LIMA — Edward Deubler and Harry Porter were young Lima firefighters assigned to the South Main Street station when, on the night of April 24, 1918, a massive fire of suspicious origin consumed the nearby shops of the Lake Erie & Western railroad and threatened the industrial heart of the city.
With the United States one year into involvement in World War I and anti-German sentiment running high, sabotage was rumored.
A week before the fire, Lima high school students burned German textbooks in the Public Square and, a month after the fire, German Township was renamed American Township. The Lima Vigilance Corps, formed of “representative citizens” to root out pro-German sentiment, backed the book burning, telling Lima’s Republican-Gazette on April 26, 1918, “The time for sentiment about ‘Goethe and Schiller,’ and ‘you-can’t-make-war-on-a-language’ has gone by. We can make war on the Hun language, and we will.”
The night of April 24, 1918, however, Deubler and Porter’s thoughts were on a burning buildings, not burning books. Although they recalled the sabotage rumors, they “remember best the night-long battle as just a lot of heat, smoke and danger,“ The Lima News wrote April 24, 1953, the 35th anniversary of the fire, which in 1918 was “the biggest, most costly fire in Lima’s history.”
The fire also was the first — and nearly the last — for Deubler, who like Porter had joined the department in December 1917. Deubler and Porter were still active Lima firefighters in 1953.
“I thought afterwards that if all the fires were going to be like it, I might just as well quit and take up a quieter occupation,” Deubler told the News. He recalled standing on a platform “loaded with pig iron” when the railroad’s acetylene plant about 40 feet away blew up. “I jumped and started running. I thought I saw stuff flying through the air … and it was,” he said.
“There was a heck of a lot of smoke,” Porter remembered. “So much smoke you couldn’t tell where you were most of the time. Deubler and I and the others from No. 6 didn’t get out until 10 the next morning. I can still hear Ed threatening to quit if they were going to have fires like that all the time.”
“The ‘Night of the Big Fire,” as the News dubbed it, ended with more than $800,000 damage to the rail yards, which sprawled along the L.E.&W tracks west of South Main Street and just north of the newly opened station No. 6 at the corner of South Main and Lafayette streets. “Locomotives and repair equipment were destroyed. The neighboring Lima Locomotive Plant and Standard Oil refinery (known as the Solar Refinery at the time) were endangered, and the railroad company’s part in World War I efforts was severely crippled,” the News wrote in 1953.
The “Big Fire” was the third at the rail yards that night. “Early in the evening, a small fire was extinguished by the department,” the Lima Daily News reported the day after the fire. “Some time later, another broke out which was controlled and extinguished by the shop fire department. At 10:55, the call came to the department that a fire had broken out in the mill shop. The fierce wind whipped the flames to a fury heat and soon practically the whole shops were one blazing mass.”
According to the Republican-Gazette, “The third fire started in the mill room, where James W. Brown, colored fireman, discovered it in an alcove. Brown, one of the heroes of the fight against the flames, turned in the alarm, sprang to the boilers and killed the fires under them and turned on the blower. His quick action undoubtedly prevented a big explosion and probable loss of life.”
The Daily News noted that “firemen and others had many thrilling experiences. In one case four firemen from the South Side station were trapped in a small room and practically overcome by smoke. They were rescued just in time to save their lives.”
Early in the fight, the News-Gazette reported, “it was thought that the flames, swept by a wind to the northwest, would threaten the entire south end of Main Street north of the railroad. Then there was a shift in the wind to the westward and that danger passed” and “it was believed that part of the shops would be saved. But with renewed ferocity, the flames gathered headway, feeding on wood of coaches, paints and oils and helped along by the explosions of the acetyline tanks.”
When the acetyline tanks in the welding room went off in a series of explosions at about 1:30 a.m. “the line of the crowd packed to the north of the Lake Erie tracks swayed, bent and broke up in what came dangerously near to a panic. Burning embers were rocketed skyward by the force of three successive blasts. No one was struck, although hundreds were showered with sparks.”
With smoke still hanging over south Lima the following day, the Republican-Gazette tallied the losses. “Six units of the plant are in ruins today,” the newspaper wrote. “They are the mill shop, tin shop, power plant and boiler room, machine shop, south end and the storeroom. The coach shop was virtually destroyed. The paint shop was badly damaged, together with a small auxiliary shop. The round house was saved and the large storeroom. A pile of lumber covering half an acre was partially burned and, early today the flames were spreading in that direction. At least a half dozen locomotives, valued at about $120,000, were destroyed.”
“There is no doubt but that the fire was incendiary according to Fire Chief Mack and police officials,” the Daily News reported. “Thomas Pletcher, of Delphos, an engineer is being held pending an investigation. It is reported that Pletcher was forced to kiss a flag at Delphos some time ago for pro-German statements.
“Another thing that points to pro-German activities being at work is that the firemen had constant trouble with the apparatus,” the Daily News continued, explaining that firemen reported water being turned off at critical times and hoses being cut. The Republican-Gazette reported a man named Will Pontius, a L.E.&W. employee from Cicero, Indiana, was held after admitting he had been smoking cigarettes in the mill shop before the fire.
Both Pletcher and Pontius were quickly cleared. Pletcher, the Daily News reported April 26, 1918, was “absolutely exonerated by the deputies of the state fire marshal and other federal officers who arrived in Lima Thursday to investigate the matter. Officials of the railway and of the city and state, who have been investigating the cause of the big fire are all of the opinion that it was the work of a firebug, or a pro-German.”
Thirty-five years later, the cause of the fire remained a mystery. “Weeks later, long after the suspected saboteur had been released for lack of evidence, railroad, state and local officials still were undecided whether the start of the costly blaze was sabotage or accidental. The question still has never been answered conclusively,” the News wrote April 24, 1953.
As for the problem with the hoses an at least partial answer to that mystery came June 9, 1918, when the News reported, “The city of Lima is preparing to receive bids for several thousand feet of new fire hose. It was learned at the fire of the Lake Erie shops that a considerable amount of the old hose was in poor condition and the state fire marshal asked that about 5,000 feet of new hose be purchased at once.”
Two days after the fire, the News opined, “The destruction of the Lake Erie and Western railroad shops is a severe blow, but from the ashes will rise greater and better structures. It will mean shops that will not be equaled on any railroad in this section of the country. … Our own Lima has suffered some severe blows, but the big fire is one of the most severe. There is every reason, however, to believe that the recovery from this blow will be more rapid and more firm than any suffered before.”
By August 1918, plans for the new rail yard were revealed and the L.E.&W. began advertising for construction workers.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.