November 10, 1884: Fire destroys two lumber companies as workers eat “huge ham sandwiches”

On this day in Duluth in 1884, fire broke out in the lumber yards of Oneota. The Duluth Weekly Herald declared that, “By far the most destructive fire that ever visited Duluth…swept the entire plants, mills, lumber yards, and buildings of the Oneota Lumber Company and Osterhout & Hughart Lumber Company from existence…when fully $250,000 worth of property was consumed.” The loss today would have cost $6.3 million. The yards contained a total of 14 million board feet of lumber, all lost. The fire broke out shortly before 2 a.m., centered in the Oneota yard. Few men were working at the time, and their efforts to stop the fire with buckets of water proved futile. The Duluth Weekly Tribune had a reporter on scene by 2:30 a.m., and he wrote that several men were nearby in the Oneota Lumber Company’s boarding house, but they were “making and eating huge ham sandwiches and few showed any disposition to fight the flames.” The report went on to suggest mill employees set the fire themselves. “The fact is well known that the Oneota Lumber Company has not for some time past had the good will of their employees because of a failure to pay them as promptly as mutual good feeling demanded” and that “some of the men have threatened the destruction of the entire property if they were not soon paid.” Some of the mill workers, mistakenly thinking the mill had shut down and would soon be sold off, had spent the previous afternoon in Duluth, and when they returned to the boarding house that night, “feeling pretty well,” they broke into the cook’s quarters, stole his chickens, and fried them up. Two hours later the fire began. At 7 a.m. it was noted that several of the boarding house tenants, present when the fire was discovered, had since disappeared. No one was arrested due to lack of evidence. Shortly after the fire local insurance companies cancelled policies and stopped covering lumber mills.

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