Forged From Fire

Fire has always been a constant danger to old mining communities in the Copper Country. To make the matter more problematic was the region’s long, harsh, and often bone chillingly cold winters – winters which often pushed heating systems to their limits. Chimney fires, stove fires, unsupervised space heaters, coal fires…the ways in which a building could catch fire were numerous. Once started these small fires often turned large and destructive, thanks to inadequate fire fighting infrastructure, lack of adequate water supplies, and the harsh conditions of those same winters that sparked the fires in the first place. What today may destroy just a single building often destroyed several at a time back a century ago. In some cases those small fires could even destroy entire blocks before they were contained.

Though fire affected most Copper Country communities, none were shaped so thoroughly and completely as the young city of Hancock. That long history of fire began early in Hancock’s life, starting with the great fire of 1869. It was an early April Sunday morning that an overturned heating stove at a dance party sparked the fire’s rather unremarkable beginnings. Unfortunately the fire was ignored until it had gotten to large to contain by the partygoers, who left the building to its fate. Unfortunately that cold April morning was also exceptionally windy, and as the old French Saloon in which the fire started became engulfed in flames those flames were pushed eastward towards neighboring structures.  Within just a half hour since it began a half dozen structures were aflame, with the intense heat eventually sparking the opposite side of the street as well. Within an hour thirty had caught fire.

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It would take six hours before the fire could be contained, but by then there was hardly much left to burn anyway. Over six blocks and twelve acres of the town’s platt had been leveled, with 150 businesses, homes, and churches destroyed in the inferno. By the time the sun had set on the town  it was as if it had never existed in the first place. It was a devastating blow to such a young community, but luckily the industrial centers of the village – the Quincy Mine, its Mill, and several other industries found along shore – had survived untouched. Thus most of the village continued to have a job, and as such were able to quickly rebuild their destroyed homes and commercial blocks. By the time winter had fallen on the village yet agin again it had risen up from ashes bigger and better then before.

This was unfortunately only the first in a long line of fires to ravage the old mining village.  In its lifetime Hancock fell victim to more than a dozen major fires – fires that resulted in the destruction of over 200 of its buildings. It’s a destructive history that has shaped the city’s commercial corridor as it left large gaps in the streetscape that were once filled with grand masonry buildings that no longer exist. Taking a ride down Quincy Street today would suggest that Hancock’s commercial development was restricted to its first block – the same 100 block that we explored in the previous few posts. Past that the rest of Quincy’s downtown seem sparse and loosely filled, with large parking spaces, empty lots, and small minuscule buildings taking up most of the view. A century ago, however, this was not the case. There was a time when Hancock’s dense downtown extended past its 100 block – with both sides of the street filled shoulder to shoulder with incredible masonry business blocks and soaring churches block after block.

 

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Here’s a look at that new improved Hancock, from an image taken along Quincy’s 200 block around 1890. This image is anchored by a pair of rather impressive commercial blocks including the towering four story bulk of the Northwestern Hotel on the left and the  three-story Scott Block to the right. By 1900 the scene would feature even more grand structures, including a third towering three story masonry building built two doors down from the Scott Block, a building known as the Kauth Block. Unfortunately Hancock’s history with fire had just begun, and before all was said and down every building seen here along the 200 block – including the yet to be built Kauth Block –  would be wiped from the scene. Fast forward a century and this same view would look remarkably different.

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  • Today 
  • Before 

 

Here’s a look at that modern space – a greatly neutered and diminutive commercial corridor that looks far different then when can be found just a block to the east. Save for a pair of buildings at the block’s far end, every other structure along this stretch of road was a modern replacement to what was once far more grand and impressive business blocks. In place of the large amount of sky seen above would have stood a trio of large business blocks, one two stories high and the other two standing three stories in height. (Click on the “before” tab above to see where they once stood). These buildings were known as the Scott Block, the Kauth Block, and the Hollman Block. By 1944 they were all gone thanks to a trio of separate fires that ravaged this portion of Hancock’s downtown – one in 1923, another in 1937 and a third in 1944.

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The first of these fires was considered one of the greatest of them all – second only to the great fire of 1869. It was a cold February in 1923 when fire broke out in the basement of the soaring three story Scott Block (the smoke-bellowing hole seen to the right in the photo above), a fire that quickly spread to the neighboring buildings. In addition to the Scott Block the fire would also destroy the Drittler Block next door and the Baer Brother’s Meat Market down at the corner of Tezcuco Street. (seen far left). The fire would result in upwards of $200,000 in damage, an incredible sum in the middle of Prohibition. Though devastating, the fire did spare the buildings on the block’s western end, a series of buildings that included the soaring Kauth Block. Unfortunately those buildings had only been given a reprieve, as their own executions would end up being carried out in the ensuing decades as those neighboring buildings would also fall victim to subsequent fires in 1937 and 1944. These string of fires would end up decimating the 200 block’s southern rim. Out of more than a dozen that once called the street home at the turn of the century, only two would survive into the modern age.

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The same story would play out along the 200 block’s northern streetscape as well, though at least there the string of buildings along the street survived further into the 20th century.  In 1970 that northern side of the block would resemble what can be seen in the archive photo above – a view that looks westward from Tezcuco Street. Here at the corner can be found a Rexall Drugstore, housed in a convoluted wood framed structure that originally was home to a saloon. Next door stands the two story masonry Northey Block, which at this time housed the Dover Music House but would later become home to a furniture store known as  Pesola’s. Down at the end of the photo soars the multi-windowed facade of the towering Northwestern Hotel – the only one of these building’s to survive into the 1990s. The rest would fall victim to yet another firestorm – this one occurring in the winter of 1978.

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The result would be the scene seen above, taken by our friend Tom Roberts on that cold day in December when the fire struck. The only building to survive  unscathed would be the old Northwestern Hotel seen to the far left – a building which at this time was known as the Finlandia. Worst hit was the old Northey Block who had its entire front facade and interior collapse into a pile of rubble. Next door the rambling wood-framed Rexall Drug Store building would also be heavily damaged. Though still standing, the two story wood framed building standing between the Northey and Northwestern buildings would also be too damaged to repair – demolished along with the rest of its neighbors in the weeks to follow.

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After the fire the same scene would look like this – with only the massive bulk of the Northwestern still standing. The three buildings that once shared this scene now nothing more then empty Parking lots. It may seem as if this would be more then enough for one block to endure, but in fact there was yet one other disastrous fire to ravage its way through the 200 block of Quincy. This time it wasn’t commercial blocks that would be destroyed, it would be an entire church complex.

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Sitting at the opposite end of the block – at the corner of neighboring Ravine Street – stood the sprawling parochial complex seen above belonging to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. St. Patrick’s was an outgrowth of the city’s original Catholic house of worship – St. Anne’s. As the city grew that old wood-framed house of worship was quickly outgrown by the city’s burgeoning catholic population. As a result the congregation would split apart into various ethnic based factions, each building their own church’s across the city. While the French and Germans would erect their own church down the street in the form of St. Josephs, the Irish would erect this impressive building next door to the old St.Anne’s church.

Built in 1889 the massive brick and sandstone cathedral soared 150 feet into the air – its central bell tower taller then anything else in the city. Later the congregation would add to their empire by tearing down the old St. Anne’s church and rectory (buildings they were using as storage up to that point) and replacing them with a pair of new structures of their own. At the corner would rise a new rectory while just behind it along Ravine Street would be built the church’s new expanded parochial school –  completed in 1894.  It was an impressive array of religious institutions, one that would come to dominate the 200 block of Hancock’s downtown for several decades. That is until fire once again struck, another disastrous inferno that ended up wiping the trio of structures seen above from the landscape.

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The fire would erupt in the spring of 1937, starting within the massive church itself. Though built of brick and stone the church’s interior featured enough combustible material to allow the fire to spread to the building’s wood-clad roof and steeple. Once their the flames launched skyward in spectacular fashion – as can be seen in the photo to the left above. The flames were so large and high that they ignited the wood-roofs of the church’s accompanying structures – both its rectory and its school (seen to the right above). Soon those two structures were also engulfed by flames as well, and by the end of the day all three were nothing but smoldering ruins.

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Fast forward a half century and due to fire we once again find a 200 block largely absent of the impressive business blocks and soaring cathedrals which once called this streetscape home. Like what was found at the opposite side of the street, those old 19th century structures are now replaced with a collection of modern mid-century replacements – often nothing more then plain one story brick or wood framed buildings. At least here in this 1970s era Tom Roberts photo the Northwestern Hotel still remains. Today even that building has been removed from the landscape.

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To understand just how decimated the 200 block had become due to fire, one only has to take a quick look at the map of the area above. Here we find the 200 block as it existed in 1917, back when it was home to 20 structures. Those structures lost to fire are shaded in red,  an incredible amount of real estate that included a dozen – over half – of the blocks’ original compliment of buildings. Shaded in yellow are other buildings that were demolished during the same timeframe, buildings that are also no longer standing. The only buildings from 1917 to have survived to the present day are the two black-shaded buildings found at the far south-west of the block – the Funkey Block and the old Gutsch Hotel building. Every other building seen here – nineteen in total – have since been lost to time.

Though absent of almost all of its 19th century infrastructure, the 200 block of Quincy is far from empty. Since most of these fires occurred early in the century while the Copper Empire was still in operation replacement buildings ended up filling the empty spaces. It is those replacements that create the streetscape of today, replacements we will take a closer look at next…

To Be Continued…

Information for this series was partially obtained from the book “Images of America – Hancock” by John S. Haeussler – local Hancock historian extraordinaire,  fellow copper country enthusiast and good friend to CCE. 

Discuss…

  1. Tim Kaczmarowski

    Not to be too big of a nerd but the Tom Roberts photo you state as being from the 70s is definitely from the 80s, while some of the cars are 70s models some others are from the 80s. I am guessing that photo and the one from the other side of the Northwestern building were taken on the same day.

    • You car nerds get me all the time :) But of course you are totally correct Tim. Just double checked the photo. The date is 1988. The Northern Mutual building photos have a date of 1991.

  2. It was very neat to see a photo of dovers music store. My great grandfather halverson was a silent partner there. My grandmother talked about going there as a child. I always wondered where it was in hancock.

  3. Jack Gardner Reiss

    My Great Grandfather was Jacob Gardner….I’ve always known the family history but was unsure of when or why the facade on the Wright Building was changed. Thank you for your historical research and answering a question I have had for many years.

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