Dixons Big Fire 1880

Dixon has had countless fires in its history and lucily only a few were damaging enough to warrant more than passing interest. Next Friday, April 8, will be the 75th anniversary of one of the most outstanding.

Dixonites were awakened about 1:30 a.m. the morning of April 8, 1880, by the fearful clanging of the fire alarm bell. A blaze had started near the dam site, and by dawn four mills and the pumps which supplied the city with water had been destroyed. A foundry and a plow works were damaged.

The flames had touched off an explosion which killed two men and injured 10 others who were working desperately to halt the roaring blaze. The fire swept the buildings on the morning of the weekly Dixon Telegraph's publication day, and that afternoon the paper carried the story under a stack of "decks" or headlines - unusual in a day when many papers were almost completely devoid of headlines.

The Story Began:

"One of the most terrible fires that ever visited our city broke out this morning about half past one in Thompson & Co's flouring Mill and before our firemen could get to work the flames had progressed so far that it was impossible to check the fire, and in an hour the accumulations of life of toil were swept away; but that is nothing to the loss of life and the suffering of the poor brave firemen, whose wounds are being dressed as we write. Ezra Becker, William Schum and Cyrus Lint, went into the tool house east of Becker & Underwood's Mill, to procure implements to work with and while there the terrific explosion took place which threw the east wall of the building upon them and they were all carried into the Mill race. Mr. Lint, in some manner he knows not how, got out, but the other two were killed. The bodies of Becker and Schum were recovered about nine o'clock this morning. Both were mangled and one of Mr. Beckers legs were broken. Mr. Schum was a young man, clerk in Hegert's drug store. His parents live in Dubuque."

The 10 injured men were Cyrus Lint, head gashes and a spine injury; Orville Anderson, severe burns; William Rink, Jr., head bruises and both arms broken; Patrick Duffy, severe burns; Joe Rueland, severe burns on hands; Peter Ramsey, head and facial burns; Lee Stevens, facial and hand burns; Joe Hayden, burns; Dwight Heaton, a broken leg; Augustus Lenhart, minor injuries, and John Cahill, minor injuries.

The flax mill operated by H.D. Dement and S.C. Eell and Thomas Baldwin's grist mill, both housed in a large stone building owned by Col. John Dement, were destroyed, as were flour mills operated by W.P. Thompson and Becker and Underwood. The city's water pumps were destroyed and across the street the foundry of Brown & Edwards and the plow works of C.H. Curtis were damaged by fire. The total loss was estimated at more than $200,000 and possibly as much as $250,000. Total insurance carried on the properties was $66,900.

The destruction of the water pumps meant the firefighters could fight the inferno only with bucket brigades. The telegraph was called into use to send an urgent message to Amboy for help in fighting the blaze. Dixon was properly grateful when Amboy responded in what must have been near-record time. The Telegraph said:

"In fifty-eight minutes from the time the despatch was received at Amboy, asking aid to fight the terrible fire here, water was being thrown upon the buildings by the Amboy engine. The train that brought up the firemen was just thirteen m inutes on the way. Very nearly a mile in a minute. This was quick work, and of course it is not necessary to again return thanks to the good firemen and the thoughtful and energetic Superintendent, John C. Jacobs, for all this promptness."

A week after the fire the Telegraph reported that Col. Dement had started a subscription fund for aid to the injured firemen. Dement gave $50 as did Charles A. Curtis and other contributions quickly brought the total to about $500. The city of Dixon appropriated $300 as a relief fund for the men.

In the aftermath of the blaze, the theory was set forth that fine flour dust in the Beckeer & Underwood mill probably touched off the violent explosion, since the building had not been on fire before the blast.

The city council rented a steam fire engine from Burlington Iowa at the rate of $3 per day while the water pumps were being restored.

On the Sunday following the blaze the Rev. A.W. Patten of the Dixon Methodist Church preached on "Our Calamity." He told his congregation:

"The extent of this disaster to the business community is very great, and merchants feel depressed. Will Dixon regain what has been lot? Undoubtedly .. .. Let us remember that the West is beginning to do its own manufacturing; that here is one of the finest waterpowers in the country... Let us trust the mills will be rebuilt, that those who control the water power will be public spirited in its management, that men of capital will take pride in investing it in lines which may build up the business of this city."

And in that spirit, Dixon began its recovery from the terrible fire of April 8, 1880.

Written by Telegraph Staff Writer, Roger Thompson 1955

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