Important infernos: Presentation focuses on Hancock fires

HANCOCK – Hancock’s historic fires have started in a number of ways, from an attempt to thaw frozen pipes with a torch to Christmas lights on a dry tree. All the tales converged with the same result over the past 150 years: Hancock’s firefighters at the scene, working to extinguish it.

Department member Mark Dennis gave a presentation on the city’s historic fires before a packed house at the fire hall on Ethel Street Tuesday.

Hancock’s first firefighters were a “bucket brigade” formed in 1864, where members would pass buckets of water up the line. The limitations of this approach became clear soon enough.

On April 11, 1869, late-night revelers in a French saloon overturned a stove, leading to the most destructive fire in the city’s history. The water supply ran out after an hour.

Men from Houghton crossed the ice of the frozen Portage Canal to help. They had to double back when embers from the fire began landing and igniting on the Houghton side.

Within five more hours, virtually all the city was reduced to embers, save some buildings in the north and west.

Some residents used the fire as an occasion for thieving, Dennis said.

“There were more goods stolen than lost in the fire,” he said.

Afterward, the town set about upgrading the town’s “paltry fire apparatus” (as a Portage Lake Mining Gazette article reprinted in the New York Times put it after the fire).

The first department was organized in 1869 under Christian Broemer, whose portrait still hangs in the department’s meeting room. Another more formal department was established in 1883.

Dennis was accompanied by a series of historic photos. As the fires became more current, their arrival on screen were greeted by murmurs of recognition from the crowd.

Dennis recalled seeing the 1966 fire at Lincoln Hall while on the bus to school. The building, which was destroyed, is at the site of the parking lot next to Bleachers on Quincy Street.

“We went up Franklin Street and the whole place was still smoldering,” he said.

Others chimed in with their own memories. For another fire at the Coffee Cup in the 1960s, radio broadcaster Dick Storm covered it as it happened. At Tuesday’s presentation, he recalled busily combining every extension cord he could find for his microphone.

“I turned on the mic and walked down the street and was describing everything as I walked past,” he said. “Which would be fine, except I locked the door behind me.”

In 1999, there was an arson at Pooch’s Pub on Tezcuco Street. The man who set it lived nearby, upstairs from the Shottle Bop. He was later caught and convicted.

“He actually was on his balcony watching the firefighters try to put the fire out,” Dennis said.

Dennis also talked about recent fires, such as the one at 116 Quincy Street in 2009 that killed four people. The cause is still uncertain. There were two trials for arson; both ended in mistrials.

The Michigan State Police consider arson the most difficult crime to prove, Dennis said.

“We as a fire department feel it was an arson fire,” Dennis said. “The fire marshal said it was an arson fire.”

Dennis ended by taking questions from the crowd. He’s found the hottest type of fires to be wood fires. The hottest individual fire he’s gone to was at Hancock Upholstery – made more dangerous, as many recent fires have been, by the chemical combinations.

Earlier firefighters would go in without respirators, an impossibility now, Dennis said.

“Now we have so many plastics, things that are toxic that burn, everyone’s trained to wear a gas mask,” he said.