December 17, 1899: Firefighters killed and injured battling blaze at the Duluth Shoe Company factory

On this day in Duluth in 1899, fire severely damaged the Duluth Shoe Company, located at the foot of Sixth Avenue West along the bay front. A wall that fell during the blaze killed fireman William McVittie, and both Captain John Welsh and Lieutenant John Twaddle suffered injuries. Chief John Black explained to the Duluth News Tribune what happened to McVittie and his colleagues: “I do not blame anybody for the accident to the men. It was a most unfortunate affair and nobody regrets it more than I do. The building was poorly constructed or the wall would never have come down as it did. The men of No. 2, to which the dead man and the injured ones belong, laid their hose around the building to get to the back. They saw it was no use there so they started to bring the hose around to the front to play on the fire there. While in the act of doing this the wall fell. Captain Walsh was in close to the wall and escaped severe injury. Lieutenant Twaddle was out a little further and was struck by part of the wall and was badly injured. McVitte was the farthest out and therefore got the full benefit of the fall, and he was probably instantly killed. Such an accident could not be foreseen and nobody can be blamed for it.” According to Duluth Fire Department historian Jerry Keepers, “McVittie, from Southampton, Ontario, had only been on the department since October 1. He didn’t even have a uniform, and he had told an assistant chief that he was seriously considering resigning. A friend of McVittie’s family reportedly told Chief Black that McVittie’s wife wanted him to resign because ‘she had a presentiment that something would happen to him.’ He left a widow and three children.” Damages were estimated at $130,0000—more than $3.5 million today. There is much more to the story of the Duluth Shoe Company, and you can read about it and other Duluth jobbing houses here and other miscellaneous manufacturers of the Zenith City here.

The Duluth Dry Good and Duluth Shoe Co. Building photographed some time in the early 1890s. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

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