This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in December 2014 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.
‘The Great Fire’ and Pekin first fire companies
By Jared Olar
More than three years ago, this column recalled “the Great Fire” of 1860 that obliterated a large part of downtown Pekin. As mentioned previously, the aftermath of that fire saw the formation of independent fire companies to ensure that the community would be better prepared to prevent structure fires from blazing out of control and so save lives and property.
The earliest surviving account of the Great Fire is found in the history of Pekin included in the 1870 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory, pages 39-40, which says:
“On the night of the 22d of March, 1860, Pekin was visited by a disastrous and frightful conflagration. The fire originated in the grocery store of [Charles] Grondenburg, on the north side of Court street. From thence it spread up nearly to Capitol street and down to Third street, when it crossed to the south side, sweeping nearly all the buildings between Capitol and Third on that side, and some dwellings on Elizabeth street, south of Third. The fire was not checked until over thirty of the principal business houses, offices and other buildings were destroyed, almost completely paralyzing the business of the city, and involving a loss of over one hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”
$150,000 was a very sizable sum in those days.
After a lengthy tally of the buildings and businesses destroyed and their damage costs, the 1870 account continues:
“The whole number of buildings destroyed was thirty-one, fourteen on one side and seventeen on the opposite side of Court street. The fire was a terrible blow to the city, but, Phoenix-like, it rose from the ashes, and now Court street, from Third to Capitol, is rebuilt on both sides with substantial brick business houses. Many of them are very fine and imposing structures, while some others reflect neither honor, enterprise nor liberality upon their owners.”
On pages 40-41 of the 1870 city directory, this historical account goes on to tell of how Pekin’s first fire companies were organized. According to the 1870 city directory, the first one, founded in November 1860, was “Rescue Fire Company No. 1,” headed by first foreman H. F. Spoonhoff, followed the same month by “Hook and Ladder Company No. 1,” headed by first and second assistant foremen John Stolz and Martin Dolcher. Then in December 1870 a third company, “Defiance Fire Company,” was established, headed by Thomas Edds, president.
In fact, the 1861 Roots city directory reveals that all three of these companies were organized in 1860 — “Rescue Fire Company No. 1” was founded in July 1860, but “Hook and Ladder Company No. 1” was founded in June 1860, while “Defiance” came along in December of that year.
The 1949 “Pekin Centenary,” pages 17 and 19, relates some colorful anecdotes about these first fire companies, including this tale about the rivalry between the first two companies, both of whom wanted to be “No. 1”:
“The fire had another by-product in that it created a fever for the organization of fire companies in the city, which, in turn produced new evidence of the growing size and strength of the German element and of the clash between the new and the old citizens of Pekin. A fire-fighting company was quickly organized after the fire and made application for a fire engine to be purchased for their use. Then a group of German population got together, and they too organized a fire company and made a similar request to the council. Both asked to be designated as the Number One company.
“The arrival of the engines by steamboat was the occasion for a public celebration. All the townspeople turned out and the two companies donned their uniforms, fell in, and marched down Court street to the dock. There it was found that the engine designated for the German company had a big ‘No. 1’ painted on it, and the engine designated for the original company was similarly painted ‘No. 2.’
“At this discovery, the original company fell into ranks again, announced that ‘Our engine isn’t here,’ and marched away, leaving the unwanted ‘No. 2’ sitting on the dock.”
Another anecdote in the 1949 Pekin Centenary tells of dangerous and unethical conduct on the part of the city’s original fire companies:
“The fire companies proved to be more social than anything else, staging a grand parade once a year and a victory celebration after each blaze; and after a time these celebrations came to be a problem too. The city offered $10 to the company that was first to reach a fire and douse it, and at that time this was about the right sum to stage a sizable victory party, with liquor about 25 cents a gallon.
“Immediately, the city was visited with a record-breaking series of fires, many of which started in a suspicious manner.
“It is said that a fire company that felt a celebration was due would muster its men, line them up at the ropes of their engine, open the door, send out a chosen member to start a fire, and then stand by, waiting for the alarm to come in. In this manner, the old companies sometimes reached fires in a remarkably short time. Facing this sort of practice, the city council withdrew the $10 bonus, which was getting expensive in more ways than one, and the number of fires was promptly reduced.”
In time, the old fire companies would give way to a professional municipal fire department, a development that was at least partly a response to the corruption that early on had infected the independent fire companies.