Fairchild Block Explosion
The recent explosion of a house on Division Street brings to mind a similar devastating accident on the Capitol Square on March 29, 1879.
About 1 p.m. on Saturday afternoon a barkeeper noticed the second floor ceiling of the Fairchild Block on the southwest corner of Main and Pinckney streets was on fire. The three-story stone Block had been erected by James Livesey for Jairus Fairchild in the mid-1850s. Fairchild, elected Madison’s first mayor in 1856, came to the village in 1846 from Kent, Ohio, where he was a partner in a mercantile business with Owen Brown, father of abolitionist John Brown. He was Wisconsin’s first state treasurer in 1848; his son Lucius was a three-term governor after the Civil War.
The block held a number of thriving businesses. On the street floor were M. S. Rowley & Company hatters and gentlemen’s furnishings, Samuel Klauber’s goods and merchant tailoring, McConnell & Smith’s stationery and musical instruments, and the tailor shop of C. A. Damon. On the second floor was Thomas Morgan billiard parlor, saloon and restaurant. The third floor was partly occupied by Klauber’s tailor shop; the majority was unoccupied.
Alerted by the barkeeper, patrons dashed to Clark’s Drug Store and borrowed his Babcock chemical extinguisher. They took it to the coal room on the second floor and tried to put out the fire. Madisonians attracted by the blaze began haphazardly tossing merchandize from the stores onto the Capitol lawn to keep it from being destroyed.
Meanwhile, the gas from the smoldering fire had been pouring into a 29-inch crawl space between the second and third floors, mixing with dust and cobwebs. Excess gas had then leaked into the vacant portion of the third story. When fireman John Sumner broke the third floor window on Main Street to get access to the fire, the sudden rush of air caused a flash ignition. The third story exploded.
Men inside the Block were blown in every direction. The second floor burst into flames, then the gas in the crawl space exploded. (The ex-chief of the New York Fire Department, who happened to be in Madison at the time, theorized that the two smaller explosions saved lives that one massive explosion would have taken). Seventeen men sustained injuries, ranging from scarred faces, singed beards, and scorched necks to severe burns, knocked-out teeth, and broken bones. They were carried to nearby drug stores, where physicians assembled to treat them (Madison had no hospital at the time).
The most unlucky victim was James Ledwith, Jr., the night clerk at the Cheney Hotel. The explosion blew him through the front window of the St. Julien Billiard Room into the gutter, where a heavy fire hose hook fell on his left breast, tore a hole above his heart, and dislocated his left shoulder. He was also burned, and fractured his left arm. Adding insult to injury, in the panic three or four men walked on him where he lay in the mud.
Watchers feared the buildings along Pinckney Street between the Fairchild Block and the Opera House would also be burned, so goods were removed from them as well. While the fire was contained before reaching them, the explosion bowed in the rear wall of the New York Store and it had to be rebuilt.
At 3:15 one of the horse-drawn fire steamers was moved from in front of the Opera House to the hydrant at the end of the market place. The steamer scared several horses on Pinckney Street and nearly caused a stampede in the middle of the vast crowd of onlookers, but it “was quelled by muscular citizens.”
On Sunday throngs viewed the site. The two upper stories were devastated, the roof gone, and the third floor either fallen or chopped to pieces. The stores on the ground floor were soaked and dripping and under a foot of water, and there were two feet of water in the cellar. All of the businesses were forced to relocate to new space around the Square.