Three Handsome Buildings – A Fire Report

Joe V Lowry
On April 5, 1891, three handsome buildings on north Main burned. The incendiary fire, a set fire, caught several firefighters in a building collapse.

At 2 AM, a fire report came in at the new seven-story office building, The Abstract on Main north of Adams, and within seconds, before firefighters threw any water, the four-story Franklin Hotel was on fire.

Engines 1 and 5 took the cistern at Main and Adams, and Engines 4 and 3 took the cistern at Jefferson and Second Street. Engine two took a hydrant. During the fire, the cistern between Main and Second went dry, and Engines 5 and 1 had to relocate to hydrants. The water pressure was good, but when Engines 1 and 5 had to shut down, their four lines experienced problems. The first floor of the Abstract building collapsed, and Engine 1’s firefighters had to run for their lives. Active on the scene, Fire Chief Ryan fell from a ladder and sprained his ankle.

Our 85 ft ladder was not tall enough to reach the top floor, and our smaller pumpers, Engine 3 and 4, could only supply one line a piece. One hour later, by 3 AM, the fire was still burning.

* Note we had 5 Engines, 1 Ladder, and two Chemical Engines on the scene. Two firemen rescued a citizen, Mr. Frank Burroughs, from a Jefferson Avenue address. The very public downtown location, the insurance adjustors, the news media, and everyone’s “Aunt Tilly” all had a lot to say and to blame everyone breathing. A lot of public blame and accusations were flying.

The Appeal Avalanche wrote this; “there was no use for ladders, there was not enough water, the heat had been terrific, and there was not enough manpower.” The fire could have very well taken downtown Memphis if there had been a wind.
Over the next several days, many in the city, media, citizens, and officials blamed everyone except the Fire Department and demanded answers.

Here are some of the questions and answers during the inquiry:

The media posed its questions on Fire Department preparation to Fire Chief Ryan. Here is his reply: Back in January, Chief Ryan told the mayor and Commissioners that he needed two more heavy gallonage Engines, like Engine 1, 5, and 2, and a Water Tower which could put a heavy stream (1 ¼” tip at 80 psi which equals four hundred gallons per minute). He also asked for fifty more men and more hose. The Commissioners and the Mayor turned down all these requests. The last 5 Fire Chiefs had asked for more engines, manpower, and resources, only to be turned down by these city officials.

Questions from the media on the water supply: Chief Ryan said they had good pressure from the Water Company, but the cistern at Main and a pipe did not feed Adams as all 51 others did; this one was filled by street runoff. He did say that “the Water Company had it in their contract to add a 2” fill line. It was customary practice in the day for firemen on their way to work to open and check the cisterns in their area and, if they weren’t full, to turn on the valve and trickle-fill each one.” Since Memphis started using the fire hydrant system, the system has never been able to provide proper pressure and volume. There was a 25’ diameter 175’ tall standpipe water pressure tank located at Nettleton and Tennessee, which was supposed to be kept filled at all times.

Chief Rayan had asked for a gauge, but the Water Company had not supplied it. There was no water in the elevated tank for two days in the last month before the fire. Engine 4, the James Speed, was an Ahrens 5th Class single pump 400 gallon per minute Engine. Engine 3, the G.I. Pullen, was an Ahrens 6th Class, 350-gallon-per-minute Engine.

Engines 3 and 4 were pumping from the cistern at Jefferson and Second, which was a fed cistern. Both were pumping one good line without issues (at least 326 gallons per minute).
The fire department said the cistern would be taken first for many years because our fire hydrant system was so poor. In 1887, the city installed the Artesian Well water system, and keeping the hydrants at the proper pressure and volume became easier.

Chief Ryan said if this fire had been in Chicago, they would have sent 20 Engines.

Chief Ryan also said a blue flame was present when his fire companies arrived on the scene. The blue flame suspiciously indicated oil had been poured or spilled on the second floor, and there were 5 points of origin.
Twenty-five minutes after the 1st Alarm, the walls of three heavily damaged buildings started crumbling down.

Loss $100,000.00 ($3,261,505 in 2023 dollars)

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