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Ask Rufus: The city argued while the town burned

 

On March 18, 1919, fire destroyed almost half a city block in downtown Columbus and showed the need for the city to have better firefighting equipment.

On March 18, 1919, fire destroyed almost half a city block in downtown Columbus and showed the need for the city to have better firefighting equipment. Photo by: Courtesy photo/Carolyn Kaye

 

In 1919 Columbus bought a new fire engine but because of legal problems it was locked up in the fire station. Then on Sept. 8, the Mayfield house only three blocks from the fire station caught fire. The old fire truck wouldn't start and by the time it could be started the Mayfield house was engulfed in flames and the fire had spread to Snowdoun next door. A photo of Snowdoun c. 1880s shows its appearance before being badly damaged in the fire.

In 1919 Columbus bought a new fire engine but because of legal problems it was locked up in the fire station. Then on Sept. 8, the Mayfield house only three blocks from the fire station caught fire. The old fire truck wouldn't start and by the time it could be started the Mayfield house was engulfed in flames and the fire had spread to Snowdoun next door. A photo of Snowdoun c. 1880s shows its appearance before being badly damaged in the fire.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

 

Rufus Ward

 

 

On Tuesday afternoon, March 18, 1919, Columbus burned. That afternoon a fire started in and destroyed the three story Columbus Clothing Company building, site of present day Rosenzweig Arts Center. The fire quickly spread to the next door, six-story Columbus National Bank building, and then the next two buildings.  

 

The city's old fire equipment could barely get a stream of water to the fourth floor of a building and definitely not to the sixth floor. An effort was made, though, as several firemen climbed telephone poles with hoses to try and get water into the bank's top floors. 

 

A call for help was sent to nearby towns. About three hours after the fire started, a hose truck and three firemen from West Point arrived. Shortly after the West Point truck arrived, assistance arrived from Payne Army Air Field near West Point consisting of a motor truck full of soldiers, the field ambulance, a chemical wagon and a hose truck. Forty Payne Field soldiers also paroled downtown to maintain order and to stand guard during the night. 

 

Aberdeen dispatched its firetruck with Aberdeen's mayor aboard. However the truck broke down along the way and did not make it to Columbus. Prior to the arrival of soldiers from Payne Field, order in downtown Columbus was maintained by the Boy Scouts. The scouts were commended for having "rendered heroic service in keeping the crowds back and assisted effectively in handling hose."  

 

Evidence of the fire remains visible in downtown even today. The old First Columbus National Bank building now stands only four stories high, its top two floors having been destroyed in the fire. 

 

After the devastating fire the citizens demanded the city obtain more modern firefighting equipment. It did not take the city long to act. 

 

At its April 2 meeting the city council voted to buy an American LaFrance fire engine for $11,500. On April 6, headlines in the Columbus Dispatch read "City buys fine firetruck. Will be the finest fire equipment in the south. A temporary truck would be used until the new one arrived and two former fire horses would be sent to the street dept." 

 

However the city board had exceeded its spending authority without a required referendum. An objection was made, followed by court action resulting in an injunction and the new fire engine being locked up in the fire station. The city then rented an old firetruck. An editorial in the September 3 Columbus Dispatch called for the city to unify and stop fighting over things that are needed for the city and for efficient city government. Also city revenue needed to be spent where it would do the most good preparing for a growing population. 

 

The matter lingered on until the city came to an agreement on Oct. 15 that brought the city into compliance with the law. That allowed the purchase to be completed and the new truck to finally go into service. But what had happened in the meantime? 

 

A September 10 newspaper headline summed it up, "TRUCK IN STATION TWO HOMES BURN." The Columbus Dispatch reported, "With the big new LaFrance firetruck carefully tucked away in the fire station under injunction restraint two fine homes were all but totally destroyed by flames Monday morning. The handsome Mayfield home on North Ninth Street and the handsome Billups home (Snowdoun) immediately to the North was partially destroyed."  

 

The events of Sept. 8 were a sad comedy of errors. The large Mayfield house on Ninth Street North caught fire. The fire department was notified but with the city's fine new firetruck locked up in the fire station, the old truck had to be used. However, the motor would not start on the old truck and the firemen could not get it out of the fire station. After much cranking the firemen finally got it started but the motor died twice within one block of the fire station. Though the fire was only three blocks from the fire station, the Mayfield house was totally engulfed in flames before the firetruck got there, and flames had spread to the roof of Snowdoun. The Mayfield house was almost totally destroyed and Snowdoun's roof with its then octagonal cupola and part of its second floor was destroyed. Though badly damaged, Snowdoun was saved, rebuilt and still stands on Ninth Street North at Third Avenue. 

 

On Sept. 10 the Columbus Dispatch reported "Another disastrous fire occurred yesterday afternoon at 4:30 o'clock." The home of Connie Billups on 11th Avenue South caught fire. Though "a long run" from the fire station the old rented "motor truck" made it in time to get the fire under control -- that is until the firemen "lost water" and needed more hose than the truck carried. The truck raced back to the fire station and got additional hose but the hose fell off the truck while hurrying back to the fire and the house was a total loss. All the while a firetruck that could have saved two houses and prevented major damage to a third was "carefully tucked away in the fire station". 

 

The city's stalemate over a new firetruck lasted more than five months but ended the month after three houses were lost because of mishaps with the old equipment. When city government doesn't take care of business and look after the best interest of its citizens, it is the citizens who pay the price.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]

 

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