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BLAZE FROM THE PAST: J. B. Eaton Grist Mill Fire April 22, 1903
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By Asst. Chief Joseph Fusaro
April 1, 2023

On Wednesday April 22, 1903 the ironclad structure known as the J.B. Eaton Grist mill on Commerce St was found ablaze a little after 10:00 pm. The grist mill was situated along the Pawcatuck River with the rear abutting the river. The fire was discovered by a number of different people out and about that evening. The fire bell in the tower of the firehouse on Union St. was sounded by two young men who were identified by their last names only, Haggerty and Bliven. They broke the glass on the box in front of the station house to enter with the key and ring the bell. Smoke was pushing through openings on the front of the building and fire showing from the rear. The fire threatened several coal barges that had been brought up river earlier in the day. Captain James A Tefft cut loose the coal hoister barge and another to prevent them from catching fire. They were both floated down river away from the fire and moored to other barges. A major problem for firefighters would be the stables of William A. Burk is located just north of the grist mill. As the doors to the stable where unblocked, bystanders were able to release a dozen horses and lead them away from the fire to a safe spot on Main St. They also removed carriages, wagons, sleighs and hay bales. The grist mill was rapidly filling with smoke. When Mr. Eaton arrived and police prevented him from entering his office until a window was broken and smoke released. Mr. Eaton was able to save his books and roll his safe out into the street.

Members of the Rhode Island Ones and Cyclones arrived simultaneously in answer to the alarm, hitched up their horses and responded immediately with their respective Gleason and Bailey hose wagons.Hose lines were attached to the hydrant at the Solway Mill and the fire pump engaged as the hose wagons laid hose down Main St to the fire. These two hose lines were immediately put into action against the flames. Chief Samuel Cottrell upon arrival ordered two additional lines stretched as the fire seemed to be gaining headway inside the tower of the grist mill. One was attached to the hydrant at the mill and another to a hydrant on Main St. south of Commerce St. The sounding of the Westerly Fire Bell also brought a response from the P.S. Barber Hose Co. (Pawcatuck Fire Department). Members of this company laid a hose line from a hydrant on West Broad St along the wharves to attack the fire from the stern of the George Chambers on the river side. Initially their water stream could not reach the fire, but a coal hoister barge was brought alongside of the first vessel and the line advanced further. This new position allowed them to effectively apply their steam on the rear of the grist mill. A second line was then stretched and these lines were used to attack the fire and protect the rear of Burk’s stable. Heat from the fire was intense but the Pawcatuck firemen held their ground.

Once the four lines in front were operating,Westerly firemen moved one through the barn to a skylight and out onto the roof of the barn to provide a direct method of attack on the growing fire. At 11:00 pm Chief Cottrell sent Assistant Chief Robertson to respond with the two steamers. Cyclone fireman John Reardon and RI Ones Engineer Elwood Clark were ordered to bring the steamer Cyclone to the Solway Mills hydrant. As they began the process of bringing up steam in the boiler of the steam powered pumper, the Cyclone Engineer Joseph Schofield arrived and took over. In a matter of minutes, steam pressure was 90 lbs and the pump was engaged providing 130 lbs of pressure on a hose line. With adequate pressure, water was shot fifty-seven feet into the top of the grist mill tower. Just as this hose line was pressurized the fire broke through the tin roof showering the nearby buildings with sparks. At 11:45 pm the steamer of the RI Ones was brought to the Pawcatuck Bridge where Engineer Clark and RI Ones Fireman Arthur Burdick began to raise steam. Eight minutes after midnight the engine was pumping a line of hose from the bridge. By this time there were ten lines of hose working on the fire. At 1:30 am with the fire dying down, the P.S. Barbers were released and returned to their fire houses. By 2:30 am both of the steamers were shut down and returned to the Westerly Fire Station. Two lines with shut offs at the nozzles were left connected to hydrants. Assistant Chief Robertson was detailed with seven men to continue to water down the remains of the building and its contents of grain. All operations were concluded by 8:00 am on Thursday April 23rd.

Although the grist mill was completely destroyed, the stables of William Burk survived with absolutely no damage. The buildings were separated by only three feet. The grist mill building was constructed in 1897. J.B. Eaton refused to discuss the value of the building, contents or how much insurance was carried. He also forbade the insurance agent from discussing this. Estimated value was $31000. Superintendent George McKenzie estimated about 260,000 gallons of water was used from Westerly water mains to fight the fire. Supply was not seen as an issue. As to the cause of the fire, several loads of oats and corn were delivered that Wednesday afternoon. It was believed that spontaneous combustion in one of these products caused the fire. On an interesting note, an advertisement for a Fire Sale appeared in the April 25, 1903 edition of the Westerly Sun stating a fire sale of grain From the Eaton Grist Mill would occur at Welch’s Stables on Saturday at 10:00am.

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