Minneapolis, MN Tribune Building fire, Dec 1889




MINNEAPOLIS, Dec. 1. - Four smoke-blackened and crumbling walls, towering up above a steaming, smoking, smoldering mass of machinery, brick, and building debris, is all that now remains of the eight-story brick building at the corner of First-avenue South and Fourth street, in which, until to-day, had been printed three daily, and one weekly newspapers, and where the situated the Minneapolis Tribune, besides numerous other offices. All day to-day a constantly changing and ever increasing crowd of sightseers thronged the streets, watching the efforts of the firemen to subdue entirely the flames which they had brought under control at about 2 o'clock this morning. The fire was a fierce one while it lasted and it was due to the effective work of the department that the flames were kept from spreading to the frame buildings on the adjacent lots.

The plan of the building was such as to make it well-nigh impossible for any who decided after the alarm had been given to make their escape from the building. As there were not less than a hundred men at work on the upper tories at the time the fire broke out, and the warning was late as well as the means of egress limited, some loss of life was a certainty. Several times there have been small fires in the building, but they were quickly extinguished, so that, although all realized the combustible nature of the building, a warning was less likely to be heeded.

The buildinhg has long been considered dangerous, not alone in case of fire, but in its apparently loose make-up. The heavy machinery in the job room has frequently shaken the building. There was only one fire escape, and that, as has been said, was at the north side of the building, where the fire started. There was but one stairway, that a narrow spiral arrangement following the elevator shaft from top to bottom of the building. The elevator was of the ordinary size, but there was only one. The Tribune and the Tribune - Star and the Evening Journal were all prepared to move from it in a few months. The Journal, whose new bulding across the street is now enroofed, was to go first, and ground has been broken for the Tribune's new building on the First-avenue corner, also opposite.

Three years ago the inadequate fire protection of this building was considerably agitated. The Trades and Labor Assembly took it up, and labored with the owners of the building, with the Fire Department, and even with the city itself, to have the building put in proper condition or condemned, but nothing came of it. The building, as it stood at 9 o'clock last night, was the same as when the Trades and Labor Assembly demanded that it be provided with fire escapes. The Tribune chapel of printers at about the same time as the Trandes and Labor Assembly turned their attention to this same subject. It is said that resolutions were passed by the chapel calling upon the owners of the building to beware, and declaring that if a printer efer lost his life through negligence on their part to make the necessary provisions against are the consequences whould be serious and perhaps revengeful. There was a good deal of this sort of talk on the streets to-day.

Last night, a few minutes after 10, when the alarm was sounded, it was not regarded seriously by the men at work, although many of them started down stairs. No danger or serious results were thought of when the men started out, many of them jokingly speaking of it as a false alarm. This feeling of safety resulted in the death of a number and the narrow escape of others.


For some time the Union League Club room, where the fire started, has not been used, and the fire's origin is a mystery. This room is close to the elevator shaft, and in the attempts to put out the flames a window was broken open, bringing in a draught of fresh air. The flames then shot across the hall and up the elevator shaft in a moment, and cut of the escape of those who had delayed. A few broke through the stifling smoke and scorching flame, but others sought escape elsewhere. Being at the south end of the building, while the only fire escape was at the north and the printers found their way to the stiars as well as down them cut off. A number of them climbed out the windows andclung to the window ledges waiting for the help which, in several instances, came too late. Their piteous cries for help directed the firemen to them, and a number were saved. Others fell off their narrow resting places or dropped from the telegraph and telephone wires, over which they had tried to escape, to their deaths on the frozen ground below.

The sight of the sufferings of the burning, struggling men brought tears to the eyes of the bravest, and women prayed and men breathlessly waterd Operator Igoe's brave attempt to escape. He had got clear of the building and was gradually working his way along the wires to safety, while the silent, prayerful crowd below anxiously and helplessly watched his brave attempt to save to his wife and four little ones their bread winner. But the wires cut and his strength failed, and a groan went up from the upturned faces far below him when he was seen to slip from his slight support and fall to the roof of the boiler house, where he received fatal injuries. Men lifted him gently and started with him to a drug store, but on the way, after a last word of loving care for his family, he breathed his last.

Other heartrendering scenes were witnessed, but no fight for life could have been pluckier than this, and its fatal termination was a matter for universal regret.

Seven bodies were found around the building last night, all of which have been identified. They were those of:


ANTON PICKETT, assistant city editor of the Pioneer Press.
JAMES E. IGOE, Associated Press night operator.
WALTER F. MILLER, night agent and day operator of the Associated Press.
EDWARD OLSEN, President of the University of South Dakota at Vermillion.
W. H. MILLMAN, commerical editor of the Tribune.

Other bodies are known to be in the building, but just how many is uncertain. Two men who could not be identified shot themselves rather than be burned to death, and to-day the body of a man caught in the ruins is in plain sight of the crowd on Fourth-street. It is believed that the number of victims whill reach twenty and perhaps twenty-five, but until the debris cools off positive information as to the loss cannot be obtained. The department withdrew from the ruins to-night, and the search for bodies will begin just as soon as it is considered safe.

As far as learned the injured are:


WILLIAM LAWN, printer, burned on the hands and face.
E. C. ANDREWS, printer, burned on hands and face.
GEORGE L. WORDEN, printer, hurt about the head by falling.
FRANK GERBER, a deaf printer, hurt about the head by falling.
CHARLES ALF WILLIAMS, managing editor of the Tribune, badly burned about the head and face.
B. M. JONES, Pioneer Press reporter, hands and face slightly burned.
FRANK HOOVER, printer, burned about the neck.


Minneapolis Typographical Union No. 42 met this afternoon in Labor Temple to take action on the calamity of Saturday night. A committee on resolutions was appointed, and pending their report the union ordered Recording Secretary Roanald to collect evidence regarding the repeated efforts of the men to have fire-escapes placed on the building, and to place such evidence at the disposition of the Coroner. The commitee on Resolutions then reported, and their report was unanimously adopted. After reciting the facts of the fire, and of the death of their comrades, and extending sympathy to the bereaved relatives, the resolutions continue as follows:

Whereas, In view of the terrible calamity above mentioned we deem it our duty to inform the public of the following facts and allow the citizens of our city to judge as to who is responsible for the appalling sacrifice of human lives.

1. That records of the Tribune and Journal [illegible] will show that committees have been repeatedly appointed to confer with A. B. Nettleton, who at last time had charge of the building, and requested, even begged of him to furnish the proper means of escape in case of fire. This Mr. Nettleton refused to do.

2. Our case was taken up by the Trades and Labor Assembly of this city, and a committee from that body labored long and earnestly with Mr. Nettleton to have him comply with the requests of the occupants of the building, but all efforts failed.

3. That there was a fire escape at the north end of the building we will not deny, but the very position in whch it was placed rendered it practically useless, as the lives of two of the unfortunate victims of last night's calamity will testify.

4. It has been reported to this committee that a prominent member of the fire department has made thestatement that he had been trying for three months to have additional fire escapes placed on the Tribune building. In view of the above your committee would recommend the adoption of the following resolutions:

Resolved, That we, the members of the Minneapolis Typographical Union, do most severely condemn those whose duty it was to place a sufficient number of fire escaptes on the Tribune building, for not so doing, and further,

Resolved, That, in our judgment, this is a proper subject for the Coroner to carefully and fully investigate and place the blame where it belongs.

Chief Stetson of the Fire Department lays the blame for the great loss of life to the lack of fire escapes, and says the department did what it could to save lives, and if there was any delay it was because life was considered of more value than property.


The figures as to the loss which were sent last night have not bee materially changed, the total loss being about $300,000. The Tribune's loss is placed at $50,000, with $20,000 insurance; the Journal's loss is $40,000, at it is half insured, and the Tribune job office lost $60,000, on which there was about $25,000 insurance. Other minor losses make the aggregate as stated, and the insurance foots up $150,000.

The elevator man, whoe brave attempts to bring down the occupants of the upper floors when the elevator shaft was on fire have been generally commended, says that he thinks there were still several people on the eighth loor when escape was cut off, and that they must have perished in the flames or fallen in the wreck of the building. He took a couple of women up n the elevator a few minutes before the fire broke out, and says they did not come down again. He sayshe did not know who they were, but says they wanted to see the city editor of the Pioneer Press.

A sad feature of the loss of life is the fact that a number of printers whose remains are almost certainly in the debris are not inquired for, having no friends to ask for them and apparently none to mourn their untimely taking off. They lived at boarding houses and little was known of them there.

It is now known positively that Dahl, the bookbinder, was not the man who shot himself in the hall, he having been safe and well. Who the two suicides were is unknown. Also it is almost positively known that there are nomore printers in the ruins, every one's card being accounted for. There is a bare possibility that some printers had come to town last night and gone to work without having turned in their cards, but this is doubted.

Several employes of the Swedish paper, which was published on the eighth floor, werein the habit of sleeping in the building, and nothing has been heard of them.

Also some law students slept in offices in the building, and some of them may be among the lost. To-morrow's search is all that can decide this matter, and it will also settle the question whether the women taken up in the elevator just before the fire are among the victims.

The New York Times, New York, NY 2 Dec 1889


MINNEAPOLIS, Dec. 3. - Three funerals were held to-day over three victims of Saturday night's fire at the Tribune building. Milton Pickett of the Pioneer Press, the services being in charge of the Rev. H. M. Simmons of the First Unitarian Church and President Northrup of the State University. Floaral tributes were furnished by the newspaper men of the two cities.

Funeral services over the remains of Prof. Edward Olsen were held at the home of his brother this afternoon. Among the mourners were a number of the students from the South Dakota University, of which he had been President.

One of the dead printers, Robert McCutcheon, was buried from Warner's undertaking establishment, the interment being in the Typographical Union lot at Lakewood. The body of F. J. Jenkinson, the father of the Tribune chapel, was taken to Sioux City by relatives this morning. The other three bodies will be buried to-morrow.

Owing to the dangerous condition of the ruins no attempt was made to-day to get at the presses or to search for other bodies. The presses seem not to be wholly destroyed. Loose bricks on top of the shattered walls and immense cracks in the upper portion of the walls show the necessity for care in entering the ruins.

Measures for the relief of the bereaved families are rapidly going forward. Enough has already been subscribed to relieve their immediate necessities, and it is hoped much more will be secured. The Times fund this afternoon passed $1,000 and is going up rapidly. The Chamber of Commerce has raised over $1,000 for the family of Operator goe, having known him as chief of their telegraph office. The ball at the West Hotel promises to bring in the greatest amount, every expense being disposed of at the start, the printing being done by Charles Mitchell, who lost $30,000 in the fire.

The Coroner's inquest still continues. The builder of the structure says that when he was building wooden stairs were ordered put in instead of iron, on account of a difference in expense of about $5,000. Building Inspector Hazen had never considered the building a safe one, and said that three months ago a committee called on him to complain because they feared it might fall down at any time without warning. He considered it an unsafe building and very inadequately provided with fire escapes.

Nothing is more definitely known as to the possible victims in the ruins. That several more bodies are still to be taken out is firmly believed by a great many people, while many others are hoping that the full extent of the calamity as to the loss of life has been learned.

The New York Times, New York, NY 4 Dec 1889


MINNEAPOLIS, Dec. 8. - Until Friday night Charles Ostrom was cashier and bookkeeper of the Minneapolis department of the Pioneer Press. To-day he is in jail charged with having embezzled $2,200 of the funds intrusted to his charge and suspected, furthermore, of having fired the Tribune building, in which seven persons lost their lives, on the night of Nov. 30.

When confronted with the charges of stealing he confessed a shortage and offered to assist in hunting the matter up. He was forced to admit that $2,200 was the correct amount. At once the rumor spread abroad that he had deliberately fired the Tribune building to destroy the evidence of his peculations, and the Grand Jury will make a searching investigation.

He said to-day: "I expected this charge would be made before. I certainly had every incentive to destroy those books. If they had been burned up there ould have been no proof against me. It is natural that sould [sic] be suspected. As additional proof against me, I left the books out of the safe Saturday night. I had often done this before and nothing was thought of it. I think I can prove, however, that I was not at the building Saturday night. I left at 5 o'clock, intending to leave the country. I went to the Summit House for my wife and visited everal other places, going home about 9 o'clock.

A detective had been shadowing Ostrom for a week before the fire and will be asked as to his whereabouts. Ostrom stated that the money had been lost gambling.

The New York Times, New York, NY 9 Dec 1889

Managing Editor's Heroism Saved 40 Lives in Minneapolis Tribune Fire.

SEATTLE, Wash., April 10. - Charles Alf Williams, aged 50 years, assistant managing editor of the Seattle Tmes, died today as the result of injuries received in The Minneaolis Tribune fire on Nov. 30, 1889, when eight persons were killed and the lives of forty more were saved by the heroism of Williams, then managing editor of The Tribune. In his youth Williams was a noted oarsmen and wrestler.

When fire started on the eighth floor of The Tribune Building, panic seized upon all those on the upper three floors and men began t leap from windows into a light court to be killed on the stones below. Williams by command and physical force got control of the struggling men and marhaled them down a fire escape at the head of which he and his brother stood. After the last printer had passed to safety the Williams brothers followed.

Charles was burned about the head and inhaled flames, and had been more or lessof an invalid ever since, but retained his mental vigor.

The New York Times, New York, NY 11 Apr 1911