skip to main navigation
skip to main content

Dover Library Home

Dover Public Library Logo


General Questions of Cotton Mill Fires

By Charles H. Fish

Read before the National Association of Cotton Manufacturers, October 4, 1907.

fire 4.jpg

Aftermath of the fire at Mill Number 1

No matter in what business we may be engaged, or what may be our station in life, no one of us, I am sure, will dispute the statement that the starting of a fire or a conflagration is to be dreaded, and the very thought of it in connection with our own homes or places of business is always appalling, for we know not what the end may be.

Even an alarm of fire, although it may be miles from our own properties, exerts an almost magnetic influence, creating more general interest than any one of the many excitements, which from time to time come up before the public. The size or extent of the fire is at first of no material moment, the cry of fire for the chimney blaze in the country town arousing the same interest, in proportion, as do the clanging gongs and the rushing lines of apparatus which indicate the starting of a conflagration in the city. There is within us the inborn craving for excitement and the excitement of a fire is perhaps the most difficult of all to resist.

It does not take a long apprenticeship or connection with the cotton manufacturing before one is introduced to the cotton mill fire, in some of its various forms. The general character of the work invites fires. There are more fires, large and small, in the cotton mill than in any other business, aside perhaps from those where dangerous chemicals or explosives are employed in the processes.  

The causes are many. First, we have every opportunity for fire from friction. This friction may come from some of the numerous bearings on shafting or machinery, or from the rubbing of belts against woodwork, or maybe from the friction caused by foreign bodies passing into or through the machines with the stock. Then there is spontaneous combustion, always possible, in one form or another, although in the modern mills where cleanliness is maintained, the chance for spontaneous combustion is greatly diminished. Then there is the carelessness of employees, a factor of considerable importance, Matches will find there way into the vulnerable spots, causing trouble; an argument in favor of the use of safety matches only, in and about the mills or tenements of its employees.

Of the many fires occurring in cotton mills, a large percentage of them actually arise from unknown causes, although usually a cause is assigned. Hardly a day passes without its list of cotton mill fires, more or less serious, and new causes, or reasons, for them, not before given, are constantly appearing.

With the conditions which invariably exist in cotton mills, although in some departments to more extent than in others, the fire must be under control immediately, or great damage may result. We are all familiar with the inflammable quality of cotton fibre, especially when in light or fluffy condition. We all know what a delight oil soaked floors and woodwork must be to the devouring elements. At the same time, those of you who have been fortunate in only having small fires, confined maybe to an individual machine, easily and quickly extinguished with a pail or two of water, may have, I am free to say, an entirely wrong idea of what a serious fire in the cotton mills means to those who are unfortunate enough to be brought directly in contact with it. It is a well known fact that a fire in a bale of compressed cotton cannot be easily extinguished, largely from the fact that it is difficult to get water onto that part, or all parts, of the cotton which is on fire. As far as the water reaches, it does its work instantly and effectively, but no matter what force the stream of water may have, it cannot penetrate a compressed bale of cotton, nor can it penetrate to any distance a pile of loose of opened-up cotton as found in the opening rooms. Bales of cotton which have fire in them can be sunk under water for house without extinguishing the fire, which breaks out again as soon as the cotton is opened to the air. The same characteristics, in less degree, apply to oil soaked beams and general woodwork, after they have once become thoroughly heated. If a fire once extinguished would stay extinguished, the difficulties of the situation would be largely removed.

In following out my subject it seems allowable for me to be as specific as I please, and for illustration I take the liberty of reciting briefly the history of the fire which badly wrecked No. 1 Mill of the Cocheco Manufacturing Company at Dover, New Hampshire, on the 26th day of January, 1907.

This mill was a five story brick mill of modern construction. The main mill is 400 feet long, 74 feet wide, and five stories high. Running directly back from the centre of the main mill was an ell four stories high, 200 feet long and 74 feet wide. In the main mill the two lower floors were filled with looms, the third floor with carding machinery, the fourth floor with ring spinning frames, and the fifth floor with mules. In the ell, the first floor contained the engine room, and back of it the opener pickers; the second floor contained looms, the third floor carding machinery and finisher pickers, and the fourth floor slashing, spooling and warping. As shown by the pictures, the roof of this ell came just under the fifth floor window sills of the main mill, making a splendid fire escape from the mule room through nine windows, covering the entire width of the ell. The mill had wooden posts throughout, of ample size, with the usual cast iron caps and pintles. Double floor beams were used entirely, each made up of two beams, 7 inches by 16 inches, bolted together but separated by blocks or washers about ¾ of an inch thick. This made a space in the centre of every beam, at least ¾ of an inch wide, and 16 inches deep or high, but owing to the shrinkage of the beams, these open spaces were often considerably more than ¾ of an inch wide.

fire 3.jpg

Main Mill and Ell

The ell was divided from the main mill, on every floor, with a brick wall with fire doors, but this wall was cut through in several places by wide belt holes where the main belts from the engine passed through the head line shafting in the main mill. There were four towers, two on the front and two on the back, each 25 feet square, with wide stair ways in three of them, and an elevator in the fourth. There was also a wide stairway at the end of the ell connecting with every floor, and a fire escape on the outside connecting from the roof to the ground. The sprinkler system covering the entire mill was divided into three sections, two of these sections, of equal size, covering the main mill, and the third taking the entire ell. Each section was independent of the other and was controlled by its own one valve, these valves being located in the hallways on the first floor.

There were six stand pipes, one in each of the four towers, one at the centre of the mill, and one at the end of the ell, each with hose connection on every floor. The city water pressure, which was always on the mill, had a standard pressure of 110 pounds. In the pump house at the rear of the mill was one Blake fire pump of 1,200 gallons capacity, supplementing the city pressure on the hydrants in the immediate vicinity. In addition to the nine mill hydrants, there were six city hydrants, which were in use throughout the fire. Connecting with the No. 1 Mill system, there were two large rotary pumps driven with the water wheels in No. 2 and No. 3 Mills, and a 1,000 gallon Worthington Underwriters’s fire pump at No.10 Mill, all of which did good work at the time of the fire, the Number 10 pump having a record of 58 hours of continuous service against 170 pounds water pressure, running at maximum speed for the entire time, with the exception of a few minutes when it was slowed down on account of the slacking up of the water supply. There was also, in addition, a 500 gallon underwriters’ pump in continuous service from the plant of I.B. Williams & Sons, located nearby.

The above facts are given merely to picture in a general way the physical conditions as they existed when on the morning of Saturday, the 26th of January, a fire broke out in the centre of the card room on the third floor. The weather conditions at the time were extreme, the thermometer outside ranging in the vicinity of 25 degrees below zero, in fact at no time during the fire did the mercury get above the zero mark. This intense cold, coupled with the fact that double beams were used in the construction, is responsible for the extent of the damage.

On the morning in question the mill started at the usual hour, ten minutes past six o’clock, and shortly afterwards a sprinkler head on the fourth, or spinning room floor, went off for some cause unknown, possibly from a defective head, or possibly on account of some injury received at some former time, in the way of a blow or shock, which started the solder. Promptly in accordance with instruction the overseer of this department ordered the sprinkler valve controlling this section of sprinklers shut off, and the drip opened, in order to quickly drain the pipes, and then proceeded with all haste to take up the water which covered the floor, to prevent its running through onto the machinery below. While the men were engaged in this work, they suddenly detected smoke coming up through one of the large main belt boxes. This belt passed through the card room below but was boxed up to a height of only six feet from the floor. Looking down through the belt box, fire was seen running over the tops of the cans of drawing. Here is a strange coincidence, that a fire should start in one department, within not over three to five minutes after the water was shut off from the sprinklers for a minor repair in another department, but this is the fact. The real cause of the fire will never be known, although several theories, more or less plausible, have been advanced. From the testimony of some of the witnesses, the fire seemed to start from one of the main belt boxes. The location of the sprinkler head which went off in the spinning room was such that this main belt may have become wet, causing it to slide or slip sideways on the pulley, until it touched the woodwork of the belt box, starting fire from the friction.

To return to my story. The overseer and the employees in the card room, innocent of the fact that the water was shut off the sprinklers, did the best they could with fire buckets and a line of hose from the stand pipe, wondering all the time why the sprinkler heads did not operate, but they were quickly driven back by the rush of flame and smoke. In the meantime, the overseer in the spinning room above, after discovering that there was a fire below, rushed down to the main valve and it was opened as promptly as possible. There was some delay here, however, owing to the crowding of the operatives though the hallways, they having already received warning and were hurrying out. The spread of fire was so rapid through the card room that a large portion of the sprinklers in this room was melted off, making so many openings that when the water was turned on, the pressure in the mains was greatly reduced, interfering with the efficiency of the sprinklers. Shortly after the writer’s arrival at the mill, which was within five to seven minutes of the starting of the fire, the pressure in the mains showed on the gage less than 60 pounds. In the meantime, the fire was forcing its way through the rest of the card room, opening all the sprinkler heads in the other section, and quickly finding its way into the ell, through the belt opening, it passed down the belt boxes to the main engine room below, melting off sprinkler heads everywhere with impunity, until finally, in order to make the hose streams available, the sprinkler system had to be abandoned, all valves being closed tight.

From this time on, the progress of the fire was marked by a series, or succession, of unusual incidents and annoying situations, many of them I think up to tat time unknown or unnoticed in the history of mill fires. In spite of this fact, however, you must remember that nothing occurred in connection with this fire which could not be repeated under similar conditions and at any time, in any cotton mill or manufacturing establishment, no matter how situated or how well equipped: this is particularly so if in the construction double beams, with open spaces, have been used in place of the single or solid beam. It is always easy to criticize and to make suggestions as to what best be done to prevent something which has already happened. It is the old story of the barn door and the horse, but it is an ill wind that blows nobody good and I believe that the lesson of this fire will in time go a long way towards preventing its re-occurrence.

To begin with, no one has ever had more reason to feel that their property was secure from fire than had the mangers of the Cocheco Manufacturing Company to feel that their No. 1 Mill was immune. Repeated inspection by the Mutual Insurance Companies had reported the mill and its equipment at “Excellent.” Aside from the corporation’s own equipment, there was a very efficient city department, with its central station within  a few hundred yards, where there were two fire engines, and what was supposed to be an unlimited supply of hose.

But to return again to my story. I will ask you to go back up a bit and picture, if you please, this large mill, at starting-up time, with all their operatives in their positions and the work straightened out for the morning’s run. We are in the card room, when, suddenly, and without warning, tongues of flame are seen leaping form the centre of the room in all directions, traveling with lightning rapidity over the tops of the open cans of loose cotton and leaping from frame to frame with the greatest ease. Although there is excitement, there is no confusion, published newspaper reports to the contrary, and the employees quickly pass out through the four ready exits. In the meantime a thick smoke, a sure messenger of danger, has passed up through the belt boxes and belt holes into the rooms above. In a moment, word is sent to every department and the operatives are warned. In the mule room on the upper floor we find the boys and men, ranging from sixteen years old upwards, mostly active and indifferent to danger. They have been in cotton mill fires before and are interested rather than excited. The overseer of this department and his second hand pass through the room, systematically, and warn them all that there is a serious fire in the card room and the orders are to leave the mill. It is interesting to state here that this second hand was later taken down from a window, with others who had stayed too long and who, when without warning a great wave of choking smoke and fumes swept through the room, had become bewildered and rushed to the windows, forgetting the escapes to the ell roof, and forgetting also the hallways, past which nearly all must have gone. On the other hand, there were some who passed out with the others to safety but who returned for their coats, or other clothing or belongings, and were overcome. It is a sad fact that of the four who lost their lives in the building, three went out of the safely at the first alarm and were seen in the mill yard, or in the street, and had returned into the mill, presumably for their clothing. At first the progress of the fire was rapid, although confined for some time to mostly the card room.

There was more smoke at just this period than at any other time, while at no time was there the fierce blazing of the building itself, which one might have expected. Throughout the day on Saturday it was a stubborn fight, first with a fierce flame, accompanied by thick smoke, and later against the stubborn, slow burning conflagration which covered the entire two upper stories of the mill, including the ell. The roof fell in sections, the wreck dropping onto the upper floor, which later piled itself onto the fourth floor, and afterwards everything dropped onto the third floor, a part of which fell later to the second floor, so that at the end of the fire the wreck of the entire roof, the fifth floor and the fourth floor were held by the second floor and what remained of the third floor, There was but very little wind at the time and in one respect this was of great assistance but in another it was a decided hindrance. The heavy smoke, without some breeze to steer it in a definite direction, would settle first to one side and then to another, driving the hose men from their positions.

Darkness came on Saturday night, finding about the same conditions which had existed during the afternoon. By this time the  upper floor, with its machinery, had fallen and in the mass of woodwork and machinery the fire played back and forth in spite of many streams of water, at times more than twenty, which were constantly played against it. There is a limit to human endurance, and by this time we find this limit reached in the case of many of the men, who through the long day, with the thermometer at no time above zero, had toiled against the tremendous odds. These men were by necessity temporarily relieved, while the rest of them worked steadily through the long winter night. Sunday morning came and found conditions not materially changed, excepting that the fourth floor had fallen to the third floor, and the third unable to withstand the load, weakened by its charred beams, had late in the night given out for some distance along the centre of the mill. There was at this time no great mass of fire, but innumerable small ones, mostly in the double beams and wreckage. Sunday night came, finding the fire so far under control that the corporation fire pumps, after a record breaking duty, were shut down. All Sunday night however, several streams were in constant use and at one time it was thought that a general alarm would have to be rung in again owing to the starting of the fire among the wreckage. Monday morning the view inside the mills can be neither imagined or described. 

fire 1_WEB.jpg
Inside the ruins

Time or space will not admit a more detailed description of this fire and I pass on to draw a few conclusions which the experience suggests. I cannot but appreciate the fact that many of you may feel that suggestions form me are superficial or possibly out of place; at the same time, I content myself with the thought that there is no great loss without some gain, that the gain in this case must come from the lesson taught, and whether the teachings are accepted or not is a matter beyond my province. 

To begin with, I believe that the facts will warrant the sweeping statement that, generally speaking, but few cotton mills of this country are particular enough in matters of detail connected with the fire apparatus, and the organization of the fire department. The careful inspections made periodically by the inspectors of the mutual insurance companies are all right as far as they go and without them there is no knowing to what extent our indifference in these matters might lead us.

I think if the truth were known, it would be surprising to find how few men in your employ are reasonably familiar with the location of the main shut-off valves, to say nothing of numerous valves perhaps less important, which are found in the larger plants. Of course in the case of a small plant with a single mill or two, especially of modern construction, the water pipe system is extremely simple and easily understood and remembered, but in the larger corporations, and more particularly those covering large areas where buildings have been added from time to time for many years back, you generally find a water pipe system more or less complicated and confusing to those who have not mastered it in detail. 

In this connection, I would say that I believe that each individual mill, where it is possible, should be controlled by one main valve, situated well outside the building and marked plainly with an indicator post. No underground valves, marked or unmarked, requiring a wrench should be allowed. Inside of the building each floor, or each section, dividing as it seems best, should be controlled by its own valve located outside of that department, preferably in the hallways. The location of these department valves is most important. There is the one objection to locating them within easy reach that they may be tampered with by unauthorized persons. Again, there is the serious objection to locating them out of reach so that a ladder or steps of some kind are required. Again, it is a mistake to locate these valves where the steps or ladder used as a means of getting at them come in direct route of the people coming out of the mill.

At the time of the Cocheco fire, the main shut-off valve, shutting off one-third of the entire mill, as explained, was located in the lower hallway, at a convenient height from the floor, where it could be handled readily without the use of steps. At the first alarm of fire the crowds of operatives, who hastened down the stairways and out through this hall, interfered seriously with the two men who were opening the valve. The plan which has been adopted in the new mill locates these valves high up, out of the way, and an iron walkway is constructed and permanently fastened under these valves, at a convenient height for operating them, this walkway being reached from the floor by an iron stairway located in the hallway outside of the course of travel. 

All inside valves should be outside screw and yoke, or so called rising stem, valves, discarding entirely the ordinary form of gate valve, which you can never be sure of as being open of shut without trying it, and then we may run into the most annoying uncertainties caused by the occasional introduction of a valve of the opposite hand. The left hand valve is certainly an invention of the Evil One and it has does much toward developing the profanity of mankind. In the use of these valves, as to the closing and opening of them, little can be said beyond the warning which has been already sounded so vigorously by the insurance companies, to the effect that no valve should be closed without some responsible man being left at the valve to open it immediately in case of necessity. I believe, however, that we should go further than this and establish a fixed rule that whenever it becomes necessary to close a sprinkler valve during working hours, the overseer or foreman of every department in which sprinklers are put out of commission must be notified. Even with this precaution, it would seem as if the closing of a sprinkler valve, especially while the mill is running, was an act to be avoided by every reasonable means. In the case of the Cocheco fire, I do not believe that had a man been stationed at the valve the results would have been materially different, unless the overseer or second hand in the card room below had been notified at the moment the valve was shut. It may be that valuable time would have been saved had it been known in the card room that the water was shut off from the sprinkler heads. Certainly a risk is taken when a main valve controlling any large portion of a mill is shut off. If a fire starts, especially in the card room where there is any amount of loose cotton, it might gain such headway during the time taken to give the alarm and to roll the gate open that the efficiency of the sprinkler service, by the reduction of pressure, would be greatly impaired, if not entirely ruined.


Unfortunately, there has not yet been devised or invented a proper hose for factory use. The Standard Cotton Rubber Lined Hose answers the purpose perfectly when it is new or in good condition, but this type of hose wears out faster with disuse than with use. The average life of a good quality of rubber lined fire hose hung up on reels, depends to a great extent on the temperature of atmospheric conditions in the room which it is located. During the fire there were many lines of hose, some belonging to the Cocheco Company and a great deal belonging to an outside company, all cotton rubber lined standard weight, or better, which failed to stand up for any length of time under high pressure. Usually the rubber lining found its way in chunks or bunches into the nozzle, making it necessary to shut off the water and clean out the nozzle, an easy matter to do under ordinary conditions, but practically impossible when the temperature was so low that to shut off a stream meant to abandon it.

The linen hose which is allowed by the insurance companies and which is used to a very great extent, especially for inside protection, is a snare and a delusion and should be labeled “Not for Use.” A few years ago I was so far misled as to purchase a considerable supply of Underwriters’ Standard Linen Hose, from a most reputable manufacturer. A great deal of this hose found its way into action at the time of the fire, but caused so much hard feeling that after a few hours most of it was banished to the back yard to thaw out at its leisure. This hose was hard to handle, and it choked so badly with ice and leaked so much that you could not approach within a radius of many feet without becoming thoroughly drenched. In fact to hold the nozzle on a line of linen hose was practically an impossibility, owing to the shower of water which leaked through the hose and froze as it fell, encasing one in a straight jacket in short order. I think you will find that this is the ordinary performance of a linen hose under fairly high pressure. Some of it no doubt better than others, and in some locations or conditions of weather its faults would not be so emphasized. What we must have is a light, thoroughly waterproof hose which will stand up under the maximum pressure without leaking, which will not burst if there happens to be a kink in the line, which will retain its strength and flexibility for a number of years, the longer the better, and which has a smooth inside surface to minimize friction.

A chapter might be written on the subject of nozzles, but to boil it down into a few words, I would say, equip with approved shut-off nozzles as far as possible. Working from inside of the building, a shut-off nozzle is almost indispensable. With the shut-off nozzle a line of hose can be easily moved, whereas with the open nozzle it is often dangerous to attempt it. In the case of a large fire, the size of the nozzle used is of great importance. The Standard Underwriters’ 1 1/8 inches is quite large enough for all ordinary fires, and in fact much too large for most of the fires with which we have to contend. With a large fire, however, the effectiveness of a larger of more powerful stream is very marked, I believe that every manufacturing plant, depending at all upon its own fire department for protection, can well afford to investigate the merits of the Siamese of Deluge sets, which throw a much more powerful stream than can be obtained through single lines of hose.

These powerful streams are easy to handle and with them it is possible to get water onto the roofs or towers which are beyond the reach of ordinary streams. 

There is not much to be said on the subject of ladders. It is unfortunate that the ordinary extension ladders, such as are found in our mill equipments, are so unwieldy and so difficult to manage. They serve their purpose, however, and, as in the case of the Cocheco fire, may prove invaluable. For the saving of a life, a good Life Net is a splendid adjunct to the ladder department.

A few years ago but little attention was paid by the Insurance Companies, or by manufacturers, to the subject of stand pipes. At one time I understand they were considered by many as being of little value, and their discontinuance recommended. I think I am right, however, in stating here that this opinion is rapidly changing. From my own experience, I believe that Stand Pipes are next in importance to the sprinkler head, and that Stand Pipes of ample size should be located in every tower with hose connections in the hallways, and Stand Pipes also in the centre of the buildings, especially where the buildings are large in extent, with a good supply of hose immediately available. The only chance of checking a large fire is by getting close to it with powerful streams. The Stand Pipe brings the water, in a most convenient way to every floor, saving all the time which would have otherwise been consumed by the dragging of hose up the stairs or up ladders raised on the outside of the building. Under no consideration should we abandon the stand pipe system. 

Another piece of apparatus which has received but little general attention is the Chemical Fire Extinguishers. It was fortunate for those who were struggling with the Cocheco fire that they had at hand a good equipment of chemical extinguishers. For some years past I had personally believed in their efficiency and had from time to time added to the numbers in use about the corporation, until many of the rooms where a fire was likely to start, were equipped with them.

The fire pail, on account of its cheapness, its extremely simplicity and at the same time its comparative effectiveness, perhaps should be place first in the list of factory apparatus, but the fire pail has its limitations in more ways than one, and it is at some of these points that the chemical extinguisher comes into play. You can with the extinguisher throw a most effective, although small, stream against the ceiling or into nooks and corners or out of the way places, where it would be impossible to throw water from a pail. I believe the time is coming when the chemical extinguisher, with possibly some improvements over its present form, although it is now pretty satisfactory, will have an important place in every mill department.

It is unnecessary to comment on the advisability of ample and well located supplies of fire axes, bars, spanners, lanterns, etc. It goes without saying that without these you are liable to find yourselves in a most uncomfortable position.

Mill Construction

Leaving the subject of apparatus thus incomplete, I wish to call attention to a few points in mill construction which are brought out in the following of my subject. 

Belt Towers.- The running of main belts from the engine room up through a mill building, no matter whether it be at the centre of the building or at the end, is without doubt bad practice, speaking form the question of fire protection. The rapidity with which fire will travel, up and down, through belt boxes, is surprising. At the Cocheco fire, the engine room had fire in it a very few moment after it was discovered in the card room three stories above. The rapid spread of fire from room to room was without doubt due a great extent to the openings in wall and floors, made necessary for the passage of main belts. Construct your belt tower wherever it seems best but build it fire proof and have it entirely cut  off from the rest of the building. There should be no openings from the engine room through which a fire might pass into the mill.

fire 6.jpg
Small engine after the fire

Tinned fire doors are almost perfect protection against the spread of a fire. At the Cocheco fire not a single door failed to do its duty. They will get out of repair, as regards the running parts, usually the morning the insurance inspector arrives, but otherwise than this they are most satisfactory, An ordinary sheathing partition, supplemented by a stream of water, is a valuable fire retardant. A temporary partition across the end of the card room stopped the spread of the fire in that direction.

The subject of column caps or plates deserves a moment’s attention. It seems to be general practice to use for a column cap on which the floor beams rest, a cast iron plate of considerable length. In Cocheco No. 1 Mill these plates were 24 inches long and about 14 inches wide, the width of the beams. The overloading of the floor beams on the lower floors by the wreckage and ice, deflected them to such an extent that a great weight was brought on the ends of the plates and many of them were broken. There certainly can be no reason why a long plate should be used as it can add nothing to the strength of the building. A column cap should be only sufficiently long to cover the column or post with enough additional length for the lag screws or bolts holding the timber. These caps of which I speak were fractured square across the centre, or directly over the centre of the column. These were of good design, being about 2 inches thick on the ribs. 

There is nothing to be said against the wooden column, and in case of fire, I believe it is much safer than the iron column. The wooden column chars easily but burns away slowly. The floors fall along time before the posts have become sufficiently charred to weaken them materially.

As to the question of floor beams, I have already given you my opinion of double beams construction. It is practically is practically impossible to describe briefly the difficulties encountered during the Cocheco fire on this account. The open spaces between the two timbers formed a safe retreat or abode for the fire and also furnished a ready and safe means of travel from one side of the room to the other, or in a number of cases, through the medium of the posts the fire would travel from floor to floor, as well as from side to side, A number of times fire started in the double beams on the lower floor, in spite of the fact that there was one to three feet of ice and water on the floor above. Time after time did it become necessary to send men into the lower parts of the building with fire extinguishers to put out these small fires, which would appear in the double beams in most unexpected locations. It took forty-eight hours of constant attention with chemical extinguishers and small hose streams to save that part of the floor in the ell which was over the main engines and in spite of this it became necessary to shore up under the beams, they had become so honeycombed. In a number of cases the beams were burned away, always from the inside, out, until what was left fell of its own weight leaving the floor above practically intact with the floor spikes sticking through it.

fire 5.jpg
Section of burned beam

It was practically impossible to extinguish fire in the beams, without getting under it so that the stream could be directed squarely into the open space. From any location except directly beneath, the stream of water, no matter no powerful, had little or no effect as it could not get at the fire. It is readily understood why these beams, when greatly overloaded with ice and water and the wreckage from above, could stand but little of such treatment before they gave way. During the progress of the fire these beams broke down continually, making working side of the building extremely dangerous.

Those of you who have buildings constructed with double beams are facing this danger, and some practical methods should be devised for at least remedying in part this evil.

At Cocheco we are now experimenting with the filling of the space with a cheap grade of common cement. A batten strip is first nailed along covering the opening on the underside of the beam and then the space is filled with cement grout, poured down through holes bored in the floor above. I hope some better way will be devised, however, as this is a rather slow and laborious process, necessitating the boring of many holes through the floors. The fastening or dogging of floor beams to the brick walls is also to be avoided. It is a remarkable fact that although every beam in No.1 Mill was securely fastened to the walls by irons imbedded in the brick work, in every case the beam in falling either pulled the irons clear from the beam, or tore the fastening away from the brick work without doing material damage to the walls themselves. 

The fact that the brick walls stood so well goes to prove conclusively that this mill broke down rather than burned down. There was of course a large area of fire, which, augmented by the extreme cold weather, proved most stubborn, but at no time after the first rush of the flames through the rooms was the heat intense. Had this mill been constructed of solid beams, the loss would have been without doubt comparatively small.

Much could have been written upon the organization and training of the cotton mill fire brigade, but I will touch on this subject only as far as to say that the men who have to fight the cotton mill fires are those who happen to be on the spot at the time. During running hours the problems are far different form those presented by a blaze in the night. It is the man with the good head and reasonable amount of common sense who makes the best mill fireman, after all. Nine-tenths of the battle is won when ample apparatus, all in good condition, is available, together with a few steady, active fellows who will keep cool and obey orders.

Confusion is the one thing to be avoided. It is also the one thing which invariably occurs to more or less extent. The value of the fire drill is that it disciplines the men, and discipline is the surest preventative of confusion.

To attempt to cover at all satisfactorily the subject of Cotton Mill fires would, I fear, monopolize and entire evening’s session. I have been compelled, therefore, with the time at hand to treat it in a most general way, but before closing I beg to impress upon you the truth of the old saying “In Times of Peace Prepare for War,” and because you have had no serious fires in your own mill, do not be misled into believing that such a thing is an impossibility. Even with good general organization and perfect equipment, there are pretty sure to be at times weak or vulnerable spots open to the attack of the devouring elements, although it make take strange and unnatural combinations to develop them. Eternal vigilance will go a long way towards weakening the effect of these combinations, while indifference encourages disaster.


This historical essay is provided free to all readers as an educational service. It may not be reproduced on any website, list, bulletin board, or in print without the permission of the Dover Public Library. Links to the Dover Public Library homepage or a specific article's URL are permissible.