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On April 1, 1913, a fire destroyed eight businesses on Janesville's Milwaukee Street bridge.
The historical photo was taken from the west side of the bridge looking toward the Hayes Block, which still stands today.
The fire started somewhere underneath the bridge and the Archie Reid store, according to a story in the April 2, 1913, Janesville Daily Gazette.
Patrolman Harry Smith alerted the fire department. Although firefighters from the west-side station responded within a few minutes, the fire had already taken hold.
“By this time, great volumes of dense black smoke were pouring from under the bridge and the windows in front of the Archie Reid store were cracking and forced out by the heat with the sound and rapidity of rifle shots, letting out tongues of flame from the burning materials,” the story reported.
The bridge became impassable for fire apparatus “as the horses could not be forced through the dense smoke that hung over it.”
All equipment reached the scene via the Court Street bridge.
The fire chief ordered that electricity be cut, and the whole downtown was plunged into darkness.
“In order to give firemen light to work by, three large automobiles were drawn up to the edge of the bridge, and their powerful head lamps were turned on the scene,” the story said.
Firefighters requested what is now called “mutual aid” from Madison and Rockford, Illinois.
Getting help from Beloit wasn’t feasible because that city's hoses didn’t fit Janesville fire hydrants.
A fire apparatus was sent from Madison on a rail car.
Rockford sent 10 firefighters, firefighting equipment and 1,000 feet of hose on an interurban—an early transportation system between cities—and “rushed, making the trip in an hour and 12 minutes.”
But it was too late.
“Almost from the first, the stores (on the bridge) were doomed and the efforts were directed to saving adjacent buildings," the story read. "On every roof men were stationed to put out the flying sparks that showered up as wall after wall of the burned buildings fell into the river.”
Businessmen pitched in to haul hoses and were knocked down when the water was turned on.
It was a spectacular sight, and people gathered up and down Milwaukee Street and packed the Court Street bridge to watch.
“Large quantities of burning, blazing material floated down the river, threatening to communicate the fire to the frame buildings on the Court Street bridge,” the story reported.
From time to time, “a vivid greenish-blue flame was seen to burst out,” evidently coming from a broken gas main, and the flames “mounted to great heights.”
The sky was so well-illuminated that the “the outline of geese and pigeons” a long way off could be seen.
The cause of the fire was never determined, but it was a significant event in the city's life.
Postcards featuring the destroyed bridge were printed.
It's difficult to know what someone might write on the back—unless it was an apology: "Here's a photo of Janesville's burned bridge. I'm sorry I burned bridges with you."
View more Then & Now entries at https://www.gazettextra.com/blogs/staff/then_and_now/