News

Benton Harbor, MI: The Yore Opera House Fire

Incident Date: September 6, 1896
Departments: Benton Harbor Fire Department and St. Joseph Fire Department (MI)
Number of Line-of-Duty Deaths: 12

A fire began engulfing the four-story Yore Opera House shortly after midnight on Sunday, September 6, 1896, in Benton Harbor, Michigan. The flames progressed before the fire was discovered and the first alarm was struck. The alarm from the City Hall was echoed by train whistles and bells throughout the city.

These bells and whistles brought all of Benton Harbor’s fire companies, their horses, and apparatus to the fire. Crowds began to gather after seeing the smoke or hearing the alarm being raised adding thousands of spectators to the already chaotic scene. Winds whipped as the fire continued to spread across the alley to adjacent buildings and through the roof of the Opera House.

Soon, every surrounding fire hydrant was in service, as was the Tom Benton fire tugboat in the harbor. Not long after Benton Harbor firefighters began their attack, they called for the aid of the St. Joseph Fire Department.

Arriving hook and ladder companies headed to the back of the building. But before they could get their stream directed into the second-story window, the rear wall collapsed—burying fifteen firefighters from both departments. Soon after the initial collapse, the other walls of the building began to crumble. Firefighters worked hard to free their comrades from the rubble while at risk of being caught in an additional collapse themselves.

As firefighters were uncovered, they were carried to nearby offices and homes where doctors from Benton Harbor and St. Joseph cared for the wounded. Those who made the ultimate sacrifice that morning were taken to the City Hall, where they could be identified and eventually moved to their homes.

St. Joseph Firefighter Silas Frank Watson was the first to be recovered. Fire companies dug all afternoon until they found the last St. Joseph’s firefighter, Arthur Hill, at 5:00 pm that evening. Firefighter William E. McCormick who was one of the severely injured pulled from the collapse, died four days later from his injuries.

It is believed that the fire started under the Opera House stage as a result of discarded smoking materials—but a definitive cause was never found, even after a formal coroner’s inquest.

A large memorial service was held on September 8, 1896, at the old Central Schoolyard. On May 31, 1898, a bronze sculpture of a firefighter carrying a small child was dedicated in St. Joseph, Michigan. Benton Harbor firefighters placed a memorial in “Fireman’s Circle” in the Crystal Springs Cemetery.

Remembering

 

 

 

 


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Memorial Monday is established to remember the sacrifice of firefighters who died in the line of duty before the National Memorial was created in 1981. On the last Monday of every month, a firefighter, or groups of firefighters, will be remembered as we share information about these firefighters and their sacrifice.