Fire at the DSS&A railyard

The scene of the fire is shown the day after the blaze. A passerby can be seen in the photo’s lower left side. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

At approximately 10:15 pm on Sept. 13, 1910, the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railroad night watchman, Edward Carr was making his rounds of the railyard when he noticed a light in the car shop. The building, where carpenters rebuilt railroad cars, was located on Spring Street near Sixth Street.

It had closed at 6 and no one was supposed to be in the building at that hour of the night. After checking to see if other employees knew who was in the building, he went to investigate and found a well-established fire in the southwest corner of the building.

Carr quickly called the city fire department. According to a Mining Journal article, by the time they arrived with “a lively tooting of whistles and ringing of bells” the flames had already burst through the roof of the building, illuminating the streets for several blocks.

The light and noise quickly attracted a large crowd of nearly 1,000 bystanders. The initially firefighting efforts were hampered by low water pressure and not enough hose to reach the heart of the fire. Once these issues were resolved and the water was finally turned on, the blaze quickly died down.

It appeared that the fire was under control but moments later the flames broke through the roof again near the center of the building, bringing the realization that the building was doomed.

The car shop had been built in 1866 and the 45-year-old timbers were “dry as powder and soaked with paint and oil,” making them extremely vulnerable to the fire, as was the tarred roof. The flames were also fanned by a westerly breeze which was soon dropping sparks and embers on nearby roofs.

At that point, firefighting efforts were directed toward saving the adjoining buildings, particularly the roundhouse and the paint shop. Heroic efforts by the bucket brigade in the intense heat on the roundhouse roof succeeded in preventing the building from catching fire.

In the early stages of the fire, several explosions occurred within the building and at some point the steam pipe connected to the main boilers burst filling the building with steam.

Eventually the south wall of the car shop fell outward, scattering burning debris onto several freight cards on a siding adjoining the building. While they were damaged, the freight cars were also saved. Eventually the other walls and roof of the car shop collapsed and the building was consumed by the fire.

The origins of the fire remain unknown, as there were reportedly no shavings or other material on the floor in the corner where the fire started and the building had been empty for four hours, although defective electrical wiring was speculated as a cause. The only railroad car that was totally destroyed was passenger coach no. 304 which was being rebuilt into a dining car.

Losses and damage from the fire, including the building, machinery, tools and rail cars was unofficially estimated at $30,000 to $50,000.

The 20 men employed in the building used their own carpenter tools, all of which were destroyed in the fire. Their individual losses were estimated between $100 and $700 each with no help from the company or insurance to replace the tools.

Within a week construction began on a replacement building which was completed by Dec. 22, 1910.

Efforts were made to make the new building as fireproof as possible with brick and steel construction and asbestos roofing. The new building was considerably larger and combined with the new machinery it was felt that the car shop would be able to turn out twice as much work as it had before the fire.

The Mining Journal reporter concluded “As is often the case, the fire loss of the South Shore in the destruction of their car shop was not without some small gain.

As a result of it, the company now has a much larger, safer and convenient shop than before and is in much better shape to build and rebuild freight and passenger cars than in the past.”