Lawrence Avenue fire, 1916

A quick-moving fire, compounded by misdirected fire engines, destroyed the south side of the 300 block of East Lawrence Avenue early Oct. 3, 1916.

The blaze, the cause of which was never determined, started just before 4 a.m. in the basement of an apartment building at 308 E. Lawrence Ave. The building was unfinished, but owner Edna Atwood already lived there. She escaped, hair and eyebrows singed, with the help of a neighbor.

The fire spread both west, demolishing single-family houses at 306 and 302 E. Lawrence, and south, where it destroyed the corner house at Fourth and Lawrence. Two more buildings on Fourth, apartments at 805-07 S. Fourth and a single-family home at 809, were severely damaged.

Other buildings across Lawrence from the main fire suffered minor damage – heat blew out plate-glass windows on what today is the Dana-Thomas House State Historic Site, then occupied by Susan Lawrence Dana.  And an impromptu bucket brigade helped squelch small, wind-driven fires elsewhere in the neighborhood.

In addition to Atwood, a number of residents were driven from their beds in their nightclothes, but no one was seriously injured.

Part of the reason firefighters were too late to save the south side of Lawrence was that they were sent to Monroe Street by mistake. No one ever figured out how the confusion developed, but once the fire trucks arrived on Monroe Street, firefighters could see the glow of the blaze in the sky over Lawrence Avenue. At the height of the fire, firefighters had 10 streams of water aimed at the burning houses.

Meanwhile, a stiff southeast breeze was sending burning embers all over the block bounded by Second, Third, and Cook streets and Lawrence Avenue. With firefighters already occupied, area residents rounded up containers and carried water upstairs to soak rooftops, the Illinois State Register reported (one of the volunteer organizers was Register editor V.Y. Dallman).

The first house in the block to catch fire was that occupied by Clarence Black at 226 East Cook street. The volunteer firemen were soon in the attic of this residence.

Coal scuttles, dishpans and buckets filled with water were handed up the attic stairs in rapid fire fashion by the bucket brigade. Thus the fire was checked until a fireman arrived.

Meanwhile, other volunteers drove automobiles away from the scene. Harry Loper Jr. jumped into an electric-powered auto owned by M.J. Bartel, the Register said.

So rapidly did the flames spread and so intense was the heat that the electric began to smoke and would soon have been destroyed had not Loper made a mad dash, jumped into the car and ran it over the curbstone and down the sidewalk. … The car was damaged some, but would have been a complete wreck but for Loper’s heroism.

The burnt-over block remained vacant for almost 10 years. The first new house in the area went up in 1925, and eventually homes were built at 302, 306 and 308 E. Lawrence Ave. In 2020, the Dana-Thomas House Foundation had its offices at 302 E. Lawrence Ave.; the foundation also owned the other two houses on the block.

Hat tip: To Cinda Klickna, who brought this to SangamonLink’s attention.

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