On June 9, 1946, fire broke out in the Canfield Hotel in Dubuque, Iowa, killing 19 people and destroying the original four-story building built in 1891; a six-story brick section added 35 years later survived.
Flames started in the hotel taproom after most guests had retired for the night.
In the 1940s, hotels were plagued by a lack of capital improvement owing to the Great Depression and shortages of building material during World War Two.
The 200-room Canfield Hotel, for example, was serviced by an open stairwell and lacked sprinklers.
A fiberboard dropped-ceiling, added to modernize the appearance of the hotel, contributed to the rapid spread of the flames, according to Encyclopedia Dubuque.
1946 was an especially deadly year for U.S. hotel fires.
Two weeks before the Canfield blaze, on June 5, 1946, a fire at the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago killed 61 people. Then on Dec. 7, 1946, a fire at the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta killed 119 people.
The Dubuque firemen are not bragging about the Canfield fire. It was not a perfect job on our part. None of them are, and like the Monday morning quarterback, the next day we could have done better. Any time a community has a fire that takes the lives of 19 persons, and a property loss of $200,000 there isn't much to feel proud of, but comparing the Canfield to the LaSalle or the Wynecoff, ours was a small job.
Bob asked me to describe how it looked as we pulled in and what we did about it. I won't go into detail as to the construction of the building other than to say it was built in 2 sections, a brick wood joisted old part, four stories high, with lobby and tap room on the first floor, and guests rooms above, and so-called fire proof annex, six stories in height. Fire doors protected the annex floors where the corridors joined.
Due to the pending lawsuits, I will not attempt to give the cause of the fire, but it must have been a "flash" as a woman patron of the tap room died five feet from the stool on which she had been sitting. We received a simultaneous alarm at 12:39 a. m. from a street box on the corner opposite the hotel, and also telephone alarm from the hotel night clerk. Seventeen men responded to the first alarm, with 3 pumpers and an aerial truck. We smelled smoke when about 2 blocks from the hotel. As we turned the corner it was a sight we won't forget for a while. Flames were belching from the entire first floor of the old section, and had enveloped the only outside fire escape on the old section. The base of this escape terminated at the tap room entrance.
It was then that we experienced the only trouble we had with our civilian help. I ordered the net brought to the front of the building. They shouted, "Let's get these down first." I said, "There's a lot more on the other side." They came along and we caught six more there. One woman kicked off her slippers before she jumped and then turned a double somersault on the way down.
The only stream kept in operation was used to wet down the fire escape which people were trying to use and couldn't , due to the flames. One man was dying on the second floor landing off the escape, and another was trapped on the third floor. This man jumped into the net. As fast as they jumped we would dump them onto the ground and raise it for another. Sometimes we had to move the net to catch the falling body as much as five feet.
The flames were now racing through the building and as we took the net to the south side the picture was worse. A grandmother with her grandchild stood inside the third floor window, holding the child on the window sill. I begged her to push the child out and then jump. She slumped to the floor pulling the child into the room. Both died. A man and his wife were sitting on a window sill on the fourth floor with a suitcase between them. He pushed his wife off then threw the suitcase into the net, jumped onto it and broke his back. Seven net holders were injured by luggage being thrown down by victims. One man received a lacerated face by being kicked as a person rebounded after striking the net.
The most firemen helping to hold the net at any one time was five, and on account of telephone wires, it was hard to judge where to stand. We were also afraid more than one would try to come down at the same time. A woman struck her neck on the rim of the net and died. It put a bow in the iron frame. It was getting hard to see the victims by now in the upper windows, due to the smoke from below, and it was hard for them to see us.
The hardest net catches were those from the fifth and sixth floors. The impact was terrific it they failed to strike near the center. One man we caught from the sixth floor told us that the net looked as big as a silver dollar, but felt like a feather bed. I believe this was a slight exaggeration , as he received a broken leg and fractured pelvis. Most of those who jumped from above the fourth floor suffered some injuries but all seemed glad to be down regardless of bumps. They landed in al positions. Some stiff legged, on backs of necks, on hands and knees, and about every way possible.
The net rescues took about ten minutes and only one net was employed. That's all we had with us. Twenty-seven were caught, 26 lived and the woman who struck the rim died. Twenty-one persons were rescued by ladders of various lengths. This took about 40 minutes although anyone not rescued from the old section in 15 minutes died, because the roof fell in about that soon after we arrived. One man rescued by ladder died from burns. It was 15 minutes before we made any effort to extinguishment. We had to use all manpower for rescue work. Chief Kirch and Senior captain Thomas Hickson directed extinguishment operations after they arrived, using deck pipes and other major stream equipment. Nine pieces of apparatus and 57 firemen worked at the fire.
As department drillmaster, I can appreciate the grumbling of the men because they have to keep doing evolutions over and over, but repetition pays dividends because the men will do that evolution automatically when they have to on the fire scene.
As I see "Bob" has the stop watch on me. I will just say one more word: "Let's not forget," it can happen in your town.
Dubuque, Iowa (United Press) - STANLEY E. SCHIBSKY, Minneapolis, wrote the management of the Canfield hotel two weeks ago for a reservation and asked for a second-floor room because he feared being trapped in a fire. He wrote that he had been in hotel fires before, and that he believed a room on the second floor was safer. Accordingly, he was given a second-floor room, and was occupying it when the Canfield hotel fire broke out. He died in the flames.
[Waterloo Daily Courier, Waterloo, Iowa; June 10, 1946]
Dubuque, Iowa (United Press) - Firemen bolstered the charred walls of the Canfield hotel Monday, to resume their search for additional victims of the Sunday morning fire which killed 16 persons.
The search was delayed when four floors in the center of the hotel collapsed. The flames, starting in a closet near the cocktail lounge on the ground floor, shot upward to the floors above.
Panic-stricken guests trapped by the smoke and flames leaned out the windows and screamed as firemen set up ladders and rigged nets. Of those who leaped, however, two were killed when they missed the nets. Many escaped by ripping and knotting bedsheets into makeshift ladders.
When the first of nine fire engines that fought the blaze arrived at the hotel, firemen found guests waving pillow cases and screaming to attract their attention.