ebook  History of Watertown, Wisconsin


Fire at Railway Site



Rail mill, machine shop, carpenter shop and blacksmith shop of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway

Watertown Junction, 1885, 2 years before the 1887 fire

Watertown Democrat, July 1, 1887


The most extensive conflagration that ever visited Watertown occurred last Thursday night [June 23] at 11:30 o'clock, by the burning of the rail mill, machine shop, carpenter shop and blacksmith shop of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway situated at the Junction in the Third ward.  The flames were first discovered by the watchman issuing from the boiler room of the rail mill, and the application of persons first on the scene of a number of pails of water found about the building had no effect on the fire.  The structures being all frame and connected one with the other, except the blacksmith shop, which was brick and separated from the carpenter shop by a few feet, the destruction of the building was rapid owing to the inflammable material composing them, and the dry and tinder-like condition of everything at the time.  The Phoenix company with the Silsby engine was promptly on the ground and performed splendid work as usual, but all the heroic and well directed efforts of the Phoenix boys were futile to stay the fearful progress of the flames spreading with rapidity and covering a space so wide as to be beyond the capacity of their energy to circumvent it.


The Pioneer fire Company did not reach the fire for some time after the Phoenix boys arrived on the ground, being delayed by going out of the way on account of misjudging the location of the fire and to climax the matter the whiffle trees broke on the route and the horses having to be abandoned, the Ahrens engine had to be hauled by hand.


To confine the fire within a small space, was the only hope of getting it under subjection as the water supply at hand was hardly adequate to cope with a fire of the magnitude it soon assumed after being first discovered.  Daylight, Friday morning dawned upon the entire plant being a mass of ruins, thoroughly wiped out with the exception of the brick walls left standing on the blacksmith shop, the two tall chimneys for the rail mill and a portion of the lathes and machinery of the machine shop, forming a sad scene of desolation and destruction, that will ever remain fresh in the minds of all who with sorrowful hearts witnessed it.


And now as to the direct results of the fire upon the city.  There was on a average about 200 men employed in the shops destroyed, putting up a payroll of from $8,000 to $10,000 per month, and the loss of this to our city will indeed be a severe blow, effecting seriously the business interests of the place.



Milwaukee Journal, June 24, 1887

1887: Rail Mill and Shops Fire


The St. Paul’s Rail Mill and Shops Destroyed.




The Water Supply Gives Out at a Critical Moment

One Hundred and Fifty Men Out of Work


Watertown Wis., June 24 — Last night, shortly before 12 o’clock, a fire started in the rail mill of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St Paul shops in this city, and before the arrival of the fire department the flames had made great headway and the heat was intense. 


The steamers were set at the only tank within the reach, and streams were thrown upon the burning building, but with little effect.  The fire already involved so much of the spacious building as to have hopeless odds against two small streams.  Nearly all the bells in the city were kept ringing, and the excited people hastened in crowds to the scene.  They could do nothing however but watch the two jets of water that were steadily lowering the supply in the tank.


At about 12:30 the tank gave out, and the fire was left to do its work.  So thoroughly was this accomplished, that at 3 o’clock there was little left to burn.  This forenoon, the yard presents a dismal scene.  Nothing but the smoke-stack remains standing, even the solid walls of the brick engine house having fallen.  The iron braces of the buildings, bolts rails and other incombustible material lie gnarled and twisted together half buried in the smoldering ashes.  No buildings besides the railroad shops were burned, though at 1 o’clock this morning the burning cinders were falling thick and fast, a half a mile away.


The buildings had stood many years.  Most of them were built before 1860, and no new ones have been erected for more than fifteen years.  The work which was done in them has gradually been specialized, however, as the St. Paul system grew.  In the rail-mill, in which the fire started, all the rail-cutting for the entire system was done.  In the carpenter and paint shop, all the windmills, look out-for-the-cars signs, etc., were made, and from the blacksmith shop the entire system was supplied with frogs (1) and switches. 


The works are a total loss.  No official estimate of their value has been given, but several contractors and millwrights who were familiar with the buildings, say that the loss must be about $200,000.  It is not known whether the company will rebuild, but it is the impression that they will.  The superintendent thinks that they were very well insured.


The blow to Watertown is a severe one, as, even should the shops be rebuilt immediately, the 150 men would remain in enforced idleness for many weeks.  The monthly payroll was about $7,000.


(1)  Railroad frog





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History of Watertown, Wisconsin