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The great Ottawa factory fire of 1918

Dynamite was being used on St. Patrick’s Day of 1918 by Ottawa firemen to bring down the scorched brick walls that remained from a spectacular fire the previous night that destroyed a three-story piano factory.

An estimated crowd of 2,000 gathered to witness the destruction of the Ottawa Pianophone Company.

The factory had opened in Ottawa in 1887 as the new home of the Western Cottage Organ & Piano Company, after relocating from Mendota. It was built at the northeast corner of Joliet and Riale Streets, where the AutoZone automotive store now is located, with the factory complex stretching east to include the site of today’s Walgreens store.

Despite an 1895 fire, the factory continued to expand and the company prosper, employing 100 workers and manufacturing thousands of reed organs and player pianos which were sold across the county.

By 1917 the factory was being used by the Ottawa Pianophone Company.

A “foreign current” on an electric circuit was believed by Fire Chief Joe Boissenin to have sparked the blaze. The chief speculated heavy winds had caused a high tension wire to connect with neighborhood circuit wires which in turn were overburdened by the charge and began to ignite.

New night watchman William Warner discovered the fire in a kiln room and called the fire department. But before it arrived flames had enveloped the northeast portion of the factory and were spreading.

“Two thousand persons watched the flames bite, tear and cut the huge brick building to a mass of smoldering ashes and bricks Saturday night,” the Daily Republican-Times reported. “For hours the huge crowd circled the plant and witnessed the valiant firemen fight desperately to keep the blaze from sweeping out what is known as the ‘Kerry Patch’ neighborhood. That this part of Ottawa was not wiped out by the flames is due to the efficient work of the fire department under the direction of fire chief Boissenin.”

“Eight leads of hose were played on the burring building and adjacent houses while the flames were dancing to the tune of the terrific wind. For a time it seemed impossible that several of the nearby dwellings could be saved from a similar fate of the talking machine plant, but chief Boissenin’s boys were equal to the task they were summoned to perform. And today Ottawa ought to feel mighty proud of its fire fighters. Everyone who watched the work on the conflagration Saturday nightmare sang high praise for each and every member of the regular fire department and the Undine Hose company.

“Under the direction of fire chief Boissenin two gangs of fire fighters on the four leads of hose battled to save the houses. Under the handicap of the terrible heat from the factory building, the firemen had to barricade themselves behind boards and keep up a continuous stream of water on the houses.

“Part of the roof and wall on the south side of the building collapsed. The blaze tacked directly against the wind and made its way to the northwest corner. This gave the flames a greater volume, whipping long tongues of fire under the direction of the stiff wind over the houses on the south side of Joliet street.

“Trees standing in front of the houses along this street caught fire, yet the gallant firemen kept the houses from being swept by the flames. An hour and one-quarter after the fire was discovered the whole structure was a mass of flaming debris heaped on the ground. The roof on the northeast corner was the last to crash in. With it went the large parts of the north and west walls.

“Lives of firemen and spectators were imperiled by falling walls and high voltage electric wired. The electric wires burned off the factory in the yards along Norris street. For some time the live wires burned profusely on the ground before the power was shut off.

“It was a common occurrence during the time the fire was at its height to see residents perched upon the roofs of their homes in the districts covered by the blazing chips. For nearly an hour there was a shower of hail fire over this large area of residences.

“A light mist and snow flurries during the early part of the evening acted as a wonderful preventative from fire among the residences. The rain had dampened the roofs enough so as to make them practically immune from the short-lived burning sparks. Only for this fortunate turn in the elements there might have been several fires resulting.

“Fire chief Boissenin and his men fought the fire all night and until yesterday afternoon. Although the firemen became weary and fatigued at times, they keep pegging until there was only smoldering heaps of debris left here another among the ruins of the big building. During the night the firemen were given hot coffees and sandwiches at the home of Louis Zucker. More than one hundred cups of hot coffee were passed out to the gallant bank of battlers.”

Although there were no deaths, but there were two injuries.

Volunteer fireman Adolph Godemann, 537 Marcy St., suffered a broken left ankle after being knocked down by an ambulance driven by patrolman John Cisco. And Ruth Kelly, 1114 W. Jackson St., received a scalp wound from a flying brick while watching as what was left of the factory being dynamited.

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