Fire Fighting in Milwaukee

From the Milwaukee Free Press
August 20, 1905

Milwaukee's Last Volunteer Fire Company
Founded in 1854, an Organization Is Maintained by
Surviving Members Until This Day--The Great Service
Rendered City by the Excelsior Hook and Ladder Company

Only Group Photograph

The photograph from which the accompanying cut was made is the property of Albert P. Yunker, whose father, John B. Yunker, a merchant of Milwaukee for over half a century, was secretary of the company for years before his death. The picture was taken at the semi-centennial celebration of the city of Milwaukee, Oct. 17, 1895, and is the only one ever made of the company. The two figures in advance of the others are ex-Chief Henry Lippert, foreman of the company, and Ludwig D. Meyer, assistant foreman at the time. The other veterans are Herman Kannernberg, Louis Busch, John Mohm, Mathew Hoehstein, Henry F. Kasten, Adam Kunz, Christoph Coerper, Louis Holzheuser, Henry Tischaefer, Mike Fleck, Peter Alberts, Henry Aeinam, John Reiter, Philip Gross, John C. Schilling, William Noll, John Lauer, Nic Haerter, Henry Waldeck, John B. Yunker, Charles Dorau, Valentine Mueller, Ernst Bruckman, H. Riemenschneider, John Winkler, Mike Kunz, Christoph Engel, Charles Ackermann, Fred Schuppner, A.C. Kuhn, Gottlieb Ries, Gustav Schustock, H. Ballermann and Henry Herter. The boys at each end of the line are Oscar Hochstein and Fred Alberts, torch boys.


Written for the Free Press

Next Friday, Aug. 25, will be the fifty-first anniversary of the day when the Excelsior Hook and Ladder Company No. 2 was accepted by the city council and became a part of the volunteer fire department of the city. The meeting of the common council when the company, containing sixty young and energetic men, was accepted, was held in Martin's block, southwest corner of Wisconsin and East Water, Friday, Aug. 25, 1854. Mayor Byron Kilbourn presided and the members of the board were Jackson Hadley, George S. Mallory, Victor Schutte, R. Houghton, Charles E. Jenkins, Charles Geisberg, John Coughlin, John Haydn, James Reed, James Ludington, A.L. Kane, Daniel Schultz, Alexander Mitchell, Dr. E. Wunderly and Jason Humphrey.

Last Volunteer Company

Excelsior company had many friends in the city. It was one of the last companies organized in the volunteer days and was the last to disband a few years later when the paid department came in. Peter Weber, who resides at 288 Tenth street, aged 75, was the first foreman of the company, John B. Yunker, for years secretary of the association, died last December.

The day before the company was accepted by the council occurred one of the most disastrous fires of the early days. It started at noon in a livery stable in the rear of the United States hotel. And in two hours the whole block bounded by East Water, Huron, Main and Michigan streets, was in ruins. The flames crossed to the west side of East Water street and cleaned up several buildings. The loss was $381,900 and the insurance $233,050. Excelsior company was prominent among the fire fighters on this day, as well as on all the other fires for a decade.

Some of Their Fires

The following February they were called to the corner of Reed and Oregon streets, where a fire, originating in Pfeifer's bakery, destroyed the Mississippi house and the locomotive works near the Menomonee. Fifteen families were rendered homeless. Two days before Christmas, in 1855, the company ran to a fire in the Milwaukee house, northeast corner of Broadway and Detroit streets. This historic building was totally destroyed. It was the second frame hotel in the state, built by Solomon Juneau and Morgan L. Morton at the northeast corner of Wisconsin and Main. It had been moved into the Third ward, and at the time of the fire was kept by Theodore Wettstein, later proprietor of the St. Charles, and author of a pamphlet on Wisconsin that induced thousands of Germans to emigrate here.

A hard fire to fight, with temperatures 20 below zero, call the Excelsior company Jan. 8, 1856, to the corner of West Water and Cedar streets. There was a block of wooden buildings, a brass foundry, a wagon shop, and small dwelling houses. When the company arrived women were running in all directions, and their small children were handed out the windows to them by members of the company.

Deeds of Daring

A spectacular fire, remembered by some of the survivors of the Excelsior company, burned the large brown warehouse on the west side of the river occupied by C.H. Bell, Feb. 13, 1856. IT was a $40,000 fire, $30,000 representing wheat, flour and pork contained in the building.

The following December, Excelsior company was at the Globe Iron works, Reed and Virginia streets, the largest machine factory in the city, when it was burned with all its property.

One of the events of a civil nature in which the volunteer department took part in 1856 was the funeral of Solomon Juneau at St. John's cathedral. At his death at Shawano, Nov. 19, 1855, he was buried upon an elevation over-looking the Wolf river and the Indian hunting grounds, but before the end of the year the body was brought to Milwaukee. Over 5,000 people were present at the funeral in the cathedral.

When Lives Were Lost

One of the most important fires was the destruction of J.B. Cross's four-story block, Dec. 30, 1860 (northeast corner East Water and Huron streets_. with an adjoining four-story building owned by Nathan Cummings, Portland, Me. In Cross's building were the common council chamber and school commis-sioners' rooms, and all the city offices except that of the city treasurer. The city records destroyed were valued at $500,000. George Dyer, saddler, was a very heavy loser, his damages from loss of stock being $55,000. Frank Barth, a member of Excelsior company, Charles McDermott, of No. 4 and W.W. Caswell, a citizen who volunteered his aid to save property, were killed by a falling wall, as were two other young men whose names are forgotten.

Another fire recalled by Excelsior men who were there, was at the Birchard block, southwest corner of Grand avenue and West Water, Aug. 2, 1866. It was destroyed early in the morning. The first floor was occupied by seven small retail establishments, the second floor by the German Theatrical company as a theater. The fire broke out on the third floor at 4 a.m. Charles Satoenbuching, John Mathee and Mike Bassel, firemen of Steamer No. 1 and supply hose, were injured by falling walls. The roof caved in and three of the Excelsior men were left clinging to the windowsills. Jacob Mesh placed a ladder against the wall, and they were rescued. Dr. Alfred Spearman, who had his offices in the block, saved one of his skeletons, which was dragged out into the street and created an impression that a life had been lost.

Organization Preserved

The Excelsior company is the only one of the volunteer fire companies who have preserved their organization. They meet quarterly at the Barden Maennerchor building, 417 Ninth street, and talk over their adventures. The next meeting will be in October. The youngest member, Louis Holzhaeuser, a torch boy fifty-one years ago, is 62, and the oldest is Henry Aienam, 76. The only three charter members left are Foreman L.D. Meyer, Valentine Moeller, and Henry Aienam.

The company will not celebrate their anniversary this year. Their next meeting will be the first Sunday in October. By their activity, Excelsior company aided in saving millions of dollars worth of property in Milwaukee between 1854 and 1866.