(Photo Deb Malewski)
Downtown Eaton Rapids has an extensive history of fires in the early days. Often the problem was the tall buildings on Main Street. When a building caught fire there were no fire trucks with extension ladders or powerful hoses to reach the second and third floors. In 1864, a fire wiped out all but eight of the 25 downtown businesses.
Fire was still a problem in 1933. That was the year that an explosion killed Evelyn Lambert, age 44, and her four-year-old daughter, Rose Marie, in their apartment which was directly above the Hall, (Firemen’s Hall was located across Main Street from where Quality Dairy is now).
To make the situation even worse, working downstairs in the Firemen’s Hall was Mr. Henry Lambert, husband of Evelyn and father of Rose Marie. Lambert was a fireman for eight years and was the only full-time fireman for the City. He also worked as the custodian for the fire department and was a WWI Navy veteran.
Lambert heard the explosion in the upstairs living quarters and ran to check on his family. City Commissioner G. Elmer McArthur, who had been talking with Lambert in the fire hall at the time, also jumped up to help. McArthur ran up the back steps while Lambert took the front stairs two at a time.
Lambert’s attempts to reach his family were futile. The intense heat and flames prevented him from entering the apartment at the front of the building.
Commissioner McArthur was not new to rescuing people and putting his own life in danger. In 1917, McArthur was awarded the Carnegie Medal for Heroism, along with $1,000 cash, for his attempt to save three young men whose boat had capsized in the Grand River just below the State Street Dam. McArthur was an attorney, a veteran of the Spanish American War, an ex-State Senator, the president of the Board of Education, and a city commissioner. It was also McArthur that donated the land to build the Eaton Rapids hospital.
Entering from the back of the building, McArthur found Lucille (age 13), and Maxine (age 7) and escorted them to safety. As they exited the apartment the door slammed shut behind them and locked. They heard screams and pounding inside, and the girls told McArthur that their brother, George (age 10) must still be inside. McArthur broke down the door and was able to grab the boy. All three of the children were unharmed but very badly frightened.
The fire department quickly extinguished the fire. Mrs. Lambert was found holding Rose Marie in her arms.
Mrs. Lambert had poured kerosene from a five-gallon can onto live coals. The resulting explosion threw kerosene on both her and her young daughter as the kitchen caught fire. The investigation of the explosion determined that the kerosene that Mrs. Lambert had attempted to start a fire in the kitchen with may have been contaminated with gasoline. There was evidence that the kerosene seller had four different fuels using the same pump.
Henry Lambert was devastated by the deaths of his wife and daughter and was confined to bed as he was overwhelmed with grief. Newspapers across the state covered the tragedy. The funeral was held at the Pettit and Rice Funeral Home, and Mrs. Lambert and Rose Marie were buried together, with Rose Marie in her mother’s arms, at Rose Hill.
The family remained living in the apartment above the fire hall until 1936 when Mr. Lambert married Delia Gillett and they moved to 316 State Street. Henry Lambert still worked as a firefighter. He died in 1971.
A movement arose to get McArthur a second Carnegie Medal, but there is no evidence that this attempt was successful.