The Fire on Railroad Street.

On the night of January 14, 1905, Railroad Street (Adams Street) was quiet. The street, lined with taverns, grocery stores, and restaurants wore a coat of snow. Railroad Street, located close to the depot, was the busiest street in town.

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Railroad Street before the fire.

In the early morning, an overheated stove started a fire at Joe Hielegenstein’s Bottling Works. By 3:30 AM, the townspeople woke up to the sound of the roaring inferno. Shop owners rushed into their stores to save their valuables before the cramped, wooden buildings lining Railroad Street ignited. The volunteer Altamont Fire Department and the local townspeople rushed to help. However, the volunteers didn’t have the manpower and equipment to extinguish the fire, which they could only attempt to tame.

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An old Altamont Fire Department pump. Possibly used during the Railroad Street fire. Firefighters used this to manually pump water into the hoses.

Mayor Laatsch, a man familiar with crises (he dealt with a deadly smallpox epidemic just years before), guided the firefighters and townspeople. He sent firefighters to the western edge of the block to halt the fire’s advances towards Altamont’s train depot, which was Altamont’s economic hub. However, Laatsch realized the efforts of the townspeople and firefighters weren’t enough. The snow halted the progression of the fire, and the wide alley south of the buildings prevented the fire from spreading. But, Laatsch knew eventually, without assistance, the flames would spread and swallow most of Altamont.

A telegram was sent to Effingham, with whom Altamont had a toxic relationship. (In 1902, an editorial in the Effingham Republic said Altamont’s filthy living conditions were the reason Altamont suffered from a Smallpox epidemic. This accusation didn’t sit well with the people of Altamont.) Effingham understood the severity of the telegram and sent a train with firefighters and supplies. Meanwhile, Laatsch ordered multiple buildings torn down, to give the Effingham Fire Department space to work.

When the train arrived, the townspeople cheered. The Effingham firefighters unloaded their fire pumps and hoses and extinguished the menacing inferno. According to the Altamont News, the train reached Altamont from Effingham in 13 minutes, which even with modern technology would be a miraculous feat. (Trains in the early 1900’s usually reached 30-45 mph.)

With the flames extinguished, the morning sun illuminated Railroad Street. According to the January 15th, 1905 Decatur Herald, Railroad Street was “a mass of ruins.” The casualties included Joe Heiligenstein’s Bottle Works, C.W. Zanhow’s Meat Market, Linebaugh’s Restaurant, Mrs. L. J. Hutchinson’s Millinery Store, and Highland Brewing Co. Most of the businesses rented the buildings from landlords. The majority of these landlords lost their main source of income because they never purchased insurance, which was expensive in those days. But some shop-owners were able to save their goods.

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Railroad Street after the fire.

Laatsch later thanked Effingham and the citizens of Altamont in an Altamont Newspaper letter for coming together and saving the town. After the fire, most businesses moved to Main Street, Washington, and Third Street. With the decline of the railroad in the 1960’s, Railroad Street lost much of its importance. Today, only a few old buildings survive on Railroad Street (Adams), including Luke’s Bar & Grill’s building, which was rebuilt after the fire. (A similar building is seen in pre-1905 photos of Railroad Street.) Other old Railroad Street buildings include Kull Furniture’s warehouse and the R & H building.

Sources:

Altamont Centennial Book. 1971.

Altamont News January 14, 1905.

Altamont Quasquicentennial Book. 1996

Decatur Herald. January 15, 1905.

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