THE OPERA HOUSE FIRE AT HARRISBURG, PA.
Specially Written for FIRE AND WATER ENGINEERING
A very early morning fire started in the cellar of the Grand Opera house at Harrisburg, Pa., on February 1. It was the most destructive that had happened in the city since the burning of the State capitol ten years before. It completely destroyed the building and practically ruined, or severely damaged nine others, among them two hotels, a theatre, a commercial block and three mercantile companies’ establishments. At first there seemed to be some doubt as to whether the smoke, which had issued from a store in the building, were fine snow, and, while this was being investigated, the fire was going ahead. When at last it was finally determined that the vapor was really smoke and that it came from a fire, the alarm was turned in. As the box pulled showed the blaze to be in a very congested district, where hotels and business houses most abound, the department responded very promptly, and, in answer to a general alarm, six engines—a first-size Amoskeag, two secondsize La France, one second-size American, one third-size Silsby, one third-size Button—two trucks and four chemical hose wagons—came on the scene. There were seventeen available hydrants—all three-way-—within 800 ft., none being distant from the other farther than 200 ft. The pressure at the hydrants was 60 lbs., and the supply from the waterworks system (gravity, from reservoir) was furnished from a 12-in.. 10-in. and 8-in. main. The width of the street in front of the opera house building is 60 ft. The engines threw twelve streams; the hydrants, six, through 7,000 -ft. of rubber hose fitted with ordinary i%in. and 1 Vi – in. nozzles and one Eastman Deluge nozzle. The bursting and burning of twenty-five lengths of hose hampered the firemen considerably ; but they made good use of what they bad. When they arrived, they saw that, owing to the delays already referred to, the opera bouse itself and possibly many other buildings in that congested value district were doomed. The best they could hope for was to save the business portion of the city from a general conflagration. The flames were spreading rapidly. Someone had opened the cellar doors, and thereby created a draught, which carried the flames right into the theatre near the orchestra The large open space gave them full play, and both store and theatre were at once involved. The firemen, who had entered the store, were driven out by the stifling smoke, and, meanwhile, smoke was seen issuing from the cupola at the south corner, and within a few minutes it was also pouring out from two large windows on the Third street side Two steamers were got to wo^k there, and, while they were busiest, the firemen, with difficulty, on account of the overhead wires, which prevented them from running the truck in, got ladders up to a window in the gallery, and rescued a trampemploye who had been sleeping in the building. Fire then showed itself at half a dozen windows on the same side, and a line of hose which had been laid by one of the companies was barely hauled out of two stores in time to save it from being destroyed; as it was, one side was badlyscorched. From the balcony window on the Walnut street side the flames burst forth, and the whole opera house interior was ablaze. The firemen gave up the fight in that quarter, and Chief Garverich posted them where they could do most good, running lines of hose over the tops of Walnut street residences, while another was carried into the rear from Strawberry street, so as to keep the back of the Park hotel and other buildings wet. So far as the hotel was concerned, their efforts were unsuccessful, for, although the firemen had climbed over the snow-covered roofs, the flames burst out in front at the very top of the mansard roof. Ilosemen were then lined up in the middle of Walnut street; but their efforts were in vain. The roof became a mass of flame, and large pieces of the cornice kept falling down, breaking the electrical wires and causing them to sputter and send out fire. The firemen were ordered to retreat to the Capitol park till the current was cut off. The roof caving in, caused a shower of sparks and burning embers to be carried by the wind, which had veered round to the opposite direction. They fell upon the surrounding roofs and a pile of boxing material in a yard on Locust street near the Lyceum was set on tire, and, after a short fight, was put out by some amateur firelighters. The post office was for some time in danger; but, being of fire-resistant construction, it was able to withstand the storm of burning material that attacked it. while the deep snow on the roofs of the other buildings protected them. On the other side of Third street the firemen kept wetting down the stores( till they were driven away, the sagging electric wires adding to the danger. The Harrisburg Gas company’s office building and the new and not vet finished Security Trust building and others caught, and the safety of the three-story brick College block was endangered. The firemen, however, saved that from worse damage than a mere scorching. The mansard roof of the hotel Columbus caught, and for two hours the firemen were fighting the flames on that building, two heavy streams being kept con’tantly thrown upon it on the VValunt street side The hotel was flooded, and, except for the damage done to the top story, it and the United building were saved. It was the critical point. If the fire had not been stopped right thbre. the flames would have swept all before them for bkx’ks. The concentration of the streams on the hotel saved the day, and the chances of the fire getting beyond the Park hotel being now nil, only one stream was directed upon it, while two were thrown from Strawberry street to save the Hoover jewelry store. That object was effected; but all its contents were thoroughly soaked. It was now 4130 o’clock. For over three hours the firemen had kept up the unequal struggle, which now was confined to these three points. Thev were points of danger to the men. as the rear wall of the opera house threatened every moment to fall. 1’lie firemen were ordered off the roof as a matter of precaution; but the stout wall stood, in spite of the powerful stream directed against it in the hope of causing it to collapse. The men were not finally called off till late in the afternoon. The fire, which caused a loss of nearly, if not quite $500,000, very fairly insured, was probably the result of spontaneous combustion, as the cellar in which it started was full of rubbish, including old scenery and the like. The explosions that took place during the course of the fire were probably caused by the gas, heat and dust in the cellar, into which, of course, a cigar or cigarette butt might have been thrown through the iron grating and fallen upon some of the rubbish in the smaller cellar. The small area wav at the rear of the opera house acted as a flue for the flames. The fire department, which is volunteer, worked well under Chief Garverich and Assistant Chief Verbek^, and, though assistance was sent from neighboring towns, with the exception of Steelton’s third-size Button engine and a hose company from Middletown, the Harrisburg men proved perfectly competent to handle the fire themselves. Every thing was against them, especially the overhead wires. These made it slowwork raising the ladders to the top of the buildings, which themselves were old and dry and burned like tinder. Notwithstanding all these disadvantages, the fire was skilfully fought, as was shown by the way in which it was kept within so small an extent of territory. About fifty years ago the block on which the opera house stands was swept by a fire. It was then occupied by a hotel, carriage works and several places of bus mess. The block is situated in the centre of the city and occupies a space of 50,000 sq. ft. The highest building was 100 ft. in height, and of those destroyed eight were brick and one was frame. The Grand Opera house was quite an old building, and its stage only was equiped with sprinklers. Harrisburg needs more apparatus, and its congested-value district would offer little resistance to a fire that had once gained control within its limits, since there is a lack of reserve strength. In the opinion of outside experts, the department is too large, and, as the attendance at fires is not always what it might be, it cannot be relied upon with as much confidence as if there were a larger paid element in its composition. The building department, also, does not do its proper work in supervising the construction of buildings and inspecting them. The building law contains much that is good; hut it should be amended in the line of providing for fireproof construction, proper restriction of wires, protection for floor openings, elevator-shafts, and the like.