York, NE Fire, Feb 1913

York, NE after the fire Grant Avenue looking south - showing post office and city hall which were destroyed by fire

Another very destructive fire epoch in York’s proud business district was that of February 2 and 4, 1913, described as follows by the press of York:

By far the most disastrous fires which York has seen since the business houses on the south side of the square burned twenty-five years ago occurred Sunday and Tuesday mornings, February 2 and 4, 1913. On Sunday, after a hard fought battle the flames which threatened for a time to destroy all the buildings between Grant Avenue and the alley east, and from Sixth Street north to the city hall, were conquered, but the frame buildings occupied by the C. D. Shreck Co., and the Singer Sewing Machine Company were burned to the ground and the Chas. Baer Building which was the home of the Baer Furniture Company, was left an empty shell, blackened and charred inside, while the Chain Building was seriously damaged. People in the immediate vicinity of the fire are still wondering how they managed to escape and appreciate the fact that they owe their good fortune to the hardest kind of hard work on the part of the fire-fighters.

The alarm was given about half-past three by Dr. George Shidler, who was returning from a professional call and saw the glare of the flames through the windows of the frame buildings. The fire had already made good progress when discovered and the firemen found the houses in flames when they reached them. If is thought now that the trouble spread to the Baer Building very soon after the adjoining structure broke into flames, the fire finding easy entrance to the furniture store by a door opening on the north, and creeping up the elevator shaft. The inflammable nature of the Baer stock made the progress of the flames rapid and the structure was soon a nest of fire. The rear second floor of the Chain building was used as storage space for furniture. The flames entered the storage rooms and ruined the goods there; burning the contents of the first room and smoking and blistering everything in adjoining apartments.

When the back door of Kleinschmidt’s grocery was found to be on fire, Mr. Kleinschmidt decided that it was a wise precaution to remove his stock to a place of comparative safety and within twenty minutes after he arrived at this conclusion the entire contents of the store, even to the pictures on the walls, were piled up across the street, the efficient work of many citizens making the rapid change possible. Such a portion of the Baer stock as it was possible to remove was taken into the street early in the fight with the fire; but the larger part of the furniture was destroyed with the building. Meradith & Wallander removed a part of their goods and office furniture and merchandise were carried out of the Huffman Supply House and the Johnson Post Card and Art Store. No attempt was made to move goods from the office of E. E. Olmstead or the rooms occupied by the New Teller plant, but tenants on the second floor of the same building left their homes taking their possessions with them.

The most spectacular part of the fire was over when the frame buildings fell in and the first burst of flames that came from the roof of the Baer building had been subdued. Then the firemen settled down to grim fighting inside brick walls where the heat was like that of a furnace and every move was hampered by unexpected obstacles. Onlookers who watched breathlessly the attempts to keep the fire from spreading to the roof of the Chain Building did not realize that in the rear of the structure men were struggling in the narrow hallways with the fire monster and that on their success or failure in the struggle lay the fate of the rest of the block, quite as much as on that of their comrades who were working in the open. A broken water faucet in one of the back rooms spurted a steady stream of water for some time and did its little part towards saving the building. It was after seven o’clock before the fire was under control but the water was not turned off the smoldering ruins until hours later. Indeed it was necessary to soak the debris in the furniture store thoroughly again Monday forenoon. The endurance of the firemen was tested to the utmost during the more than three hours of the battle, and there were several narrow escapes from serious injury or death. A. A. Metz found his overcoat on fire once, but a prompt application of cold water from a hose in the hands of a fellow worker gave him something else to think of. A heavy table got away from a man who was trying to rescue it and fell from the balcony in the Baer Building to the first floor. In the fall it gave W. Cline a close shave, a portion of the pedestal tearing open his trousers pocket and knocking a well filled purse into the fire. There were plenty of manifestations of real courage during the fire, but the men who had the best opportunity of witnessing them were so busy being brave themselves that they could not stop to give praise.

The water pressure was about what may be expected in York. Undoubtedly great quantities of water were used, but the force was plainly inadequate. The origin of the fire is altogether uncertain. When Charles Shreck took possession of the south half of the building in which the fire was first discovered, he put in new wiring in the most approved fashion. He had been in the new location barely three months, so the theory of neglected or defective wiring does not hold good.

The heaviest losers by the conflagration are the Baer Furniture Co. and Mr. Charles Baer. The furniture stock was valued at $15,000 and the building at $10,000. Insurance to the amount of $6,000 was carried on the stock while policies to the amount of $4,000 stand in favor of the building. Charles Shreck lost his entire stock of electrical fixtures worth $1,600. He was well insured. The stock of cigars belonging to the York Cigar Store, located in the room adjoining that occupied by the electrical store, was all lost. It was valued at $1,200. C. B. Crone lost his office fixtures and furniture. Meradith and Wallander, H. C. Kleinschmidt, Huffman and Son and J. M. Johnson suffered small losses from removal and water. The frame buildings were the property of F. C. Power and because of their location have always rented readily.

Tuesday morning at four-thirty, Peter Hesler, who was sleeping in a room adjoining his office at 114 West Sixth Street, was awakened by smoke and found the building on fire. He lost no time in giving the alarm but the mischief was already done and the firemen waged a losing battle for several hours. By sheer hard work the fire was confined to the half block of frame buildings between the alley and Platte Avenue, the Chilcote Building and the structures facing on Lincoln Avenue escaping, though at times it seemed inevitable that the flames would spread. As it was, daylight found the Hesler Suitorium, the Emerson grocery store, E. C. Knight’s harness shop, the York Transfer Association and the implement store of Belcher & Belcher homeless, with stocks and possessions of all kinds wrecked or destroyed. The larger warehouse of Belcher & Belcher on the corner was not burned down and a large part of the machinery was removed to places of safety. A part of E. C. Knight’s new stock of harness was carried across the street before it was too late but the contents of Emerson’s grocery were burned and it is said the stock was uninsured. The Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company had large quantities of goods, including instruments, wire and equipment of all kinds, stored in the room in the rear of the Hesler Suitorium. There was nothing saved.

The building next to the alley was the property of Christian Hild, who had it insured for $2,000. It was one of the oldest buildings left in town having been erected in 1877. Though all the structures burned were frame they had been covered with sheet iron in the rear and the Belcher warehouses were practically encased in the iron. The fire-fighters were in dangerous situations many times during the struggle and the effort to keep the flames within bounds was no child’s play. The cold was greater than that of Sunday morning and icicles formed rapidly. The side of the Chilcote Building was a sheet of ice, so thoroughly had the brick walls been deluged with water as a precautionary measure.

The destruction of the old Phillips Building and the structure which was known for many years as the City Hall removes two more from the rapidly lessening list of landmarks in the business portion of the city. The City Hall was erected in 1877 by Read and Brandhofer and while the lower floor served to house several pioneer business firms, the big room in the second story was used as a court room, for church services, dances, lodge meetings and social gatherings of all kinds. W. W. Wyckoff recalls that when he came to York in February, 1881, Judge Post was holding court in the room, and he visited court as one of the few places of interest in town. For some time the Methodists held services in the hail after the congregation had outgrown the little church and before a larger house of worship was erected. Mr. Phillips occupied this building, which originally stood on the corner of Sixth Street, as a place of business. His residence, which is now occupied by the New Teller, stood on the adjoining lots. Both houses were moved as the town grew.

York County, Nebraska and Its People : together with a condensed history of the state, Chicago: S.J. Clarke Pub. Co., 1921, pages 424-427

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