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Dec. 1, 1889: Fire guts Tribune building

Posted by: Ben Welter under Minnesota History Updated: December 1, 2012 - 1:46 PM
 
In 1889, the Minneapolis Daily Tribune somehow managed to publish a Sunday paper that hit the streets the morning after a fire destroyed its eight-story brick building at Fourth Street and First Avenue South. The paper’s general manager, A.J. Blethen, took the last train to St. Paul that night to make arrangements with the St. Paul Globe to publish a special edition of the Tribune. It’s unclear who produced the exhaustive coverage excerpted below: Tribune reporters who survived the blaze or Globe reporters dispatched from St. Paul to cover it. Except for several redundant passages, it’s an impressive example of deadline reporting.

FIRE'S FEARFUL FATALITY

A Terrible Conflagration Entirely Destroys the Great
Building Occupied by the Minneapolis
Daily Tribune
 
SEVEN MEN GO DOWN TO THEIR DEATH.
 
Milton Pickett, of the Pioneer Press, Falls from a Red-Hot
Fire Escape and is Crushed.
 
ONE MAN BLOWS OUT HIS BRAINS.
 
The Printers at Work on the Seventh Floor Make a Mad
Rush to Save their Lives.
 
TWO HEROES OF THE ASSOCIATED PRESS.
 
They Bravely Remain at Their Posts, and Both of Them
Are Recorded as Among the Dead.
 
TERRIBLE STORY OF THE HOLOCAUST.
 
THE AWFUL ROSTER.
 
JAMES F. IGOE.
JERRY JENKINS.
E. MILTON PICKETT.
EDWARD OLSON.
ROBERT McCUTCHEON.
WALTER. E. MILES.
W.H. HILLMAN.
 
 
  Hillman
The eight-story brick building occupied by the Minneapolis Tribune, Minneapolis, was totally destroyed by fire last night. The conflagration was attended by a fearful loss of life. Shortly after 10 o’clock smoke was seen issuing from the windows at the north end of the third floor and a number of pedestrians raised the cry of “fire.” The upper floors at that time were filled with reporters, editors, and compositors. When the smoke first became perceptible on the upper floors some of the printers started for the elevator, which is in the center of the building next to the Fourth street front. Someone called, “There is no fire, stay at your cases boys,” and many of them remained. Some of them went
 
DOWN THE ELEVATOR
 
 
  Pickett
and escaped. On the sixth floor were the editorial rooms of the Pioneer Press, in which a number of reporters were at work. When the smoke became heavy on that floor reporter Joseph T. Mannix started down the stairway to make an investigation. In the extreme north end of the third floor were two rooms which had formerly been used by the League of Republican clubs. These rooms had not been occupied for about six months except as a place to store waste paper. In this room the fire started presumably from spontaneous combustion. When Mr. Mannix reached the door of this room he saw through the glass in the door that it was
 
ALL ON FIRE.
 
He threw himself against the door and broke it in, intending to extinguish the fire. When the door was broken in the flames burst out in Mr. Mannix’s face, driving him down the stairway. He made a desperate attempt to go back to warn his companions, but the flames were too fierce, and he was driven back. Several men were on the stairway at the time, and he directed them to turn in the alarm on the corner of Fourth and Nicollet avenues. For some reason no one did so, and there was considerable delay in getting the alarm to the fire department, at least fifteen minutes elapsing. The elevator shaft, in the center of the building, acted as a big chimney, and
 
SUCKED THE FLAMES
 
 
  Part of a stereoscopic image of the Tribune building from about 1887. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)
up to the roof, spreading the fire throughout the entire building. When the fire department arrived the entire building was in flames. There was only one stairway in the building, and that was built around the elevator shaft. As the fire started at the head of the stairway on the third floor, every avenue of escape was cut off, except a single fire escape on the north side of the windows. The flames burst out the windows on the third floor, and the frail iron ladder was red hot before some of the men had a chance to use it. The Hayes ladders were hurriedly raised by willing hands, and many of the men were rescued from the windows.
 
AWFUL SCENES.
 
A View of the Great Catastrophe from the Street.
 
The scene from the street was weirdly terrible. Within thirty minutes from the time the fire was discovered flames were bursting through the roof, and were thrusting their forked tongues out of the windows. At the southwest corner of the seventh floor the heads of a score of men were seen at the windows, through which smoke was pouring in thick volumes. The crowds on Fourth street and First avenue groaned shrieked and screamed for ladders. Slowly the Hayes truck mounted up towards them from Fourth street. Finally it reached the sixth floor; then a man was seen to let himself down by his hands from the window ledge of the seventh floor. He balanced himself for a moment, and then managed to swing in so as to throw himself
 
UPON THE WINDOW LEDGE
 
of the sixth story below. He stuck there, and a cheer burst from the crowd as he crawled upon the ladder, and started to descend. Then another man swung himself down in the same perilous way and reached the ladder in safety. Then the ladder was raised one story to the window where the faces appeared, and about a dozen men were seen to crawl out one by one as the flames crept up to the window. The ladder was moved to the next window and five more men were taken out – all who were there. There were still two faces to be seen on the First avenue side.
 
THE CROWD YELLED
 
 
  A shell of its former self. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)
“Got to the window at the front,” but they could not hear, and the ladder was slowly moved away. At this point a man was seen to try to lower himself by a strap of rubber hose from the First avenue window on the south side. He lost his hold and fell the six stories into the stairway leading to the Journal basement. A groan went up from the crowd as he fell. He was picked up, but life was extinct. He was recognized as a compositor named McCutcheon, about fifty years old. The two men who were left were seen to leave the First avenue side, and soon reappeared at the Fourth street window. The Hayes ladder had been swung away from the building, but it was speedily put back and the men crawled out just in the nick of time and were saved.
 

MANY LIVES ENDANGERED.
 
About 10:15 the printers at work in the Tribune composing room began to smell smoke and a second later a man came in and stated that the third floor was on fire. At first it was thought there was no danger and many of the printers refused to quit their work and escape while they had time. A second later the alarm was sent in, and then a rush was made for the stairway, the elevator and the fire escape. There were in all about sixty-five men on the seventh floor, mainly employed in the composing room. About forty got downstairs all right, and those remaining began fighting like wild beasts for a chance to escape as the danger became nearer. Fifteen made their way down the fire escape, amid the bursting of flames and the penetrating smoke. Five reached the fourth floor, when all escape was
 
CUT OFF BY THE FLAMES
 
and they jumped. Two, some say three, were not badly injured, while the remainder were crushed and burned so badly that death resulted in a few moments. While the fire was at its height J. McCutcheon appeared in one of the windows of the composing room and jumped into a net held by the firemen below. The weight of his body carried the net to the stone pavement, and he died a few moments after being picked up. A few moments after he had jumped another of the printers appeared at a window on the opposite side of the room. He was told to wait a moment and a ladder would be sent up to him. He appeared crazed by fright, however, and, instead of waiting, pulled a revolver, and, placing the muzzle to his head, fired. The report was heard in the street and the man was seen to drop to the floor. His name could not be learned. It was rumored that another man had
 
ALSO SHOT HIMSELF,
 
 
  This drawing appeared on the front page of the Minneapolis Tribune dated Dec. 2, 1889, two days after the fire.
but this report could not be verified. Some of the printers, who were the last to leave the building, made their escape on the extension ladders put up by the firemen. Among those was Frank Hoover. Just as he left the ledge and got onto the ladder, which the firemen were lowering, W.H. Williams, the foreman, appeared upon the ledge. The ladder was then too far for him to reach. “Good by, Frank,” he called out to the boys below him as he leaned over and saw the ladder disappear. The firemen below saw him as the ladder came down, and rushed it up again just as the flames reached Williams. He lost no time in getting on the ladder and was lowered to the ground as the flame swept across the ledge upon which he had just stood, sweeping all before it. His hand was badly burned, and he will be disabled for several weeks at least.
 
 
HIS HAND TREMBLED.
 
Brave Operator Igoe’s Last Message to His Chief.
 
NEW YORK, Nov. 30. – The Western circuit wires of the Associated Press were burdened with outgoing matter tonight, and William D. Chandler, one of its most rapid senders, was hurrying the lads along the line that touches New Orleans southward, Kansas City westward and Minneapolis northward. The pace was warm, for it was Saturday night and Sunday’s paper would go early to press. Suddenly Chandler paused, shut his key and looked up with an expression on his face that challenged inquiry from his colleagues as to what was the trouble on the wire. The Associated Press telegrapher, James F. Igoe, at Minneapolis, had “broken,” and all the men on the “line” had paused, like Chandler, to listen.
 
“There’s a fire on the third floor of the Tribune building,” said Igoe on the wire, “and I’m on the seventh.”
 
Then after a moment’s pause, he added, “Go ahead, Chandler,” and New York began again, and after a brief space yielded to Cleveland, who had a “rush” dispatch, and this was all of Cleveland’s message that Igoe received: “CLEVELAND, Nov. 30. – Capt. Joseph Moffet, a well-known lake man, was killed to-day by falling into the hold of his vessel.”
 
JUST THERE IGOE “BROKE”
 
“Boys,” he ticked on the wire, and there was another brief pause, and all the men on the circuit were listening with interest, for they had noted in the transmission by Igoe of the word “boys” a tremulousness of touch, just as a layman could detect a tremor in a human voice. “Boys, I’ve got to ‘stand you off.' I’m the only one left on the floor. Everybody is gone, and I can’t stay any longer.” Click shut went his key, and some operator on the line quickly “opened” and shouted, after Igoe, as it were: “Take the machine along – save the machine,” referring to the typewriting machine, the Associated Press reports being executed on typewriting machines at all points. But there was no response. The clicking instrument had ticked its half jocular message in an empty room. Nearby sat the machine and the last was taken, which had been Cleveland’s item about a violent death. Then the work went on, and no one of his colleagues thought seriously of Igoe’s good bye until there cam bulletins of loss of life, and among them a bulletin announcing the fact that Igoe had stayed too long. Those 200 last words he had remained to take were fatal. They cost him his life, and the men at the keys were grave as they worked on to “good night.” One, who had started in at “Good evening,” had received his “30” before the report was closed.
 
EVICTED BY THE FIRE.
 
The Tribune building was built [four years earlier] by Gen. A.B. Nettleton, but was sold by him to E.A. Harmon about two years ago, for whom it had been held in trust by the Bank of Commerce. It cost about $160,000, and was insured for about $90,000. There was also an insurance of about $10,000 on the boiler. The tenants of the building were as follows: First floor: Daily Tribune, Daily Journal, Daily Tribune-Star, Daily Pioneer Press. Second floor: Cross & Carleton, lawyers, D.C. Bell Investment company, F.C. Seely, insurance agent. Third floor: Channing Whitney architect,; P.M. Dahl, county surveyor; E.R. Rooks, lawyer. Fourth floor: M.D. Rowley, insurance agent; J.D. Blake, real estate; Hobart & Hobart, real estate; W.B. McCord, insurance; W. McCrary, loans; G.F. Hitchcock, court stenographer. Fifth floor: Tribune bindery, Booth & Son, law blanks. Sixth floor: Pioneer Press editorial room, Tribune job office. Tribune-Star editorial office; United Press office. Seventh floor: Tribune and Tribune-Star composing room, Tribune and Tribune-Star reporters’ rooms. Eighth floor: Svenska Folkets Tidning office.
 
MR. BLETHEN’S STORY.
 
Sickening Sights of the Fire – The
Fire Department Very Slow.
 
 
  A.J. Blethen in about 1860. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)
A.J. Blethen, the general manager of the Tribune, came to St. Paul on the last train, and at once proceeded to make arrangements with the Globe for a special edition to supply Minneapolis in place of the Tribune. He drew a graphic and terrible picture of the fire up to the time he left. “I was in my room on the sixth floor,” he said, “and heard the cry of fire. Calling to Dr. Shaw, I rushed out, and after calling aloud to all within hearing started down the elevator. The smoke was then pouring up the shaft and when we reached the third floor we saw the blaze. The north end of that floor was occupied by the Union League of Minnesota, and in the center room the fire was then at work, blazing frightfully. There was no extinguisher there and we descended to the ground floor, where I alarmed the office force and ordered the storage of the books and papers. Then we undertook to return up stairs, but, as the elevator went up, I saw that it was impossible to live in the dense smoke and, as the forces up stairs had been alarmed, I took the elevator down again and, as we passed the third floor, the windows blew in and the next moment the flames shot up the shaft like an explosion. It was the most terribly quick work I ever saw.
 
"When I reached the ground floor the fire had reached the sixth and seventh and I saw the blaze bursting out of the Pioneer Press editorial rooms. The men had all been driven to the south end of the building, except those who had descended by the fire escape. By this time the fire department had not arrived. For some incredible reason they were slow, and though repeated alarms had gone in the apparatus was not there. When it came the ladders were put up at the south end of the building, but not at the corner where they should have gone. They reached within twenty feet, and then came a sickening halt. The men were clustered in a group in the window, and before they were reached a body burst through the double windows and fell to the sidewalk. The sight was sickening in the extreme, and the crowd yelled like demons to urge the firemen to quicker work. The water would not reach to the top and the efforts in that line were to keep the flames above the third floor. As I turned from the sight above I heard a voice call out that four men had leaped on the rear side, which meant certain death; but finally the ladders were gotten up to the windows and the men came out, the foreman, William Williams, being the last to leave. It was not ten seconds after the last man got out before the flames burst out after them.”
 
 
 

 

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