May 28, 1909: Death of Duluth Fire Department Chief John Black

On this day in Duluth in 1909, Duluth Fire Department Chief John Black died of complications following surgery for appendicitis. Following surgery by Dr. A. J. Braden of St. Luke’s Hospital, Black was slow to recover “owing to the advance stage of the disease.” Black had been chief of the Duluth Fire Department since 1894, having previously served as Milwaukee’s assistant chief and as the chief of the St. Paul Fire Department from 1883 to 1889. Black had a no-nonsense approach to department personnel. According to DFD historian Jarry Keppers, between 1895 and 1900 Black fired 19 men “mostly due to intoxication, improper language, and failure to obey orders.” During the same period 44 others resigned, and suspensions were common: “Any man on watch who was caught sleeping was put on suspension for seven days without pay. Drivers caught driving over a fire hose and firemen leaving their quarters without permission received ten days suspension without pay.” Black made the DFD more efficient and was beloved in the city, particularly among his fellow Masons. Following his death, his body lay in state at the Masonic Temple at Lake Avenue and Second Street, where the funeral was held. The hearse that carried Black’s body to Forest Hill cemetery was followed by his horse, which pulled the wagon Black drove to fires; it was draped in mourning and his hat and trumpet—predecessor to today’s bullhorns—rested on its seat. Black was replaced as chief by Joseph Randall.

Duluth Fire Department Chief John Black. (Image: Duluth Public Library)