At 2:45 a.m. on June 6, 1857, fire broke out in the rear of the row of wooden buildings fronting on Webster Street and Washington Avenue. The entire block was destroyed. It housed Dudley & Powers Dry Goods, C. T. Flowers Music Store, J. H. Foote’s liquor store, R. F. Powers’ millinery store, Adams & Adams hardware, Johnson & Fuller’s dauguerrean rooms (all the irreplaceable daguerreotypes were lost), plus shops and offices in the second story. Most of the goods in the lower rooms were rescued.
The water in the cisterns was soon exhausted, and after that the buildings burned out of control, lighting the city. Bruen’s Block, the wooden row on Pinckney, the fire company #2’s engine house, and the residence of Darwin Clark were all in danger, along with stables, a bowling saloon, and the harness factory on the opposite side of the avenue. The walls of Bruen’s Block were badly scorched.
Several individuals were arrested by Sheriff Welsh for stealing property from the fire.
Frank Haskell, of Atwood & Haskell, saw that the cornice of Bruen’s Block, just across a narrow alley from the fire, had caught on fire. He went to the roof of Bruen’s Block with several pails of water, balanced on the eaves, and leaned over and put out the fire four stories up, saving Bruen’s Block. (Haskell, later captain of the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry, rallied the Union forces at Gettysburg during Pickett’s charge by riding his horse between the lines. Promoted to lieutenant colonel, he was killed leading his men at Cold Harbor).
Six months later, on December 14, McKey’s Block on Main Street was reduced to blackened cinders and ashes. Arson was suspected. McKey & Brothers and the Bank of the Capitol were damaged. C. A. Johnson’s dauguerrean rooms, with all his pictures, was destroyed. Donaldson & Tredway and E. H. Gleason moved most of their goods into the street; their stores were heavily damaged. Mrs. Baxter, the dressmaker, lost her store. The ruins smoldered for a day.
Citizens carried off $1,000 worth of goods from the street and were asked to return them. While everyone was occupied with the fire, someone smashed the window of Cook & Belden’s jewelry store and tried to rob it.
The next day, in police court, John Conley and John Mahoney were arrested for stealing goods during the fire, and John Brown was charged with stealing the truck wheels from the hook and ladder company.
There had been several arson attempts between the June and December fires. Citizens met in mid-December and resolved to set up a secret watch and to form an organization called “Madison Volunteers” to protect property and dwellings from attacks of robbers and incendiaries and bring them to justice.
The Madison Volunteers had little immediate effect. On December 26, an attempt was made to burn down the Osborne House hotel, followed by attempted arson at Dutcher’s barn and livery stable on New Year’s Eve.