“Fire, fire at the Fort!” Those were the alarming words of citizens up and down the Loup Valley on January 12, 1875. The nearby settlers and Calamus villagers rushed to offer aid. Others wondered and waited for news. The soldiers and civilian employees did their best to fight the conflagration. All to no avail. The strong January wind fanned the flames and the bitter cold froze the bucket brigade. The nearly completed new set of officers quarters was destroyed!
Mans of fire fighting were primitive at Fort Hartsuff in 1875. Barrels of water were kept in building for immediate use. Dug wells would have supplied the bucket brigadiers with water.
Later a pump and windmill would be constructed over a dug well high on the hill behind the fort. It pumped water to a storage tank. Water was then distributed to important buildings by underground pipes. Enough pressure was available to force water higher than the tallest buildings. Probably the loss of the new quarters stimulated the quartermaster to not delay development of the pressure system. The fort had originally been built close to a hill just for the purpose of supplying this pressure. The system was successful because no other major losses were noted during the seven years of the fort’s military life.
The 1875 loss was a severe setback to fort development. Two junior officers and the post surgeon were ready to move in. They and their families had been housed in tents during the preceding September and October. In November they moved into semi-dugouts, floored and sided up four feet with lumber destined later to be used in other fort construction.
The quarters which the fire deprived them were of two stories. There were sixteen rooms plus four large hallways entering two open staircases. The following plan was drawn in 1878 after the house was completed and occupied. In detail it did not differ from the original plans.
The allocation of rooms to officers and their families and servants was up to the commanding officer. Those officers with highest rank always received preferential treatment.
Regardless, options were closed when the quarters burned. No one was more regretful of the burning than the commander, Captain Sam Munson. His telegram to department headquarters summarized the damage:
Fort Hartsuff, Neb.
January 13th, 1875
Via Grand Island, January 15th
The Assistant Adjutant General
Department of the Platte,
The new set of officers quarters nearly completed were burned yesterday afternoon. Graham and the workmen were in the building when fire was discovered near one of the chimneys. They had water and buckets but so great was the storm that it was impossible to do anything.
The walls are standing and look all right except one gable; loss five thousand dollars.
Captain, 9th Infantry Commanding
Our faithful diarist, Truman Freeland, also noted the event. This was from his vantage point six or seven miles up the valley near the Willow Springs settlement.
January 12, 1875
“Came home against a beating storm of wind and snow. Got my breakfast and went up to Lawrence’s and stayed all night on account of the severe storm and cold. Saw the reflection of the fire on the sky just at dusk that burned the company quarters at the Fort.”
On the 18th of January the commanding officer wrote a longer letter describing the fire.
Headquarters Fort Hartsuff, Neb.
January 18th 1875
Assistant Adjutant General
Dep’t of the Platte
I reported by telegraph the loss of the new set of Officers’ Quarters on the afternoon of the 12th inst by ‘fire’.
It was caused by a defective chimney and yet the best quality of brick was used that could be obtained, and the work was done under the personal supervision of the superintendent.
I had taken all the precausions (sic) that seemed necessary, two men watched the building at night and dozen worked in it during the day and one man did nothing else but look after the fires. Barrels of water and buckets were kept ready for use and it would have been impossible for the building to have burnt in ordinary weather, but we had that day a wind, that rendered any efforts to put the fire out after it once started, fruitless.
No one regrets this occurrence more than I, but it was one of those events that illustrates human helplessness. All I could do was to stand and see it burn.
Mr. Graham (the overall superintendent of construction) had his hands frozen and is out for the first time today. He says the walls are all right and I think they are. This will make the actual loss not as large as my first estimate.
In my opinion concrete is the building material of the future. The scaffolding was not burnt and the walls not hot on the outside when the fire was at its height.
I shall have all the chimneys covered with a six inch coat of concrete.
I have the honor to be, Sir,
Your obedient servant,
(signed) S. Munson
Capt. 9th Inf. Com’d’g Post
The fire was obviously a real embarrassment to the commanding officer. He was the person on whose desk the “buck stopped”. He had to shoulder his share of the blame and all the responsibility.