Berrien County, Michigan
In The News

Submitted & Transcribed By Deanna West



Yore's Opera House Fire
September 5 to 6, 1896

Sometime around midnight the large four story brick building of Yore's Opera House started to burn. Before fireman could arrive, the fire built in ferocity and the building was well engulfed in flame.

St. Joseph fire departments also responded to assist the Benton Harbor fire department and when the hook and ladder companies arrived, went to the rear of the building hoping to direct a stream through a second story window. They were in the process of climbing the ladders when a wall came down and buried fifteen fireman under debris and hot bricks. Yet another report states that they were not on the ladders, but in the alley of the building. Of the 15 trapped fireman, eleven were killed during blaze, and four were badly injured. And of the four badly injured one died 4 days later from his injuries.

Rescue could not be attempted immediately due to the instability of the remaining walls.

Finally some brave souls in the crowd ran forward to rescue the men. The last fireman pulled from the building was at 5 o'clock. The living were cared for and treated and the City Hall was set up as a temporary morgue. Many had to be identified by the papers in their pockets.

Other buildings were also damaged and/or destroyed such as a two-story brick building owned by William Frick when one of the side walls fell on it, demolishing it and all contents within.

Both St. Joseph and Benton Harbor were draped in mourning in honor of the dead.

The Fireman lost in this devastating tragedy were as follows:

Gange, Edward H., St. Joseph – married
Hill, Arthur C., St. Joseph – married
Hoffman, Lewis, Benton Harbor – single – son of Herman Hoffman
Hoffman, John, Benton Harbor – married
Kidd, Thomas, Benton Harbor – single – nephew of A. J. Kidd
Mitten, Will, Benton Harbor – married – or Mitten
Rice, Scott, Benton Harbor, single
Rolfe, Robert L., St. Joseph – single
Seaver, Frank M, St. Joseph – married
Watson, Silas Frank, St. Joseph – married
Woodley, Frank, Benton Harbor

Those injured were:

Crawford, John A (Ex-Fire Chief) Benton Harbor
Freund, William, St. Joseph

McCormick, William E, Benton Harbor – died from injuries 4 days after fire.
Paget, Frank, Benton Harbor

On September 8th, 1896 a huge memorial ceremony was performed at the old Central School yard.

A Bronze Sculpture of a Fireman carrying a small child was dedicated in St. Joseph Michigan on
May 31, 1898. The statue remains today and is a symbol of the fire departments and all who risk their lives, whether it be as a paid employee or a volunteer fire department member.

Another memorial for the Benton Harbor fireman stands in Crystal Springs Cemetery, in the “fireman's circle”.

Cause of this fire were never determined even after a formal coroners jury inquest.

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