“The district where the destruction was complete and which this morning is an area of smoking heap of charred embers is about a third of a mile square and can best be seen from the grounds of St. Katherine’s Hall . . . Here were gathered a great part of the people of the city last evening to witness the vast fire just below them, filling the valley, clear down to the bank of the river . . . “
Davenport Democrat, July 26, 1901.
This coming Saturday marks not only the 35th anniversary of the annual Bix 7 road race, but the 108th anniversary of a far less pleasant event: the 1901 East Davenport Fire.
No one really knows how the fire started, although there were rumors that a couple of fishermen were seen rowing quickly away from the probable point of origin, along the banks of the Mississippi River near East 4th Street.
But that was speculation after the fact—once the flames spread to the Weyerhauser and Denkmann lumberyard, there was no time to waste on theories. The lumberyard provided the perfect fuel for a growing fire, and it soon took off west down River Drive.
The Rock Island and Moline fire departments raced to help the Davenport firefighters, but the combined forces couldn’t do much but evacuate the neighborhoods just ahead of the fire— even dynamite didn’t divert its relentless path—and put out the small fires started in the Mt. Ida District by embers tossed by the wind.
The fire pushed on to Tremont Avenue, directly towards the observatory at St. Katherine’s School. Volunteers managed to remove the telescope before the building was destroyed; luckily, the fire did not harm the rest of the school. Nearby, in a desperate attempt to save homes further up Sixth Street, residents on both side of the street broke up their outbuildings, some of which were already alight, and scattered the pieces so that the fire would have no easy path to reach the houses. It worked, although nine houses had already burned to the ground.
Unhampered by all outside efforts, the fire burned itself out later that same day. It left behind more than eight city blocks in ruins and almost fifty homeless families. The newspapers called it the “Million Dollar Fire,” and reported that the damages far exceeded the amount of insurance for any of the lost properties. It was considered a miracle that no one was killed; in fact, no one was so much as seriously injured, including the exhausted firemen.
The library will be closed for the Bix 7 Run, but a few of us in the know will spare a thought for the fire 108 years ago that, but for the whim of the wind, could easily have destroyed the beautiful scenery that will be enjoyed in passing by hundreds this Saturday.
Downer, Harry E. History of Davenport and Scott County, Iowa. (Chicago, Ill.: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co), 1910.
“Million Dollar Fire,” Davenport Daily Leader, July 26, 1901, p.1.
“One Million Dollars Up in Flames,” Davenport Democrat, July 26, 1901, p.1.
Svendsen, Marlys. Davenport: A Pictorial History, 1836-1986. ([S.L.]: G. Bradley Publishing, Inc), 1985.