Alton, IL Penitentiary Fire, Aug 1858 - second article
The Fire At The Illinois Penitentiary At Alton.
From the Alton Democrat, Aug. 14. The most severe fire that has visited Alton for many years occurred here last night within the Penitentiary walls. At about dusk, and some fifteen minutes after the convicts had retired from the yards and shops, and the night watch having been on guard for some ten minutes, fire was discovered bursting out in two or three places, from a room in the building near the gate, designated as the drying-house for the cooperage. In an instant, as it were, the flames spread through the rooms and the adjoining rooms of a large, long building. The alarm being given, the Fire department and a large number of citizens speedily collected about the walls. So filled was the building with cooperage stuff, machinery & etc. that the flames were beyond control ere the firemen got fairly at work upon it.
Their efforts were then directed at saving the adjoining buildings, our readers being aware that several large buildings, comprising different branches of business, are bound together within the prison walls, with alleys or roadways between them. The fire by this time presented a grand and fearful sight. The combustibles made an immense blaze, the glare beaming over the city, the river and the hill-tops making all as light as day. The wind blew gently up the river, wafting the dense volume of flame and smoke and sparks, and burning cinders, into the river, and over Messrs. MITCHELLâ€™S Mill.
The eating hall and arsenal building was now on fire, there not being sufficient hose to reach it from the gateway. Hose was taken up through the Wardenâ€™s house, and past grated windows, and thus a stream was directed at the dining room floor-but too late, for the roof and upper-story window frames were in fire. The burning brands, alighting on the roof of Messrs. MITCHELLâ€™S Mill, fired it in several places, but the Pioneer Engine Co. with several citizens preserved the buildings.
Thus for several hours, from 8 until 1 oâ€™clock, the firemen and citizens toiled at the engines and inside, for the heat had become so intense inside the walls as to drive the engine companies outside, until they were quite exhausted, and, the flames being tolerably well under, many retired to their homes. But a vast pile of staves, some 300,000, had taken fire, and were not to be subdued. It commenced burning afresh, and the long cooper-shop near to it was in great danger. A new alarm was given, guns fired, bells rung, and drums beat, and the citizens and firemen again assembled and went to work.
Long before this, however, the city military was called out, about forty men of the Yager Co., with loaded arms, to aid in preventing a rebellion among the four hundred prisoners. A portion of the Yagers mounted the walls, and guarded other weak points, and also stood sentry over about one hundred short term and best [illegible] of the convicts, the latter being sent to work on the engines, & etc., when were again brought within the walls. The heat and smoke now enveloped the main prison building, in which the prisoners were locked up for the night, causing such an intense heat that the convicts began to call loudly for deliverance. To prepare for frustrating all possibility of escape, Deputy-Warden WELLS placed a strong guard upon the walls, with orders to shoot any convict who even showed a spirit of insubordination. The most infernal noises now rose from the Penitentiary- of convicts in their cells yelling for fear; of the singing of others while working at the brakes; of the shouting through trumpets and the general noise of the crowd. The noise was distinctly heard at our residence in Sempletown, one mile from the spot, and it seemed as if a general rebellion and revolution was going on.
The main cell building was not ignited but the upper floors of tiers and cells became so heated and full of smoke the convicts in them were turned into the halls of the lower stories, where the heat and smoke were less intense. They were very fearful of being burned alive apparently.
No escapes were effected, although two or three attempts were made, by prisoners changing clothes, and trying to pass out among the firemen and citizens, while saving wagons and other property. The roll was called at 10 oâ€™clock today, and every man answered to his name. The loss is about one third of the buildings of the prison, valued with their contents at between $20,000 and $30,000. We can learn nothing definite as to the insurance, the lessees of the prison not being here. One report is of no insurance, another of $30,000. There is no insurance on the premises at any agency in Alton. The pile of 50,000 alone was worth $11 per thousand.
The Alton fire department worked manfully. In conclusion, we remark that the opinion generally prevails that the fire was the work of one or more of the prisoners; was started and was so concealed, that it had not gotten under full head before discovery.
Since writing the above, we learn that it was started in the keg-shop, a two story plank shed adjoining the stone building. Some prisoners seemed to act in concert with it, by throwing missiles out their cell windows, but desisted when the Yagers paraded before them, and were ordered to fire at any window from which a missile came. Some of the convicts had taken in stones in their pockets; others threw out padlocks, which had been left in the hasty unlocking of the cells.
The New York Times, New York, NY 24 Aug 1858