The 1904 Utica Fire
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Shelby Township Historical Committee

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The morning of May 8, 1904 was like many other Sundays in the little village of Utica.

The birds were singing in the trees in a celebration of spring as the 580 residents of the community prepared to observe the Sabbath on a clear, sunny day.

A strong southerly breeze carried the sounds of man and beast across the village: a friendly greeting between neighbors, footsteps on the plank sidewalks, the clip-clop of horses' hooves punctuated by an occasional nicker and the light rumble and squeak of a carriage moving by on the dirt streets.

It was a Sunday for Utica's hard-working residents, a day of church and reverence and a day for relaxation and spending time with family and friends.

As the morning progressed, no one knew that, by the end of the day, the village that everyone recognized would be changed forever.

@NB:The Exchange Hotel

@B:At the southwest corner of Cass and Main (Auburn Road) stood one of the largest and oldest structures in the village.

The Exchange Hotel was an area landmark and was as old as the village itself, dating back to the early 1830s when Payne Leech built the first two floors.

The four-story wooden hotel towered above its neighbors in the downtown area and served as a place for weary travelers to lay their heads. It was a popular stop as people made their way around the area whether it may be by horse, by rail or by stagecoach.

The Exchange even had a barn and stable to provide food and lodging for tired equine travelers.

On May 8, the horses had company in that of a wayward tramp named Joe Weinburger who was asleep in the barn, even after he had been told by the hotel staff he was not welcome.

The hotel's landlord, a Mr. W. Cole, found Weinburger in the barn and, with a couple of well-placed buckets of water, indicated his displeasure at the squatter's presence.

Weinburger took the hint and vacated the premises.

A short time later, around 9:30 a.m., came a cry that struck terror into the hearts of the residents.

"Fire!"

The Exchange Hotel's barn was soon fully involved and burning fiercely.

Driven by the strong southerly breeze, the flames quickly spread to the hotel.

Within 10 minutes, the Exchange Hotel was a "seething furnace" from the ground to the roof.

There were no municipal water supplies, no hoses, no fire engines; only the dedication and selflessness of Utica's men, women and children who turned out from their homes and church services and took on the flames in a valiant bucket brigade, pulling water from horse troughs and from the nearby river and mill stream.

As it was Sunday, the stores were closed and time was lost as people frantically looked for ladders and buckets with which to fight the growing inferno.

They were soon joined in their efforts by the farmers from the surrounding community who responded to the beacon of smoke pouring forth from the heart of the village.

@NB:The town burned like tinder

@B:Pushed along by the breeze, burning embers from the flaming hotel settled down onto the roofs and awnings of neighboring buildings, quickly setting them ablaze.

Before the bucket brigade could even take shape, the fire had crossed Main and Cass, taking the Utica Banking Co. building and Mrs. W.R. Jones' millinery shop, Willard Chapoton's shoe store, George Hupert's meat market and Marvin Abernethy's shoe store.

As the fire progressed north up Cass, it met with resistance when it encountered several homes and buildings that had been constructed of brick. The fire stopped at McClellan's drug store, one of these brick structures. The combination of the brick and a shift in the wind to the southwest slowed the fire and it was here that the bucket brigade made its stand, checking the progress of the flames as they made their way up the west side of Cass.

The office of the Utica Sentinel would be saved by the shift of wind, allowing the newspaper to print another day.

However, the hungry tongues of flame were lapping at the buildings along the east side of the street, consuming the structures as they went.

Many of the buildings, particularly the early structures, were of wood construction, which burned quickly. The builders of the time employed timber framing or a construction technique called balloon framing.

In a balloon-framed structure, the wall studs run from the sills to the attic space and typically have mostly open space in the walls between the studs with no fire stops to slow their progress.

Once fire penetrates a balloon-framed wall, the flames are free to quickly move up the interiors of the walls into the attic like a chimney, quickly involving the whole structure.

The Upton Block on the northeast corner of Cass and Main and Rampton's shop were the next to ignite.

Lost were Comb's bakery, Ira Schlussler's saloon, James Messmore's meat market, Ullrich's harness shop and the residence of George Hupert to the rear of the stores.

The Upton block housed the village's old skating rink, used by then for storage for farm implements by August Hahn and L.H. Stead.

The block also housed Bergman's bakery and J. Cornelius' grocery store.

Bergman's residence was housed behind the store. It, too, fell to the advancing flames.

Volunteers attempted to stay ahead of the fire, moving valuables from homes and businesses in the conflagration's path.

They were able to save a piano and some of the clothing of the LaMontaine family before the house was swept up in flames like the nearby residence of Dr. Bird, a dentist.

Piles of belongings and mercantile stock that had been rescued from buildings earlier in the fire were consumed as the inferno raced farther north into areas once thought safe.

The fire had spread to Shelby Street (Van Dyke) to the east and continued its assault on the town.

John Ruby's house and barn were next, then Addison G. Summers' livery stable at James (Summers Street) and Cass, and the homes of Miss Minnie Winans and Charles Gebert and his family.

Summers, however, was able to save all of his horses and move the buggies and the harnesses to safety.

@NB:A relentless attack

@B:Fanned by the strong southwest breeze, the flames seemed unstoppable.

Smoke and burning embers swirled around the streets of the village and were carried four miles north, to the village of Disco at today's 24 Mile Road and Van Dyke.

Tired and hot from the exertion and from the roaring flames, their eyes stinging from the smoke, Utica's residents continued their efforts to stop the advance.

On the next block of Cass, the flames continued their march north.

Horace N. Orcutt's residence and his blacksmith and carriage shop on Cass and A.J. Runyan's carpentry shop were soon engulfed in flames.

The brick home of Dr. Andrus slowed the fire's progress up Cass, but the flames were unchecked as they rolled up Shelby Street, a block to the east.

In a blow to the entire community, the carriage shop of A.A. Kaps, including the paint and blacksmith facilities, caught fire and were rapidly consumed.

The carriage shop's loss would send many area residents into unemployment.

@NB:Help arrives

@B:A plea for help had gone out by telegraph from the stricken village to other communities.

As the surrounding communities of Sterling and Shelby townships were predominantly rural, help would have to come from farther away.

The city of Detroit answered the call.

The Michigan Central Railroad made arrangements to send a special train from Detroit carrying one of the Detroit Fire Department's horse-drawn steam fire pumpers.

As the residents fought in vain to save St. Lawrence Church, the shriek of the special train's steam whistle could be heard above the crackling of the flames.

Engine No. 4 of the Detroit Fire Department, under the command of a Lt. Sheahan, arrived at the Utica Depot.

Stories indicate that the horse-drawn steam pumper drew a crowd not because it represented salvation, but because many of Utica's residents had never before seen such a wondrous and gleaming machine.

Frustrated by their inability to disembark from the train because of a growing crowd, the firemen reportedly turned their hoses on the curious to drive them away and to clear a path so the majestic horses could pull the engine into town to do battle with the flames ravaging the community.

Once in place, the firefighters laid a suction line from the pumper down to the canal bridge and into the Clinton-Kalamazoo canal.

A boiler aboard the pumper provided steam power to a powerful reciprocating piston pump.

As a plume of smoke belched from the pumper's stack into the breeze, the pump was engaged, drawing river water into the engine and allowing firefighters to play a stream of water out over the flames, checking the fire's progress.

L.H. Stead's barn would be the last structure to be lost as the firefighters' efforts brought the seven-hour stampede of destruction to a halt.

Pockets of fire provided stubborn resistance that was dealt with throughout the night.

@NB:The charred ruins

@B:Through Monday afternoon, the Detroit firefighters continued to pour water on the smoking ruins of the village.

Fully half of the community had been destroyed, including 50 buildings.

Many were considered of little value, having been "old frame buildings" not worth considerable sums.

There were, however, 150 people left homeless by the blaze.

"There (were) about ten good buildings and the rest consisted of old barns and stores that had been here for years," the Mount Clemens Monitor reported.

Among the blackened remains of the village, the Utica Sentinel stated that large mounds of gleaming white ice from meat lockers marked the locations where Messmore's, Comb's and Hupert's markets had once stood.

Efforts were made to protect the ice and keep it from melting.

The tall chimneys at LaMontaine's and Ruby's homes were all that remained of the once proud households. They were knocked over Monday morning.

Streams of curious onlookers came to see the ruins from places like Mount Clemens, Pontiac, Disco, Ortonville, Oxford and Detroit.

According to The Utica Sentinel, the city of Detroit offered whatever assistance could be provided, but the people of Utica remained strong, asking only for help in procuring building supplies for "we are going ahead at once to rebuild the town."

On Wednesday, May 11, a Deputy Beatty arrested Weinburger and lodged him in the jail. He was to face a charge of "incendiarism" before a Judge Wilcox.

His eventual fate is unknown, but he apparently admitted to authorities that he had been smoking in the barn prior to the fire.

Thus, Weinburger is believed to have started the fire and literally "burned" himself into the city's history.

@NB:Little miracles

@B:As the stunned and dazed merchants and residents of Utica surveyed the damage that had befallen their little community, they came to the realization that, while many of their material belongings had been destroyed, there had been but one serious injury.

William Upton, 65 and one of the village's wealthiest residents, was injured while attempting to throw water on his three-story building at the northeast corner of Main and Cass.

Overcome by heat and smoke, Upton had fallen from a tall ladder 30 to 40 feet above the ground.

He struck his head on the ground and was knocked unconscious.

Witnesses to the fall rescued Upton from his precarious position near the burning buildings and he was taken to his home in Sterling Township (the Italianate Upton House still stands today at Utica Road and Dodge Park).

Upton remained unconscious for more than 30 hours but later recovered.

A child's two small pet rabbits were reported to have been saved from the rink building by Louis Stead, who lost a substantial amount of his hair in the process.

Even as flames swept north along Shelby Street and consumed St. Lawrence, the fire spared the small home of the Cootes family.

When officials visited the site of the Utica Bank, the safe was intact. Upon its opening, several thousand dollars were found unharmed inside.

@NB:Utica rebuilds

@B:Before many of the ruins had cooled, the residents of Utica began clearing away the debris.

A special meeting of the Utica Common Council on May 18, 1904 established a new building code. All buildings in the village were to be constructed of brick, stone or other fireproof materials. The new ordinance, punishable by up to a $100 fine, would go into effect June 10, 1904.

Discussion also took place for the creation of a new water works to provide drinking water for the village, as well as fire suppression capabilities.

While some new construction commenced immediately, other sites in the city took longer to be rebuilt.

In August 1904, Willard Chapoton purchased the former site of the Upton block. There, in 1905, he built a two-story brick building to house his clothing store.

Over the years, the building served in that function before becoming the Nearly New resale shop. Today it is Shuck's Oyster Bar.

The city was struck a second blow when in July 1905, a second fire started at the Clinton Inn and burned all the buildings along the south side of Main Street (Auburn Road) until it reached the Kandt building on the south side, just west of the former Exchange Hotel site.

The Kandt building stands to this day.

Businesses and residences were rebuilt to the north along Cass and Shelby streets.

When St. Lawrence Church was destroyed, Father O'Shea and his congregation set to work to create alternative plans of worship.

Services were held at parishioners' homes in Utica and the surrounding communities. The parish rented Robertson's Hall and used this facility until the church was rebuilt at Van Dyke and McClellan in 1908. Today the much larger congregation meets on Utica Road.

In 1915, James V. Clinesmith, a 1907 arrival to Utica, built a new hotel and store where the Exchange Hotel once stood.

Today that building remains as the Locker Room Saloon.

@NB:Looking back, looking forward

@B:Today, the fire is only a memory, relegated to the pages of history.

Utica is now a bustling city in the middle of a major suburban community and is today protected by a dedicated, trained fire department that has an array of trucks and fire suppression equipment at its disposal, unlike the residents of 1904.

"My grandfather used to talk about the fire when I was growing up," said Utica Fire Chief Robert Beck.

"Essentially, all they had back then was the bucket brigade," he said. "Today, we have to protect so much more."

There have been some significant fires since the 1904 blaze, Beck said.

The last significant fires downtown were at the donut shop in the mid-1960s, at the Shamrock in the 1980s, and at the Old Town Cafe in the late 1990s.

The donut shop was later razed to make a parking lot for the Shamrock.

The Church's Lumber fire in 1973 was a blaze that rivaled the 1904 fire for potential devastation.

When the Utica Road lumber yard caught fire, it threatened to ignite gasoline storage tank farms on either side of the site. Each farm had more than 100,000 gallons of gasoline stored there.

Only concerted efforts from the Utica firefighters with the assistance of neighboring departments kept the fire from reaching its full destructive potential, he said.

The department remains vigilant, keeping its firefighters and machines ready for whenever fire threatens.

Fire prevention and inspection helps to keep the city from becoming a tinder box like it did in 1904.

The morning of May 8, 2004 was like many other Saturday mornings in little Utica.

The birds were singing in the trees in a celebration of spring but today, the sounds are different.

While there may still be those friendly greetings between neighbors, the horses' hooves and their nickering are also relegated to the pages of history, replaced by automobiles and today's fast-paced society and technology.

One hundred years later, many of the hard-working residents, the resilient heroes of the village of Utica, pass their eternal slumber in the city's cemeteries.

Utica's hard-working residents of today can look back and recognize that a century ago, the village of Utica was changed forever.

Little Utica was reborn from its ashes and today, its spirit remains as strong as ever.

JON OTTMAN-SOURCE NEWSPAPER  5-07-04