On July 4, 1894, the hands of the clock at the top of the Eaton County Courthouse showed 6 p.m., and then almost immediately stopped as flames burned around it. The clock was huge; six feet in diameter, and was atop the tallest building in the city. The courthouse stands 111 feet from the ground to the top of the nine-foot-tall Lady of Justice.
A massive fire on that date devastated the courthouse. Newspaper accounts regarding the cause of the fire didn’t agree. Some felt that it was caused by the painters who were using torches to remove old paint from the building. Others denied that, saying that the area where the fire started hadn’t even been touched by the painters yet and attributed it to spontaneous combustion.
Being a holiday, the members of the Charlotte Fire Department were at a picnic in Eaton Rapids. They heard about the fire, and both departments responded. To get back to Charlotte quickly, they took the train from Eaton Rapids to Charlotte.
Mayor Merritt, county officials, and many of Charlotte’s lawyers, and other volunteers did what they could to get important documents out of the burning building and to extinguish the fire. The chief of the Wichita, Kansas fire department was in the city visiting relatives and offered his assistance.
The Charlotte Fire Department had a Silsby Steamer fire engine which used wood and coal to heat the brass boiler which produced 125 pounds of pressure and could shoot water up to 100 feet. By the time they arrived at the scene, however, the fire was out of control. The fire cistern was drained of water in an hour and the streams of water were too weak to reach the building’s eaves.
It was decided that it would be a good idea for someone to go up on the roof to dump water on the fire, a dangerous proposal. W.P. Engel, an electric light plant employee, offered to go up on the roof, as did Clarence Horn, one of the painters. Just as fire chief Donovan started up the ladder, though, the crowd started yelling for them all to come down as they could see flames burning through the roof.
The dome was ablaze and the 6000-pound bell on the roof of the building crashed through the roof and thundered into the basement.
Luckily, no one was injured in the fire and no important documents were lost as they were stored in fireproof vaults in the building or had been carried out of the building by volunteers. The building suffered considerable damage with much water damage on the ground floor. Temporary roofs were installed so that County business could continue.
The event was so monumental that the Charlotte Tribune newspaper printed a special “fire edition” that day to detail the event. “Eaton County’s Beautiful Court House Laid Low by Fire Fiend,” the headline read.
The Livingston County Press appraised the fire at $40,000 in damages and with only $15,000 in insurance. They wrote that only the exterior walls remained standing, but photos taken by George Fowler show that the interior walls remained.
After the fire, plans were made to restore the courthouse as near to the original as possible at a cost of $23,500.
Money wasn’t budgeted to replace the clock and bell, so the citizens of Charlotte raised the funds to purchase them. The original clock was replaced with an electric model, and the old bell was melted down to form a new one. Electric wiring was installed in the courthouse and the building was strengthened with fireproof material. The original bell clapper is in the Courthouse Square Museum.
“The Lady of Justice is original and did survive the fire,” Julie Kimmer, manager of the Courthouse Square Museum, said. “The back of her head has a dent, but she was reinstalled. The Smithsonian did a survey of these figures a few years ago and recorded her as an early original.”
The courthouse, built in 1885, was considered the jewel of the city. In its application for the National Register of Historic Buildings it was written, “It’s been recognized by architects and historians as a unique example of classical architecture by and attuned to midwestern America, halfway between the frontier and the twentieth century.” It received its official National Register status in 1971, the same year the county wanted to tear it down…but that’s another story!
The building cost over $70,000 to build, double what was budgeted. There was no bond, and no indebtedness, as the amount needed to build the courthouse was raised by a three-year tax upon property owners.
If you have an idea for an interesting, and true, historical story from anywhere in Eaton County that you would like to see in The County Journal, contact Deb Malewski at email@example.com.