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Report on the Cocheco Mill Fire

General Questions of Cotton Mill Fire

By Charles H. Fish
Read before the National Association of Cotton Manufacturers, October 4,1907.

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Aftermath of the fire at Mill No. 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.

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 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. 

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