Independence, IA Fire, May 1874

The fire, which was the most destructive from a monetary standpoint, that had ever, up to that date, occurred in the history of Iowa, commenced at 2 o’clock, Monday morning, May 25th, in a frame building on Chatham Street, south of, and adjoining the Burr Block (about opposite to where the postoffice and barber shop is now located), and occupied by Mrs. Elis Brown, as a millinery store and residence. A family by the name of Holt also had rooms in the second story.

These families were aroused from slumber by the night watchman and before they had time to dress, the fire had communicated with the outside stairway, cutting off all egress. In this dilemma Mr. Holt, acting with calm, superior judgment, seized a mattress and threw it to the ground, and they all in turn leaped from the burning building onto the mattress and escaped without injury from the fall.

The fire swept southward toward Main Street with amazing rapidity, the old, dry frame buildings were consumed like straw. The fire then were quick to respond to the first alarm and got the hand engines to work without delay, but with no appreciable effect.

The flames soon communicated with the Burr Block and in an incredibly short time that fine structure, including four stores and the St. James Hotel, was a raging furnace. A new steam engine, lately purchased by the city, had arrived but a day or two previous and was awaiting the coming of the general agent for trial and acceptance by the city. When the fire began to assume formidable proportions, it occurred to our competent engineer and machinist, Dick Guernsey, that this machine was not fulfilling its destiny lying idle in the engine house. So, with the assistance of some of the crowd, he took it to the river in the rear of the Burr Block, filled its boiler by means of a garden pump, lighted the fire, attached the hose, and ran the steamer to its utmost capacity during the remainder of the night, doing most efficient service. When it is remembered that the engine had neither steam nor water gauges attached, and was operated by Mr. Guernsey entirely without means to indicate the pressure or state of the water in time boiler, and at imminent risk of his life, the heroism of the act will be realized.