News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 30, 2013

Historical perspective: The 1873 Nail Works fire: ‘The Severest Blow Ever’

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — A few minutes after 6 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 19, 1873 — nearly 140 years ago — Michael Carroll, an employee of the Terre Haute Iron & Nail Works, discovered a fire in the north part of the large manufacturing plant.

Carroll triggered an alarm and a shrill steam whistle repeatedly disturbed the morning quiet. He was hurriedly joined by 40 puddlers working at the south end of the plant, situated on 13 acres fronting South Fourteenth Street, north of College Avenue and east of the Evansville & Crawfordsville Railroad track.

Within minutes Carroll had created a water stream to attack the blaze. There was a quantity of hose on the premises but, as Carroll and others unrolled it, it became entangled and the water flow diminished. Energized by strong winds, the blaze spread with amazing speed.

One local newspaper reporter asserted that the fire “advanced almost as fast as a man can run.”

Heavy smoke, frequently interrupted by visible flames, darkened the sky and the entire building which housed the main manufacturing facility became a sea of fire. By the time the city’s two fire engines reached the scene, their services were barely helpful.

As one observer put it: “Everything that could burn was burned.”

Wooden kegs full of nails which were piled ceiling high in the store room fell in giant heaps. Two stacks of fallen kegs broke apart and the contents were transformed into a worthless mass of iron. Nail machines fell from the wood platforms on which they were situated and became mere piles of broken iron.

As the roof fell in, piece by piece, each iron plate came down with a rattle. Only two of several smokestacks fell, both in the far southeast corner of the building.

The immense quantity of iron in the factory startled witnesses. The heavy machinery, rollers and  nail-cutting machines were bent and battered amid the sheet metal roofing. The car scales were destroyed and the large water tank maintained by the firm stood for a long time before it finally tumbled with a huge crash.

Employees of the Nail Works, considered one of the most prosperous enterprises in the Midwest, and their families surrounded the ruins. Many were in tears, recognizing that their primary source of work, wages and comfort had, literally, gone up in smoke.

Many prominent citizens and most city officials joined them to watch the destruction of an institution vitally connected to the city’s progress and development.

By the end of the day, the Terre Haute Daily Express concluded in its headlines  that “The Nail Works Was Totally Destroyed” and the fire was “The Severest Blow Terre Haute Has Ever Received.” Strong words for a business only five years old.

Projected but not built by millionaire Alexander Crawford, the Nail Works first opened on Feb. 12, 1868. Crawford and his sons, Andrew and James, moved to Terre Haute from Youngstown, Ohio, in 1867 to found Vigo Iron Co. and, later, Wabash Iron Co.

The Crawfords became the largest and most affluent iron mongers in Indiana.

Terre Haute Iron & Nail Works of Turner, Glover & Co. was placed in operation by George Turner, machinist Benjamin Wilhelm, master builder William Crawford and Jasper A. Morgan, all lured to Terre Haute from Youngstown by Crawford. The four men, together with Joshua and Joseph Glover, were the founding stockholders.

The initial paid-in capital was $120,000. The cost of rebuilding the factory was estimated at $200,000 and there was only $75,000 in insurance to cover losses.

When the Nail Works first opened, it employed 60 men. By September 1873, 200 people were working at the plant.  

The entire fire department and its two engines arrived that morning in full force.

The Daily Express offered:

“The firemen — Kennedy, Schell, King and McMann — of Engine House No. 1, and McClain, Harrison, Tully and Sullivan of No. 2 — did all they could. The hose was managed well and the water placed where it would do the most good.

“The boys and men on the ground rendered material aid in handling the hose, which burst once or twice but was quickly changed.

“Councilman George Hayward and policeman Harry Ramme have been conspicuous for well-directed and unselfish work … Many employees assisted by carrying water with buckets. Several hundred dollars’ worth of coal, in piles along the sides of the building, were thus saved.”

The cooper shop and another small building also were salvaged.

The fire engines used water from the abandoned Wabash & Erie Canal nearby and mud from “the slimy canal” choked Engine No. 2, putting it out of commission. The Express reported that “Engineer McMinimy hauled her off” to be opened and cleaned.

Surprisingly, McMinimy was able to return it to the disaster site by 2 p.m.

Engine No. 1 also was stifled by mud on several occasions but maintained a steady water stream. At the end of the day there were two nagging questions:

1. How did the fire start?; and

2. Will the company choose to retain the industry that had contributed so much to the city’s prosperity and already had earned an international reputation?

Question No. 1 was never answered satisfactorily. The conflagration was blamed on a spark from a passing locomotive since there had been no fire of any kind at the north end of the building for at least eight days.

The firm’s stockholders — George W. Bement, Arthur Deming, Demas Deming, William Mack, James C. McGregor, Jasper A. Morgan, Firman Nippert, Chauncey Rose, Owen Tuller and Moses W. Williams, all of Terre Haute, and Benjamin Wilhelm, then a Pennsylvania resident — committed to build a bigger and better plant.

Under the guidance of president Nippert, Terre Haute Iron & Nail Works erected a new factory during the winter of 1873-74  with 70 nail machines, 15 puddling furnaces, three heating furnaces and one scrap furnace.

The firm eventually employed 450 people and was capable of producing 180,000 kegs annually.