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July 21, 1907: The Tribune Girl and the fire chief

  • Blog Post by: Ben Welter
  • January 11, 2013 - 3:30 PM
 
 
  Nan Russell Dunnigan in 1914.

Nan Russell Dunnigan, whose work appeared under the byline “The Tribune Girl,” wrote hundreds of first-person feature stories for the Tribune between 1907 and 1914. She interviewed Sarah Bernhardt, Ethel Barrymore, John Philip Sousa, Booker T. Washington and Sir Robert Baden-Powell. She had a frosty encounter with Isadora Duncan. She attempted to interview Maude Adams, but found the popular “Peter Pan” actress to be “interview proof.”

Dunnigan took on a variety of other assignments. She made police and fire checks. She interviewed politicians and businessmen. She worked as a “Salvation Army lassie” for a day. She led Minneapolis orphans on an outing to Lake Minnetonka. In her final months with the Tribune, she traveled to Europe and filed reports from London (where she got lost), the Vatican (where she enjoyed an audience with Pope Pius X) and Belgium (which she didn’t enjoy one bit).

Her last piece appeared in September 1914. Three months later, on Christmas Day, she married George F. Authier, private secretary to Minnesota’s governor, Joseph Burnquist. Authier had just secured a new job as the Tribune’s Washington correspondent, and the newlyweds soon headed east. The Tribune Girl apparently hung up her notebook and pen. No further stories by Nan Russell Dunnigan or Nan Authier turn up in a Google search.

 

Tribune Girl Talks With Fire Chief
on Freak Calls of the Unsung Heroes

 
Canterbury and His Merry Men Relate Tales, Amusing and Pathetic, of Occasions When Alarms Meant Unusual Work for Fire Laddies When They Arrived on Scene – Settle Family Difficulties and Answer Call of Small Frightened Lass.
 
By The Tribune Girl.
 
It was a sizzling morning.
 
The Tribune Girl emerged from the last of the offices that she is obliged to visit daily at the court house, and in the argot of newspaperdom “had covered her run, found nothing doing, and was all in.”
 
Feeling thus limp and wilted (literally as well as figuratively) she sauntered into fire headquarters to cool off.
 
Now if there is one place in the court house that the feminine scribe feels perfectly at ease in it is the office over which Chief [James] Canterbury presides.
 
Everybody is so good natured and easy going around fire department headquarters, and the ladies have so many little stories that they reserve for the reporter girl that it is little wonder that she enjoys visiting this haunt of “unsung heroes.”
 
In the sanctum sanctorum of Chief Canterbury this scorching morning the girl found the genial chief and his first assistant, Michael Hanley. It was plain that the business that the two were transacting was not of the most minute importance, for they were lolling back in their chairs, wearing expressions of as great contentment as did Nero at the burning of Rome.
 
“Am I intruding?” asked the girl, knowing full well that she would receive the welcome that was accorded the prodigal of old.
 
She sniffed surreptitiously for the savory smell of cooking veal.
 
“Indeed not. Here is the easiest chair awaiting you,” spoke up the chief, who was playing host to this impromptu little gathering. “This is the only office in the place,” he continued, “where there is a breath of air and we are enjoying it by spinning yarns.”
 
“Here is copy, rip snortingly good copy,” thought the reporter, “if they will only talk shop,” so to prod gently she remarked: “”Do tell me about some of your unusual fire calls. I have always heard that you are called out for everything from fishing cats out of wells to assisting kites to part company with friendly telegraph poles.”
 
The Tribune Girl chatted with the chief, left, and his first assistant, Michael Hanley.

 

 
Fire Laddies Settle a Family Row.
 
“And right you are,” said the chief, “but these freak calls that give you people stories are not the ones that give us any pleasure. Get Hanley here to tell you about the family row that he was called out to settle not long ago.”
 
“Say that was a funny thing,” spoke up the good-natured first assistant, the man who is said to be the most popular in the service. “But it did not seem so funny then.”
 
As he shifted to a more comfortable position, The Tribune Girl summarily forgot whether she was in Minneapolis or Alaska, for this meant that the ball was rolling and there was no end of good material in sight.
 
“Well, it was about 5 o’clock one nasty rainy morning that the alarm came in,” commenced the dean of the department. “It was from a box down south not a great distance from the falls, and through the mud we tore to it. When we arrived we found it was a small chimney fire that we had little trouble extinguishing. Well, all the way back the boys cussed in all the languages they knew, for the afternoon before they had cleaned up their apparatuses and this made another job for them. Well, sir, we had been back in our respective houses about an hour and the boys had the engines just about clean again when in came an alarm from the same box. This time, I can tell you, we did not lose a minute, for all the way down we pictured the house enveloped in flames because of our negligence in not properly attending to the first blaze. When we arrived at the house we did not see as much as a whiff of smoke, and there did not seem to be trouble anywhere, but in this we were mistaken. Before we got through we found more trouble than we were looking for.
 
“Well, to make the long story short, after we left the first time the master and mistress of the house got into an argument over the cause of the chimney fire. He said that it was her fault and she said that “he was a ‘mean old thing, now, there,’ and, woman-like, would not be downed, so up she goes to the corner and turns in an alarm. (She would let the firemen decide.) Well, the firemen did decide, but their decision was that this was the limit of anything that they had thus far encountered. One of the fellows suggested that we form a 12-foot ring and let them settle it according to Queensbury rules, as we deserved something for playing the part of a miniature Hague tribunal, while another voiced the opinion that Chief Corriston would not be a bad one to act as referee, but the majority of the boys were too mad to speak.”
 
Little Lass to Blame.
 
At this juncture the chief lighted a fat black cigar and the girl thanked her lucky stars accordingly, not that she is overly fond of smoke, but, like most girls who are endowed with numerous brothers, real and acquired, she realized that it promised to add much to the reminiscent mood of the occasion. She was not disappointed for the chief commenced:
 
“That was another rather amusing call we had from the open box in front of St. Barnabas hospital one afternoon this spring. We hurried to respond and found that it was a false alarm. Now I investigate false alarms, particularly from those keyless boxes, because it is a thing that is apt to give us no end of trouble. Well, this time I thought that it was some schoolboys who were to blame, and I was not far wrong in my guess. It turned out to be about the prettiest little lass of 7 that I ever saw. It appears that the children were trooping home from school and the littlest girl in the party was ‘dared’ to turn in an alarm.
 
“The poor little thing was taunted until she could not stand it any longer, and in desperation turned the key. Not until the wee maid saw us coming did she realize what she had done, but when she did the poor little thing scampered home and was on the verge of convulsions when I arrived. I suppose I should have been very severe with the child, for turning in a false alarm is a serious matter with us, but when I saw her and how frightened she was all I did was to assist her mother in quieting her.”
 
“Isn’t he getting soft-hearted in his old days?” asked Mr. Hanley in a bantering tone, and while the girl agreed she privately voted this gallant fire fighter a perfect dear.
 
Many “Freak” Calls Mean Tragedy.
 
“While we are fortunate in having many little things happen that serve to amuse us,” continued the chief, “in the main it is the darkest side of life that we see. Most of our freak alarms as you call them mean a tragedy to some heart. We have more than once been called to remove a man who has been electrocuted at the top of a telegraph pole and whose lifeless body hung suspended from the wires. We have also taken a man off a roof who met a similar fate, as well as rescued men from sewers, cesspools and ditches. A rather pathetic thing happened last fall. We were called to extinguish a fire down on the finest part of Park avenue. On our arrival we found that the fire was out, for it was a load of hay belonging to a poor old farmer out near Osseo that had been burned. When we arrived at the scene of the recent conflagration we found the unfortunate man sitting at the door of the barn, where he came to deliver the load, completely discouraged. It appears that this was the last load of hay that he had to sell, and the wolf was knocking with vigor at the door of the home where his wife was lying ill. It was altogether as sad a case as I ever run across, and the worst part of it was that the fire was started by the mischievous ten-year-old boy of the house where the man was delivering the hay. I have often wondered if the poor old fellow was ever paid.”
 
A Heartrending Affair.
 
Seeing that a hush fell on the little group. “I remember that,” spoke up Mr. Hanley, “but speaking of sad experiences, I think that fire that occurred out on Seventeenth street southeast and Sixth street about seven years ago was the most heartrending affair that I ever witnessed. It was in the fall of the year and a woman was cleaning up the dead leaves in her yard and burning them. Somehow her clothing caught fire and it was but a moment until she was a mass of flames. Her little 10-year-old daughter ran out to her assistance and with rare presence of mind threw a rug that was on the clothes line over the woman, hoping to smother the fire. If it had been large enough it might have served its purpose but the rug was too small to be of any benefit and before the child knew it in her excitement her own garments were in flames. There, side by side, the mother and her brave little child were fatally burned and they both died on the way to the hospital.”
 
Just then the immaculate young fellow who attends to the business office of the department, came in to confer with the chief. At the same time Michael Hanley was wanted at the telephone, and The Tribune Girl, feeling strangely depressed, wearily left the office, wondering how the city editor would vent his wrath when she announced that “There was nothing doing at the court house today.”
 
Fire Chief Canterbury in his courthouse office in about 1900. (Image courtesy of mnhs.org)

 

 
A Minneapolis fire engine and crew paused for a photo at 3rd Street and 6th Avenue S. in about 1905. (Image courtesy of mnhs.org)

 

 

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