Early Elkhart Disasters: Floods, Fires & Explosions

by Jeanine Rhodes

Elkhart has certainly had its share of disasters – natural and otherwise – over the years. The early years of the city were especially dangerous, since safety and fire regulations and systems were not well developed.

Floods

Flood-detail

Because the city is located on two rivers, the Elkhart and the St. Joseph, flooding has always been a concern. One of the first major floods recorded occurred in February 1887, with the Elkhart Sentinel newspaper reporting 75 buildings under water following days of rain. The flood of March 1908 resulted in Island Park, as well as a number of other low-lying Elkhart streets, being under water. Photos show residents taking to the streets in boats in order to reach their homes. Nearly 400 families were affected by the flooding.

fire-detailFires

Fire claimed a number of Elkhart factories and stores. On the morning of March 15, 1904, fire broke out in the H. B. Sykes & Co. Dry Goods Store. The first alarm sounded at 7:30. Within ten minutes of the alarms, the crowd was such that police were called to keep them at a safe distance. Fifteen store clerks were inside when the fire began, and all were safely evacuated. At one point, there were six lines streaming water into the building. Heat and smoke built up inside, bursting the ground floor display windows and showering half a dozen firefighters with glass and debris. The fire caused an estimated $100,000 loss of goods, with another $10,000 loss in structures, but no loss of life.

The Harvest Queen Flour Mill (originally the Old Sage Grist Mill), located at 500-504 E. Jackson St., was discovered burning at around 6:30 a.m. on October 21, 1909. It was suspected that mill dust ignited on the fourth floor, starting the fire. The blaze totally destroyed the mill, except for the books in the office. Several firemen were injured by falling debris, and the loss was estimated at around $56,000.

The C.G. Conn Musical Instrument Factory at 414-432 E. Jackson St. was destroyed by fire May 22, 1910. The extent of the damage prompted the city to purchase a steam powered pumper for the fire department. One of the night watchmen who had discovered the fire died, and nearly 100 employees were left without jobs. The company quickly rebuilt a new factory at 1101 E. Beardsley.

Shortly after the Conn fire, the Star Match Factory burned. This company was located on the north side of Ren St. between the railroad tracks and Sterling Ave. The factory had just been built the year before.  Unfortunately, the new motorized pumper ordered after the Conn fire had not yet been delivered.

Explosion

explosion-detail

A spectacular explosion on the night of February 12, 1891, at the Combination Board Mill, ranks as one of the worst industrial accidents in Elkhart’s early history. The explosion was caused by the buildup of steam along with ammonia gas inside a boiler which had not been shut down when the machine was stopped to make repairs. One of the workers, Schuyler Neiswander, was killed when his body was blown some 125 feet away. The reverberation from the blast was felt by residents as far away as Wolf’s Addition (now the Indiana/Prairie/Benham Ave. area). The Combination Board Mill was located along the St. Joseph River where Johnson and Jackson Streets meet, and was immediately rebuilt following the disaster. Several local newspapers mentioned that the company seemed to suffer more than its fair share of accidents.

 View more photos here

Resources:

The Main Library has numerous books, newspapers, photos, databases and other materials available to assist with researching significant events in Elkhart’s history. Visit the Reference Desk on the second floor, and staff will be happy to point out resources of interest.

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