey
pig. There's a bomb in the Math Research Building on University
campus. Clear the building." Within two minutes a blast, heard
over 30 miles away, tore the building apart killing a 33-year old graduate
student. Four fire companies responded but only minor fires followed
the blast. Two hours after the explosion, firefighters found another
student buried alive under the debris. Losses were estimated at $2
million. Over the preceding 12 months, at least 25 incidents of
"protest" firebombings and arson had occurred.
Arbor Drive Apartment Building Fire - On
April 1, 1978, a 32-unit apartment building at 2602 Arbor Drive
"literally blew up" when fire caused temperatures inside 75
percent of the aluminum coated building to reach 1,000 degrees. The
spectacular blaze was so hot it scorched and melted MFD equipment.
Over 75 firefighters battled the five-alarm fire which caused $1 million
Packers Avenue Warehouses Fire - On May 6, 1981,
a cutting torch accident ignited a warehouse leased to Oscar Mayer (1718
Holmberg Street) and spread to a second building housing Badger Sheet
Metal (1717 Nelson Street). Strong Winds worked against the efforts
to control the blaze. A resin stored in the Oscar Mayer building
caused additional problems including heavy, toxic smoke. Losses due
to the destruction of the "Packers Avenue warehouses" were
estimated at $1 million.
West Gorham Street Fire - On January 8, 1982, a
fire destroyed the Lysistrata Restaurant, Flour Box Bakery and
Confectionary, Jewels, The Living Room, and a sign painting shop at the
corner of North Broom and West Gorham Streets. Firefighters were
hampered by a collapsing roof and sub-zero temperatures which caused water
to freeze as it poured into the streets creating a 4-inch coating of
ice. Ice also slowed the efforts of fire/arson investigators who
concluded the blaze was intentionally set. Losses were estimated at
Don the Muffler Man Fire - On November 30, 1990,
a welding torch accidentally started a blaze at Don the Muffler Man, 2208
University Avenue. Equipment, 20 cars, and a large portion of the
building were destroyed in the $1 million blaze. Burning fuels,
tires, cleaning solvents, and oxygen and acetylene tanks caused explosions
and such intense heat that equipment could not be positioned close to the
building. Firefighters who moved in between the muffler shop and the
neighboring Octopus Car Wash were credited with preventing the flames from
spreading to the car wash.
Central Storage & Warehouse Fire - On May 3,
1991, at 3:31 pm, the MFD responded to a fire at the Central Storage &
Warehouse Company, 4309 Cottage Grove Road. The complex, a cold
storage facility consisting of five buildings totaling nearly 500,000
square feet, contained approximately 50 million pounds of food
products. Upon arrival to the scene flames were already shooting
high into the sky and a second alarm was requested. The fire was
originally limited to one building as firefighters attacked it from all
sides. Just as ten firefighters and two apparatus were moved from
the east side of the structure, the wall collapsed on their previous
position. The fire, fueled by the stored butter, lard, and cheese,
continued to gain momentum; water had little effect on it. The
melted food products caused additional problems as they mixed with water
and flowed away from the building towards Starkweather Creek.
Appropriate environmental agencies were called in to assist in minimizing
the damage to the environment. By 6:00 pm the fire had spread to a
second building and a third alarm was made. With 70 firefighters at
the scene, off-duty personnel were called into man vacated stations.
Additional off-duty personnel were requested to report to the staging area
of Station No. 5. At 11:00 pm the second building collapsed.
At midnight, with the fire threatening the facility's anhydrous ammonia
tanks, an evacuation of approximately 3,000 residents within a 1/2 mile
radius was ordered. By 3:30 am the fire had been pushed back from
the area of the ammonia tanks and the evacuation was changed to an
advisory. At noon, the MFD requested mutual aid (fifty volunteers
responded) from surrounding communities to give MFD firefighters a short
break to recover. On May 5 at 10:00 am, the blaze was declared
"under control", but continued to smolder under tons of
rubble. By 6:00 pm the fire was down-graded to a "fire
watch" with 12 firefighters on the scene to extinguish hot spots as
construction crews cleared away wreckage. On May 7, fire/arson
investigators were able to determine the fire was accidental and that the
origin of the fire to be in and around a battery propelled forklift.
On May 11, eight days after the start of the fire, the fire was declared
"officially out". Losses were estimated at $7.5 million in
property damages, $70 million in contents, and nearly $1 million in
clean-up costs. This blaze was without argument the largest and most
difficult fire the MFD has ever fought.