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Bridgeport Bridge: Fire threatened Back River bridge, 1883

- from the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, May 11, 1883.



Showing the Value to the Community of Some Means of Fighting the Flames — Three Buildings Burned and the Back River Bridge Threatened with Destruction.

One of the most destructive fires that have been witnessed in Bridgeport for many years visited that town yesterday forenoon, and resulted in the burning of considerable valuable property, still more valuable structures being preserved by the hardest fighting. Had there been any adequate means of combating the flames when the fire was first discovered, the damage resulting would have trifling, the attendant excitement would have been avoided, and several property owners would have been some thousands of dollars richer to-day than they now are. As it was it is a matter for congratulation that the flames did not cause more destruction and but for unusually effective work in checking and extinguishing the blaze after it had obtained a good headway, a considerable portion of the town and the bridge spanning the Back river would have been reduced to ruins.


The cause of the fire is a matter of conjecture. Charlie Miller gave the first alarm, but several citizens noticed the fire about simultaneously. Its first appearance was preceded by a hazy cloud of smoke which issued through the crevices of the shingle roof of a large frame house situated near the river bank, south of the approach to the wooden bridge leading from the Island to Bridgeport, over the Back river. Almost immediately the flames burst through, and as the structure was of frame and a brisk breeze was blowing at the time, it was but a few minutes till the whole roof was enveloped in flames, and gradually the entire building was caught.

It is supposed that the fire was caused by the overheating of a terra cotta chimney passing through the woodwork beneath the roof.

The breeze was blowing north, and from the first it appeared that the Cochran House, the frame hotel on the corner just east of the Cleveland & Pittsburgh railroad and south of the bridge approach, must go. It soon caught, and burned like tinder. A small frame structure south of the house in which the fire originated was also burned.


No sooner had the flames obtained a good hold of the hotel building, than the sparks and flying fragments of fire set fire to the roof of the bridge in several places. The importance of the bridge as the connecting link between Bridgeport and the city gave all a personal interest in its safety. A telephone request had been sent to Chief Dunnning, of the Wheeling fire department, for aid, and the Chief, complying with the necessary formalities, immediately sent over the Atlantic and United engines and the Island reel. The Atlantic drove down to the river at Baggs' landing, just above the bridge, and drawing a supply of water directly from the river, was soon playing on the burning buildings and exposed property with a good stream. The United stopped at the east end of the bridge and ran a line of hose over the top to the fire. Several times the spectators despaired of the structure's being saved, but plucky men fought against the great odds until the bridge was saved.



Horatius' feat in "keeping the bridge" was not more brave or creditable than that of several of the men who fought the flames yesterday and kept the bridge. [..?] Lyle deserves special credit. When the nozzleman in charge of the hose on the roof of the bridge deserted his position, driven off by the fierce heat and the blinding smoke, Lyle took the hose, and in a position where he almost breathed fire, kept a steady stream of water on the exposed points on the bridge. Gus Black, the toll keeper at the Suspension bridge, carried water in buckets and poured it over Lyle or he would have been literally roasted to death. As it was all parts of his body exposed to the heat were scorched to a blister. Jim Richardson also did a good service on the roof, and shows it in blistered hands and face.


The first house which caught was a comparatively new one, and was owned by Mr. Amos Osborne. It was a two-family frame with a roomy basement. Two families lived in the basement, Mrs. Ben Rhodes and a barber named Gaus. The latter saved his furniture, while Mrs. Rhodes' loss was small. The upper portion of the house was occupied by two boarding houses, kept by William Wheeler and Lou Criswell. Both their losses were small. Mr. Osborne valued the house at $5,600, and there was no insurance on it. Hugh McGaw's wagon shop and Joseph Smith's blacksmith shop were insured.

The hotel building was owned by Mrs. William Cochran, who kept a sort of a hotel and boarding house. She valued the house at $3,000, on which she had a little insurance. She lost some household goods. Amos Osborn had a mortgage on the house for $1,000 and A. Goudy one for $600.


Superintendant Lawson estimates the damage to the bridge at $2,000. Of this very little was done directly by the fire, but necessary cutting of the roof and similar damage will swell the loss to the amount named. Some of the interested insurance men say they can repair the damage for $150. The bridge is insured for $25,000 in Wheeling companies, of which the Peabody has $5,000, half reinsured in the American; the Fire and Marine, $4,000, half of which is reinsured; the German, $4,000, also half reinsured; the Manufacturers', $2,000, and a foreign company represented by Major J. C. Alderson, $2,000; the Aetna, $3,000, and the Franklin $5,000. The latter two firms are probably partially reinsured.


The greatest excitement prevailed during the progress of the fire. Fears were entertained of the Cleveland & Pittsburgh passenger and freight depots, and but for a liberal application of water the former would have gone. The brick block on the opposite side of the Cleveland & Pittsburgh railroad caught once or twice, and the toll house was somewhat injured. The telephone and telegraph wires were prostrated, and communication with this city temporarily shut off. No suspension of travel resulted, however.

The wife of William Miller leaped from the second story of her house, and escaped unhurt.

The open space about the depots, including the platforms, were crowded with household effects saved from the buildings. Apparently three-fourths of Bridgeport's population was on hand.

The Atlantic engine filled its cylinders full of gravel and stones pumped from the river, necessitating a thorough cleaning out after returning to its house.

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