From the Richmond Times-Dispatch, 2/10/1903, p. 1, c. 6
THE TREDEGAR IRON WORKS VISITED BY A GREAT FIRE
The Spike Mill is Totally Destroyed.
THE INSURANCE COVERS DAMAGE
Loss Estimated at a Hundred Thousand Dollars.
LARGE NUMBER OF MEN THROWN OUT OF WORK
The Alarm Signal refused to Work, and the First Notice of the Fire Was Conveyed by the Times-Dispatch – Response Was Prompt and the Work Done Excellent.
Within an inconceivably short space of time this morning the entire spike department of the Tredegar Iron Works was swept away by flames, and machinery and other property, valued at $100,000 and more, were destroyed.
The loss, which at this moment it is impossible accurately to estimate, is fully covered by insurance.
The fire was one of the hottest and fiercest ever known in Richmond. Within a few moments after the blaze was first discovered the greater portion of the long line of wooden sheds was in a light flame, which cast its ruddy glow high into the heavens and shone like a beacon in the darkness. For some reason the alarm system worked badly, and fully fifteen or twenty minutes elapsed before the first clang of the bell called forth the department. Meanwhile the fire grew hotter and more hot, and from long distances people hurried out, attracted by the light. The stillness and the inertness of the department added a touch of the mysterious to the scene.
When once the alarm had been gotten to headquarters, however, the companies responded with the customary zeal. Under conditions presenting almost insurmountable obstacles, the engines and hose wagons crept along the river bank, climbed railroad tracks and dug through soft and crumbling dirt. Efforts to do more than keep the fire within the bounds limiting it when they arrived were fruitless. The buildings were in a hopeless condition when the first stream of water was played on them.
HOW IT HAPPENED.
So far as could be ascertained last night the fire started somewhere toward the center of the big shed. The building runs some two squares or thereabouts by either dimension, and it is divided up into spike department and horse-shoe department. Quite a number of night workers were engaged within when the trouble began. There were some fifty or sixty of them, white men or negroes.
According to one of the negro hands who saw the fire when it began and who was among those that tried to check its progress until they were forced to desist, a spark from a fly-wheel flew to the ceiling, lodged therein, and started off a small blaze. This was about midnight or a few moments before or after.
Realizing the danger, the men in the shops, or some of them, immediately dropped everything else while they tried to stop the blaze before it could gain and headway.
In his zeal and haste, one of them – a negro – did the worst this he could possibly have done under the circumstances, yet what anybody would have done. The planks in the ceiling had grease on them and they lapped up the flame with avidity. The negro grabbed a bucket of water and dashed it up. Water in this case was fuel to the fire. According to the negro himself, his effort – as a result of the grease – resulted only in an outburst of flame more pronounced than ever.
BELL WOULDN’T RING.
At this juncture some of the men left and went off in the direction of the private fire-alarm box, which is located at the works. Repeated efforts to sound an alarm failed, and after several moments wasted over this instrument, worthless at the critical moment, the telephone was resorted to. More trouble and delay awaited them here. Connections could not be gotten, or something of the sort. The alarm was finally turned in by The Times-Dispatch, which called up headquarters, and then the response was prompt.
Meanwhile the blaze had developed from a spark into an enveloping sheet of flame. Beginning in the center of the frame sheds, it swept in all directions, and was soon roaring high into the pitchy sky. The glare cast its reflection many blocks around, and several hundred people stumbled over cinder banks or pitched along beside the canal, trying to get to vantage ground.
Once on the alert, the department did uncommonly good work. The approach to the building was circuitous and difficult, but it was at last made. The engines had to pull as best they could along the river bank and come in from the rear. How the firemen got there some of them never knew. At all events, they were there, and for a few moments they had some of the most scorching work they have ever had to do. One man was injured slightly and had to bandage up a bleeding head. His name could not be learned.
By the time the first stream of water sizzled its way through the flaming timbers the building was a hopeless wreck. From one end to the other it was enveloped and there was utterly no possibility of doing anything beyond saving the surrounding structures. The big sheds were of frame, covered with slate, and they burned like tinder. People standing around had to shield their faces to keep from being burned fiercely in the face. The machinery on the inside grew red hot, then white and the interior of the place glowed like a furnace. Now and again a section of the building would go down, sending up a cloud of embers.
About 1 o’clock the fire had spent its force. With the exception of one small end – where gas was made – the building was gone and the machinery was an entire wreck. The firemen worked on and after awhile got things under thorough control. The excitement was over, but for some time longer the glow was there yet in the distance.
To add to the confusion of the conditions the fire communicated itself to the planks along the railroad track bridging the canal and hose, which at best didn’t seem to work particularly well, was in imminent danger of serious injury. Several planks had to be ripped up. The joists under them were burning.
LOSS AND INSURANCE.
It was impossible last night to secure any accurate estimate of the loss or any detailed statement of the insurance, Colonel Archer Anderson, president of the Tredegar Works, and several others connected with the company were seen, but they professed to have no idea whatever of the value of the property destroyed. All they could say was that the damage would be fully and entirely covered by insurance.
Only a rough idea of the extent of the loss, therefore, can be given. The entire department known as the spike mills, in which also was a portion of the horseshoe shop, went down. The buildings themselves, while they will probably foot up quite a little item, are comparatively of small importance. The machinery on the inside is the chief thing, and of this machinery nothing is left that is not a hopeless wreck. There were six or seven mills – rolling mills, spike mills, horseshoe mills and a variety of other stuff – all valuable to a high degree. Certainly, the damage will run up to $100,000. In all probability it will go considerably beyond, possibly twice that much.
As with the loss, so with the insurance. Nobody seemed in a position to speak authoritatively. The policies were placed through Davenport and Company. A member of the firm seen declared that all he could say was what Colonel Anderson had said before – that the loss was fully covered by insurance.
MANY MEN OUT OF WORK.
A distressing feature of the fire is the fact that it throws out of employment at this season of the year some three or four hundred employes. While the fire was burning one of the men stood off a little ways deploring his fate. He was not alone in his trouble. A large number of the men, as said, were in the place when the fire began. These are mostly thankful that none got caught inside. But it will be rather a dreary homecoming they will have this morning.
The buildings will, of course, be restored and equipped again throughout. Colonel Anderson intimated as much last night. So far as could be judged, the spike department is the only thing that suffered. A storage shed near by caught once, but was easily put out.
ABOUT THE WORKS.
The Tredegar Iron Works are the largest and oldest in the South, and occupy twenty-three acres on the river bank. The buildings cover some seventeen acres. From 1,200 to 1,500 hands are employed at the place.
The works were established sixty-eight years ago. The president of the company at this time is Colonel Archer Anderson.