A 1914 Nightmare

By Russell Holter (THS member and author)

Reprinted with permission. Originally published by Holter, Russell H. “A 1914 Nightmare.” Tall Timbers Short Lines, Number 59, April 1999; Pacific Coast Logging Historical and Technical Society, Tacoma, WA.

The day was typical of a summer Friday. Children played in the streets as the men of the Bismarck Lumber Mill toiled hard in the sweat and sawdust filled environment. Finally, during the hottest part of the day, the plant whistle blew, signaling the end of a week’s work. For the family men, it was time to go home and rest. For the bachelors, it was time to go downtown and raise Cain.  

Meanwhile Tacoma Eastern engineer Joe Kemp and his fireman Leonard Cass were preparing engine No. 14 for duty at the Tacoma yards near City Waterway. Kemp and his train crew had some switching to do before the arrival of the Lakes District job from Kapowsin, which was due at Bismarck in a few hours. Upon the train’s arrival, the No. 14 would be pressed to bring the heavy train of logs, lumber, and coal down the steep Tacoma Eastern gulch to the Northern Pacific interchange in Tacoma.  

It was a beautiful summer evening in the Pacific Northwest. At 6 o’clock, the sun would not set for several hours. The smells of wholesome home cooking shared the air with the incessant banter of children. The nightwatchman recorded his entry for July 10, 1914: 78 degrees and clear in Bismarck with a stirring breeze out of the North. An old wives’ tale states that a north wind is a signal that a change was forthcoming, and in a few short hours, it was going to get a whole lot hotter.

Adjacent to the expansive Bismarck Lumber Company was the smaller Comly-Kirk mill, about an acre in size. John Crowell, the nightwatchman, was making his rounds when he noticed a fire about “the size of a man’s hat” burning inside the company dry kiln. He ran to the boiler room to sound the alarm: one prolonged blast followed by four short ones. By the time he had given 15 shrill blasts on the factory whistle, the fire had engulfed the dry kiln. It was spreading uphill, driven by a brisk summer breeze toward the more massive Bismarck Lumber Mill.  

A young Paul Kirk was at home at 5219 McKinley Avenue when he heard the whistle blow. He dashed outside to see smoke rising from his father’s mill. He jumped on his bike and raced toward the mill. The fire, fed by dry timbers and sawdust, quickly leaped over the fence that separated the Comly-Kirk Mill from the more extensive Bismarck operation. Crowell, the night watchman, looking on in fear, tied the whistle cord down in the fully open position. He then hastened to prepare a firehose. By now, the boiler room was involved on three sides, including the roof. Realizing his danger, Crowell attempted to climb a set of stairs to the second floor. The stairwell collapsed under his weight, and Crowell landed in burning debris on the boiler room floor. Overcome from the heat, and now suffering from an injury to his right hip, the watchman crawled for his life toward the daylight. He had to be led out of the facility by J. E. Weaver, a Bismarck Lumber Mill employee who was first to arrive upon hearing the whistle blasts. As soon as Crowell reached safety, the men were turned on their heels by the sound of the boiler room roof collapsing.  

With bell clanging and smoke billowing from its stack, the first fire engine arrived (pulled by three grey horses), a fast run from the station at South 38th Street and McKinley Avenue. Men fighting the fire with buckets attempted to keep the flames contained while the engine crew tried to get water pressure to douse the fire. Immediately it was evident that more help was needed. However, it would be sometime before reinforcements from the Tacoma Brigades could get there. Horse-drawn steam pumpers raced from all the stations in the south end of Tacoma. Some came from as far away as five miles. Many of the horses fell exhausted when they arrived at the scene. Newer, motor-driven fire apparatus also began roaring in from downtown Tacoma. By now, escaping water began to run in the parched ditches near the mills and along the railroad tracks.

Rescuers managed to free all the horses from the Comly-Kirk Mill stables as the fire spread to the structure’s roof. Drawn by the noise, smoke, and flame, a crowd of the curious watched in amazement, as man attempted to do battle with nature. Every able-bodied man was put to task with whatever tool was available; hose, bucket, shovel, or ax. But the valiant efforts could not keep the flames from spreading to plant owner T. E. Comly’s residence. The noise and flames panicked the mill horses, which bolted back into the flaming stables where they perished in agony.

News of the fire spread just as rapidly. The blaze could be seen for miles in all directions. The Tacoma Railway and Power Company placed extra streetcars on the McKinley Line to transport hundreds of spectators to the conflagration at a nickel apiece.

A call went out to the Tacoma Eastern Railroad to pull cars from the doomed Bismarck Lumber mill. The only locomotive that was ready was Joe Kemp’s engine. Kemp was given orders to run up the hill and pull as many cars out of the path of the flames as possible. Sixteen Tacoma Eastern cars were at stake, not to mention the value of the lading. Tacoma Eastern employees Melvin O. Kongsli, Clayton Hilligoss, W. A. Mannor, George Soule, and C. A. Wescott all volunteered to make the trip and assist in any way they could. As the cab filled, others (who were eager to help in any way they could) also climbed aboard. Several men rode the pilot of the locomotive; the rest stood on the back footboard of the #14’s tender. Kemp bellowed, “Come on you guys, railroad employees only on the lokey.” The men would not be convinced, and they knew that Kemp would not put up a fight when there was a much bigger issue at stake.

One of the men on the engine was Earl Carpenter. Carpenter was an inspector for the Tacoma Railway and Power Company, who had received orders from his boss to get to Bismarck as soon as possible to make an inspection of potential fire damage to the trolley line and report back by 9:30. The Tacoma Railway and Power Company line ran up D Street from downtown Tacoma to McKinley Avenue and past the mills at South 57th and 58th Streets. For safety purposes, Dispatchers for the Tacoma Railway and Power Company had ordered streetcars halted short of the Bismarck stop until Carpenter could assess the risks of running streetcars near the fire. Knowing that the Tacoma Eastern would arrive at the scene first and not have to dodge traffic, Carpenter elected to ride the locomotive up through the gulch instead of the streetcar.  

Climbing aboard the back footboard of the tender was a teen who was new to this area. He was not well known, but we know that he was staying with family members in a house that overlooked the bustling Commencement Bay near the railroad tracks. His name was Glencel Gabriel, and he was looking for something to do.

Giving the nod to fireman Cass, Kemp hauled the throttle back hard on the No. 14 and proceeded up the Tacoma Eastern Gulch. Kemp knew that time was of the essence, but he also had nearly a dozen stragglers and their safety to consider. Kemp exercised his judgment on how fast to negotiate the two and a half mile mountainous grade to the burning mill site. As he rounded the last corner near 50th street, the enormity of the blaze came into full view. Smoke and steam billowed high in the sky, and columns of flame danced violently with spectacular effect.  

Kemp slowed his locomotive as he approached the flames, which now had breached the Tacoma Eastern mainline and was burning on both sides of the rails. To the east (on Cass’ side of the engine) were the two mills and nearly ten acres of burning logs and timber. On Kemp’s side of the locomotive burned piles of edgings, mill ends, and sawdust. Kemp had to make a decision, run the gauntlet of fire or resign himself to the fact that all was lost. The rails began to buckle as the ties caught fire. If he were to go, he would only have one chance to get to the industry spur on the other side of the flames. As the engine approached the flames’ wall, the men riding the locomotive began to jump for the ditches, which were filling up with water from the fire brigades’ efforts. The locomotive lurched, bucked, reared into the air, and slowly rolled over on the engineer’s side. Men jumped or were thrown clear, but Glencel Gabriel held onto the locomotive tender for dear life.

As the locomotive reared, Cass dove out the fireman’s window breaking his leg. Earl Carpenter dove out of the Engineers door. Weaver, who watched in horror, told the Tacoma Daily Ledger that the big Baldwin engine made “weird screams and groans as she settled to the ground but these noises were soon drowned out by the sound of escaping steam.” The engine toppled over and fell on top of Earl Carpenter, the Tacoma Railway and Power employee, killing him instantly. Inside the cab, the railroad employees were piled up on top of each other. One by one they made their way out of the resting engine. Inside the cab C. A. Wescott and W. A. Mannor bore the brunt of the accident by falling against the engine boiler. Mannor was lifted out of the locomotive with terrible burns covering his face, body, feet, and even the inside of his mouth. Wescott was not as fortunate. He died after falling on Engineer Joe Kemp, which perhaps shielded Kemp from similar injuries.

Meanwhile, rescuers like Daniel Sorenson ran to attend to Glencel Gabriel, who was screaming in agony. Beaten back by intense heat, the rescuers soaked heavy leather coats in water from the ditch, covered their heads, and ran back toward the tender. There, Gabriel was pinned with his right leg from the thigh down, his left foot and his right hand by several tons of steel and the weight of water that issued from the toppled tender. Weaver ran in and managed to free the boy’s left foot, but a shovel would be necessary to free the boy’s right leg. The boy begged Weaver to cut his leg off. Weaver, overcome by the heat, ran back out again. The seventeen-year-old Gabriel shrieked for help as oil pouring from the tender surrounded him. Coats soaked in water were tossed on the youngster to protect his face and back from the flames that danced about his head. Joining the rescuers were John Brown and Ralph Richardson who ran to the nearest fire hose. They demanded the firefighters train the spray on the locomotive tender while the rescue of the teen continued. Assistant Fire Chief Otto Schlegel ordered the men to retreat instead. The fire had become so intense that it burned completely through several fire hoses.  

Crumpled in a heap on the ground, Cass began dragging his broken leg and calling for help. Despite suffering second-degree burns over his face, Charley Betts rounded up three other men and led the locomotive fireman out of particular peril.  While John Brown and the others pleaded with Schlegel, eight valiant rescuers started a bucket brigade to keep the flames away from Gabriel. However, the water in the ditch had become unbearably hot. Each man, cloaked in water-soaked coats, took turns scurrying into the flames with either a shovel to dig the lad out or a bucket of water. Each time they ran into the flames, they fully expected to find the teen dead, but Gabriel, repeatedly begged the men to smash him in the head with the shovel. As the flames moved to within six feet of him, shopkeeper W. M. Brooks, who led the bucket brigade to comfort Gabriel, tossed another bucket of hot water on the boy. Brooks recounted, “He raised his hand and looked at me. He did not speak. I did not know whether he meant for me to leave him, as if he knew the end was near, or to come and put him out of his misery.”

The teenager then fell unconscious facedown. As a last resort, rescuers used the shovel in an ill-gotten attempt to amputate the boy’s leg. Within a matter of moments, the intense heat caused the engine oil to ignite. Rescuers ran for their lives as the young man died.

Merle Pickering was a coffee roaster who lived seven blocks from the blaze.  Pickering was one of the men who took turns trying to save Glencel Gabriel. He was so immobilized with emotion that he was carried away from the wreckage sobbing. Weaver recounted, “I will never forget the look on the boy’s face. My God! It was horrible. What pain he went through no one will ever realize.” In hindsight, Weaver lamented the competence of Chief Schlegel. “Oh, if we only could have gotten that hose, I am sure I could have washed the ground away and saved his life. It seems terrible that the hose was not given to us.”

The Tacoma Eastern’s Lake District job was given the railroad to rush to the fire’s aid. Upon arrival, the conductor and his train crew managed to pull twelve of the sixteen cars from the yard; some of which were still burning. The No. 14, in a gesture of apparent frustration, lifted her safety valve and heaved a great sigh of steam that blasted the ground with such force that the steam bleached the scorched earth surrounding it to a bright white.

John Crowell, the injured night watchman, was so consumed by the devastation that he had to be forcibly held to keep him from going back into the flaming mill site despite his injuries. The fire burned well into the night. All totaled the two mills, the Comly residence, the Comly-Kirk stables, the boiler room, the dry kiln, planing mill, four railroad cars, a score of horses and three million board-feet of timber and lumber were destroyed.

The next day, firefighters and volunteers continued mopping-up operations. Remarkably, in the blackened rubble stood the house of Walker Foster, who had started the Bismarck Lumber mill fourteen years earlier. Also spared from the flames was the Bismarck stables and yard office; all three buildings being adjacent to each other. Engine No. 14 was still too hot to handle safely and was given another day to cool sufficiently while the section crews workers laid new ties and rail beside it. 

News of the fire brought the curious from all corners of the Northwest in every conveyance imaginable. Women wearing white dresses and carrying parasols against the summer sun stood out in stark contrast to the “dirt-begrimed” firefighters’ blackened faces. The curious looked on in macabre wonder at the scorched locomotive, her tender, and a shovel with the handle burned away. Like buzzards picking clean a bone, scavengers pilfered little mementos of the historic fire.  

Walker Foster, the owner of the Bismarck Lumber Mill, planned to rebuild. He said, “One of the worst features of the blaze is that it will throw 100 of our old employees and 50 men from the camp out of employment.”

Two days after the fire, the engine was sufficiently cool to move using a wrecker on loan from the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific. Cables were strewn about its length strategically to lift the hulk back up on her wheels; likewise, the tender. Once again, the operation brought out the curious, not just children but grown men and even women with babes-in-arms. Rampant rumors told of two more bodies crushed under the weight of the tender. The spectators were a terrible nuisance: arranging and constructing for themselves temporary seating all around the worksite using building materials from the decimated mills.

At 2:45 p.m., crane operator John H. Deacon took up the slack. The hulk began to lift. A cable attached to the pilot of the locomotive shifted and cut through the front grab iron bracket like a bandsaw. The bracket flew into the nearby crowd and critically injured Emory F. Shafer, a forty-one-year-old lather who lived closeby. Shafer attempted to duck the flying object, but it was of no use; the bracket crushed the top of his skull, but, miraculously, he survived. This occurred even though 20 police officers had been called to keep (what someone estimated as) three thousand spectators away from the scene.  

The crowd quickly dispersed once the lifted engine revealed no new fatalities.  Superstitious railroad employees were quick to point out that engine 14 was the 13th locomotive put into service by the Tacoma Eastern. The number 14 was given to her to avoid the “hoodoo of the number 13”. Other Tacoma Eastern employees mentioned that the engine had served nine trouble-free years in defense of the beloved locomotive.   Once righted, the locomotive, which cost $16,000 new, was moved on her own wheels to the Milwaukee shops on the Tacoma tide flats. The big Baldwin switch engine was soon put back into service, climbing the torturous Tacoma Eastern grade from the terminus to Bismarck and back daily.

One other sad incident relating to the fire occurred in 1921. Every summer for over ten years afterward, the remaining sawdust in the area would smolder and smoke. Small boys often played among the mill ruins. One such lad ran over a smoking sawdust pile and fell through burning his legs. Less than a month later, he was dead of blood poisoning. The Bismarck Mill fire had claimed yet another victim. 

At South 58th Street and McKinley Avenue, surrounded by a high hedge, the W. B. Foster house, built-in 1903, still stands as the only surviving building of the flames of July 10, 1914.

Author Russell Holter is a historian for the State of Washington working for the past 15 years for the Dept. of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. A graduate of UWT, Holter has published two books on local history: The Fateful Fourth, and Rails to Paradise.

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