A tragic accident happened on Saturday evening, July 2, 1898 when fire destroyed the greater part of the village’s east side business district. It tested the mettle of the local residents – do we give up? – or do we borrow from the ancient Greek mythology of the Phoenix and be re-born out of the ashes? It would take a mere few hours for some of the local merchants to make that decision – REBUILD! Life was good and prosperous in Waterford at that time.
The Waterford Post has chronicled the blaze with periodic updates through the end of the year. The following is a collection of newspaper articles and is transcribed to provide good readability. Pictures are courtesy of the digital collection through the Waterford Library.
Waterford Post – July 9, 1898
“For five cents worth of gasoline and a desire on the part of a merchant to always accommodate a customer can be ascribed the cause of the most destructive fire which ever visited Waterford. On Friday night of last week at about 8 o’clock Louis Noll, Jr., went into the cellar of their store with a lighted lamp to draw some gasoline. An explosion followed and in the attempt to quench the flame the faucet from the gasoline barrel was knocked out. Instantly the whole store was in flame. Though assistance was prompt and plenty the fiery tongues reached onward and soon every building along the river front was burning. When the flames shot across the street and communicated with C. J. Noll’s four-story furniture store then all realized that our doom was sealed.
One by one the buildings on the south side of Main street became easy victims of the devouring elements; the Fox river house and H. J. Kortendick’s large corner building being especially choice morsels for the monster. Across the street to Palmer’s store the livid sheet danced and the work of destruction was soon complete. About this time the Burlington Hook and Ladder company arrived in response to our frantic appeal for help and with their organized effort and the sudden shifting of the wind the buildings of Wm. Shenkenberg, Wm. Plucker, including Malone’s store and G. Halbach & Sons were saved. The stone house of the Shenkenberg estate on the north side of the street and also the stone dwelling of H. Halbach on the south side were the two important elements which made the efforts of the firemen possible. The saving of B. G. Foat’s store was also a remarkable thing but due to the iron roof and the untiring and heroic efforts of the volunteer bucket brigade.
The scene as viewed from across the river was indescribably awful and as near a representation of that torrid place we read about as is ever given. Many incidents, comic as well as pathetic, were to be seen. There was a mad scramble to have all personal property portable and the back streets were glutted with household goods Some complaint is heard that goods were stolen, which is probably true to a certain extent, but in many cases missing articles have since been found. Below is a list of the sufferers, giving their losses and future intentions:
Louis Noll, general store and carried one of the largest stocks in southern Wisconsin. Would make no estimate of loss but a conservative guess is from $15,000 to $25,0000. Mr. Noll says he cares nothing for his own personal loss and would be glad to stand it if his neighbors had only escaped. He has already commenced putting up a temporary building on his property north of the photograph gallery to consist of a main two-story building 20×64, with two wings 16×64 each. Expects to be ready to resume business in a few weeks.
Chas. J. Noll, furniture building and hall, $10,000; saloon $1,000; furniture and household goods $5,000. Total $16,000 with no insurance and very little saved. No plans for the future.
Ole Nelson, proprietor of Fox River house. Loss of hotel building, $5,000; insurance, $4,000. Furniture $1,000; no insurance and very small amount saved. Will rebuild with brick, size 44×78. He has leased the new amusement hall and will conduct a hotel in same until his new building is completed.
Henry J. Kortendick, saloon. Building, $4,000; barn and ice house, $500; stock and furniture, $1,600. Insurance on building, $2,700; barns $300, no insurance on stock and furniture. Will rebuild with brick and stone. Mr. Kortendick, with his customary energy, had a temporary building ready for business at daylight Monday morning
Palmer & Harden, store building, $2,500, insurance $1,300. Quite likely will not be rebuilt by them. F.A. Lapham; farm implement store, $800; insurance $300. Will put up a larger building on the site with galvanized iron roof and sides.
John Huening, saloon and dwelling, $1,200; insurance, $400. Will rebuild next year with good, brick structure.
Wm. Sanders, store building and stock, $2,200; insurance, $1,000. Considerable stock was saved. Will rebuild with brick. He has fitted up temporary quarters for the post office in the old Shenkenberg place.
Shenkenberg estate-building $2,200; furniture, $125. Insurance on building, $1,200; furniture, $75. Probably will not be rebuilt.
Wm. Shenkenberg, damage to harness shop, stock and barn; $300, with some insurance.
B.G. Foat, loss on building, stone damaged and lost, $500.
Herman Halbach, loss on tenement dwelling, $900; insurance $600.
Chris Jacobson, store building, $700; no insurance.
H.F. Heitkemper, machine shop and barn, $800; machinery and tools $250. No insurance. Has already commenced to rebuild the shop.
Barney Huening, blacksmith, loss on tools, $250; no insurance. Has already prepared to build a shop on the Halbach ruins.
R.J. Healy, cigar maker, loss on stock and fixtures, $200, no insurance. He expects to go into the jobbing business and quit manufacturing.
Ernest Starkey, jeweler and barber, loss on fixtures and tools, $125. Insurance 4100.
Albert Wiemer, loss on furniture $125; no insurance.
August Noll lost $100 in money besides nearly all his wearing apparel.
Barney Kortendick, loss on saloon stock and fixtures, $200; no insurance.
N.H. Palmer, loss on store stock and fixtures, $300. He has located in the old Waterford house until his stock is closed out.
Wm. Noll, loss on stock of pumps, fittings, hooks, etc., $2,000; no insurance. Blackburn estate store,
Chas Terbush household furniture and clothing a complete loss. Amount not known.
As will be seen by the above, the aggregate loss to Waterford village is fully $100,000 (approximately $3 million in 2018 dollars) with but a small amount of insurance. It may also be noticed that most of the buildings will be rebuilt; that old fire traps will be succeeded by brick or stone structures and in the end handsome, fire proof buildings will mark the era of a new dawn of prosperity for old Waterford. Phenix-like we will rise from our ashes-be a stronger, more handsome and substantial than ever before.
Notwithstanding the destructiveness of the fire and the large number of men who fought tooth and nail to save property there was but one accident. Elner Hulbert was carrying water through the alley way next to B. G. Foat’s when a piece of burning cornice from Palmer’s store fell just grazing his body and setting his clothing on fire. With rare presence of mind he jumped into the river and thus saved his life. His face and body were badly burned but we are glad to know he is now recovering.
The following letter of response from the Burlington Fire Department explains itself, but it is but proper to say in advance that the debt of gratitude some of us owe them can never be repaid:
Mr. Ed Malone (Waterford Post Owner/Editor)
Dear Sir –
Your letter containing $40 and thanks from the citizens of Waterford received yesterday and let me say for the boys that we thank the undersigned citizens of Waterford for their generous gift to the firemen of Burlington, and to your invitation to visit you when you have rebuilt let me say we will come with the greatest of pleasure and there will be (using the slang term) another hot time in the old town that night I wish also to add that we stand ready at any time in the future to help you if required, but hope that such a catastrophe will never occur again to your beautiful village. We are proud of your determination to rebuild and hope ere long to see handsome business houses where now there are smoldering ruins.
Again thanking you in behalf of the firemen of Burlington, I remain,
Truly yours, T. E. Hanson, Fire Marshall”
“New Waterford” as reported in the Waterford Post July 23, 1898:
Next Week Building Operations will Commence
Transcript on next page
“From now on there will be sounds of unusual activity in the burned district and from the sharp click of the trowel to the lively tattoo of the hammer new Waterford will rise from her own ashes. It will be sweet music to our ears coupled with the satisfaction that when completed we will have a neat, clean town, susceptible to all the latest improvements. In fact, up to date in all respects. Our reporter in going the rounds was able to glean the following and he says that from the dazed feeling of despair a couple of weeks ago there is now buoyant hope and energy noticeable.
Ole Nelson’s new Fox River house will be a solid brick structure 44×80 ft, two stories high and a gravel roof. The lower floor will consist of an office-room, parlor, dining-room, kitchen, bar-room, wash-room and two bed-rooms. The upper story will contain fourteen bed-rooms and a bath-room. Either hot water or steam will be used and the handsome new structure will be brilliantly lighted with acetylene gas. The cellar has been cleared of the ashes and other debris and work on the new hotel will be pushed as fast as possible. In the meantime Landlord Nelson entertains his guests in the opera house, is having a good trade and soon will be the happy, smiling Ole as of old.
Henry J. Kortendick will erect a solid brick two story 41×46 with gravel roof. The lower floor will be divided into a bar-room 26×24, waiting-room 16×20, dining-room 28×20, two bed-rooms 10×10 and kitchen 16×18. The upper floor will l consist of a parlor, three office-rooms and four bed-rooms. He begins work Monday morning and it will be hustle from the word go.
John Huening is cleaning up the ruins of his building and expects to build a saloon on the site of the old one between now and next spring. C.J. Noll is reported as soon to commence the erection of a two-story furniture store. It will be nearly as large as the old one and quite likely a substantial fire-proof structure.
Wm. Sanders has not fully decided on his plans but is thinking on a frame two story structure 21×60.
The Shenkenberg estate will erect a one story cottage on the old site, size 20×29. The foundation is ready for the building of which H. C. Hanson has the contract.
Herman Halbach is pulling down the stone walls of the old dwelling across the way and will erect a one-story frame building in which Harvey Kortendick will conduct a saloon.
Louis Noll has the foundation for his large store completed, the timber is on the ground and work will be rushed to a speedy completion.”
“Rebuilding Efforts after the Fire”
As reported in the Waterford Post July 23, 1898:
“It is rather an inspiring sight to view the bustling activity on every hand in rebuilding the burned district. It reminds one of a bee hive. The brick walls of the new hotel are moving skyward at a rapid rate and next week the buildings of H.J. Kortendick and Wm. Sanders will likewise move in the same direction. P.H. Lacey, of Honey Creek, was awarded the contract as the lowest bidder on Kortendick’s building at $2201 complete. This does not include the sand, lime or hauling of materials, which will be furnished by the owner. Wm. Sandewes contract, similar in this respect, was in by Wm. Auterman at $1,200. Louis Noll’s new store is also assuming proportions and will soon show the large amount of labor already done. J.C. Huening has the trenches dug for the wall of his building, which will have a two-story brick veneer 30×19 ft. C.J. Noll whose loss was one of the heaviest to the late fire, will erect the largest building of any so far projected. It will be 51x(?)0 ft., two-story, (?) with imitation brick. The building will be divided into three parts – a dwelling, furniture store and saloon occupying first floor. The upper floor will be a store room and used for other purposes. The two story frame building , which will be occupied by Barney Kortendick, is nearing completion and completes the list of new structures which are in course of construction. Even the casual visitor cannot help but notice that Waterford is booming and the fire in the end will prove a blessing in disguise.”
The fire starts at this site:
burns in this block and jumps west across the street to C.J. Nolls, four-story building:
which is now the site of the Ten Club Park. (see block 4 in the insert)
The fire consumes all the buildings in this block and jumps north across Main St. Village blocks 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 22, 23, 24 were mostly destroyed.
Aftermath of the GREAT FIRE OF 1898
Lead Researchers Judy Gambrel and Bob Gariepy, Sr.
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Waterford Post articles as detailed above.
Pictures from Waterford Library Digital Collection: https://uwdc.library.wisc.edu/collections/WI/WaterfordLocHist/