November 2, 1906
The Courant last week gave a short and hurried account of the disastrous fire, which the night of the 24th destroyed Elk County's fine $40,000 court house. Following are some additional paragraphs on the conflagration:
Who saw the first first? Louis Hamar says when he was going home he saw flames in the Surveyor's office. He was alone and saw nobody around. He fired off his pistol and yelled fire. He says the first men he saw were Mark McBee and Charley Chase, who were there almost at once. The Citizen publishes it that Lillian McBee first saw the fire and that her father, Mark McBee gave the alarm.
The insurance on the court house was as follows:
German American, H.G. Zirn, local agent........................$4,000
National of Hartford, G. J. Sharp, local agent................... 2,000
Connecticut Fire, H.E. Hubbell.................................... . 2,000
American Central...................do.................................. .2,000
Hartford of Hartford, G. K. Reid.................................... . 2,000
Com. Union of London..................do........................... .2,000
Phenix of B.................................do............................ .2,000
Ins. Co. of N. H...........................do............................ .2,000
Liverpool, L. & G..........................do........................... ..2,000
Total am't of Insurance................................$20,000
(my Tab button wouldn't work on here)
The most complete and disastrous loss is the office of the clerk of the district court. Not a book, record, blank or scrap of legal paper was saved; the office and every vestige of the contents were destroyed. The vault appeared to afford no protection whatever. It is impossible to estimate the loss to the taxpayers, or the inconvenience to the bar and all those having pending or unfinished business in the district court. All those having unpaid fees in that office will suffer--and this includes not only the clerk and sheriff but the publishers of the county papers. The Courant's books show that many hundred dollars are due the publisher hereof for legal notices, sheriff sales, etc. the record of which is now burned up. Some of it we may get, much of it we never will get. How the next term of court will be started off, it is hard to imagine. The loss in the clerk's office is in itself a great calamity.
The records in the office of the register of deed suffered very little. They were all in the big safe and vault, and were not damaged. When the vault was opened after the masonry had somewhat cooled, it was found the fire had broken through in two places, and all that saved it was probably the water thrown on it by the engine when the building was almost entirely burned down.
The records of the treasurer and clerk wre not damaged and their vault, a two compartment vault built together, furnished full protection. Some expensive office fixtures, an adding machine and so forth, were destroyed.
Probate Judge C. A. Jewett saved all his records by carrying them out, and it is well he did so, as his vault did not resist the fire, and a lot of old files left therein were destroyed or very badly damaged.
Sheriff Beaty carried his books, papers, and records to a place of safety and lost nothing but the safe and office furniture.
County Surveyor C. F. Osborn is a heavy loser. His office had no vault or safe, and all records and fixtures belonging to the county were destroyed. Not a map, record, plat, book, field notes or anything was saved. The instruments and apparatus were mostly the private property of Mr. Osborn and it is a serious loss to him. He had plats, maps, blue prints and negatives for all the work he has done for the six years he has been in office, and it is impossible to place a value on them. It would cost thousands of dollars to reproduce them.
The county superintendent had a safe full of records and papers which are probably all right, but many of files of the office were burned up, besides a lot of his personal effects, fine typewriter, books, etc.
The county attorney missed it, as he did not keep office at the court house, but at his own office in the First National Bank building.
The Comissioners have secured rooms in the Howard National Bank building for the county officers, till other arrangements are made. The county treasurer and clerk will together occupy the east room, downstairs. The register of deeds will occupy the downstairs room, east of the north side stairway, recently occupied by Patterson & Sims. The rest of the court house officers will be found upstairs in the rooms formerly occupied by the Citizen office. They will be very crowded, but it is the best that can be done at present.
It was a surprise to most people that the court-house was not insured for more than $20,000. The building and contents would easily have carried twice that amount. And $40,000 would look mighty good to the tax payers just now, with the county officers standing around in the cold and no shelter.
Rev. J. C. Reeve (?), late pastor of the Howard Presbyterian Church had his library and papers stored in the court house, and everything was lost. He had quite an extensive collection of books, the acumulation of a lifetime, and the loss falls on him very heavily.
The heaviest individual loser by the fire was J. Cammie Ross, whose valuable collection of geological specimens etc. were destroyed. This collection was worth many hundreds of dollars, and was probably the finest private collection in the state, representing fifteen years of hard and painstaking work. Marc McBee and others lost valuable collections of Indian and other relics that can never be replaced.
Two of the hardest and most effective fire fighters were Evangelist Pratt and Mr. Brison the singer. They took positions on the roof of the county jail where the heat was the most intense, and the danger the greatest, and worked until all danger was passed.
There was a strong sentiment the night of the fire for a system of water works in Howard. The proposition would have carried by a big majority that night.
The fire boys worked loyally and intelligently and they helped to save the valuable records in the recorder's office and some of the exposed buildings.
The Elk county court house was built in the summer and fall of 1886. Previous to that, the county dads had been located in the old court, first door north of Tom Bruce's store, where the big Burchfield stores now stand. The old court house was turned into a store and was burned down ten or twelve years ago. The first move made for the new court house was by a few business men to Howard headed by Nicholas Momma. There was some local opposition to it, as there was talk of asking the county to vote heavy railroad bonds and it was feared by some that both propositions could not be voted. However, the necessary petition was procured and the board of commissioners on March 1, 1886 considered the same and ordered an election for Tuesday, April 6 (?), 1886 to vote on a proposition to issue $40,000 in 5 per cent bonds to build a new court house, jail and seriff's residence. The campaign was short but vigorous. Local prejudices were prominent, for there was no business argument against the bonds. Level headed men in every township joined heartilly in the campaign in favor of the bonds. Meetings were held in the country school houses and every effot possible was put forth. Union Center, Paw Paw, Howard and Wild Cat gave practically their solid vote for the bonds. (Think of it--Moline lining up for a courthouse at Howard?) Elk Falls, Longton and all the other townships went unanimously against the proposition, except Greenfield, which cast about one third of its vote for the bonds. The total vote on the bonds was 1424. Against the bonds, 1092. Majority for the bonds, 332.
The laying of the cornerstone of the new courthouse was made a public affair and cememonies were conducted by the Masonic Fraternity and Hope Lodge No. 155. (Details of the cememony and who particpated in them have been omitted) In the cornerstone was placed a sealed metallic box containing the following articles: Copies of the Howard Courant and Democrat; and all the other Elk county papers; copy of the dispensation of the Grand Master authorizing Hope Lodge to lay the cornerstone; roll of workmen on the building, roll of county officers, names of members, and officers of Hope Lodge; cards of Howard business men or merchants; roll of members of the Howard Band; a 25-cent silver coin; a Masonic key-stone contributed by T. N. Jones, and other articles and relics. The terrible fire did not touch the corner stone, and it remains as firmlly in the wall as the day it was laid, 20 years ago.
The contract for building the new court house was awarded to J. S. Huntley of Cherryvale, who sub-let the stone work to Geo Steinmetz, Stout & Son, Topeka architects, furnished the plans and specifications. The blue limestone of which the walls were built was quarried near town, and the white stone trimmings were shipped in from Cowley county. The commissioners decided to superintend the construction themselves. The board composed of R. W. M. Roe, H.B. Marshall and Wm. Crooks, and they took turns in bossing the construction, paying themselves $3 a day. This started a scandal and the fun began. All sorts of kicks were organized and the air was full of trouble. The opposition appealed to the courts, the board was enjoined from paying themselves, but they went ahead and paid it just the same. The work of construction was criticized, and knowing once said the walls wouldn't stand five years. Some said everything was costing too much, and that there was a big steal somewhere, while others said it was not coating enough to be any good, and so it went on. But the court house was finished in a few months and the county officers moved into their new home shortly after the first of the year 1887. The commissioners'troubles were prolonged some years, however, finally winding up in the supreme court in their favor. They likely spent more for lawyers fees than all they made out of their $3 a day. The new court house was one of the handsomest and most attractive county court houses in Kansas and was admired and praised by all strangers coming to our city. Still; many people yet contended that it was a cheap, shoddy job and wouldn't last long. And it didn't---when the fire got at it. The fire alarm was sounded at about half past ten, and at exactly eleven the beautiful court house tower went tumbling down into the roaring, seething flames, and the sparks and cinders rolled up in a great cloud of smoke hundred of feet high.
The origin of the fire still remains a mystery. The first ones who discovered the fire say the flames were showing through the windows of the Surveyor's office in the second story, south east corner. The Surveyor had not been in his office since Tuesday morning and the fire was Wednesday night. He left no fire in his office when he went away. The room directly under the Surveyor's office is the Supeintendent's. Supt. Biddinger had not been in his office since Tuesday morning. He sometimes left a low gas fire burning in his grate, and may have done so this time, but nearly everybody who uses grates lets the fire burn indefinitely and it is never considered dangerous. It is impossible to say in which of these offices the fire originated, or just how it started. Revival meetings were being held nightly in the court room, but the meeting had been over and the crowd gone for more than an hour before the fire was discovered.