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Courthouse fire, costing lives of three firemen, topped local events in 1912; Titanic disaster was about month later

Market moved back to courthouse 100 years ago                                           

Courthouse fire, costing lives of three firemen, topped local events in 1912; Titanic disaster was about month later                                             

Compiled by Jim Blount

Although overshadowed by national and international events, the top story in Hamilton in 1912 ranks as one of the worst tragedies in the city’s history. Three firefighters died March 14, 1912, while battling a fire in the Butler County Courthouse.

The dead were John Hunker, 39, in his first year with the Hamilton department; William Love, 46, a veteran of more than eight years; and George Fritz, 36, a fireman nearly 12 years. Deputy Chief John F. Heath and Fireman Thomas Ogg were injured fighting the fire while Chief William Dowty collapsed later.

Most of the building escaped serious damage because the fire was discovered in the middle of a workday when many people were present to spread the alarm and help remove valuable records. The county loss, initially believed to be $100,000, was later lowered to $80,000. (Allowing for inflation, that $80,000 would be about $1.8 million now.)

"The fire started near the cupola," a newspaper reported, "due to crossed electric wires, which were used in running and lighting the large clock that rested in the tower." Lights in the dome went out at about 11:30 a.m., an outage at first blamed on a squirrel.

"Turmoil was at its height in the building in an instant," the reporter noted. "The alarmed officials dashed into the lobby, only to be frightened by brick and other debris beginning to drop through the glass dome above the second floor lobby." The report said "greater excitement did not prevail in the doomed building" because "the courts were not working and the offices were practically deserted."

"A mad dash then ensued to save the valuable records" with employees and others throwing record books from windows. Meanwhile, spectators circled the building as Hamilton firefighters moved into the courthouse with hoses.

"Little or no alarm was given that the tower was about to fall," said the Journal, noting that the "two-by-four timbers that supported the large tower burned away and the tons of iron and steel above, including the big clock, dashed to the street below," striking some people near the building.

The clock had stopped at 11:33 and collapsed at 11:43. Fireman Hunker, who was killed instantly, was found under the mass, which severed gas lines, feeding the blaze until the supply could be cutoff. Fireman Love and Fritz, both with severe burns, died later in Mercy Hospital.

The Hamilton department was in its first year of converting from horse-drawn equipment to motorized apparatus. Two motorized hose trucks went into service the previous year (July 1911). All horses were retired by 1918.

A month after the courthouse fire, the world was shocked by a disaster in the Atlantic Ocean involving what was then the largest passenger steamship in the world.

There were 2,223 people aboard the vessel shortly before midnight April 14 when it struck an iceberg. It sank at about 2:20 a.m. April 15.

RMS Titanic had sailed from Southampton, England, April 10, bound for New York City. Among the 1,517 deaths were some of the world’s wealthy and well known, which enhanced media interest and spurred numerous investigations. Another ship delivered 706 survivors to New York April 18. The disaster is familiar in 2012 because of the popularity of a 1997 movie, Titanic, a romanticized and fictional account of the deadliest peacetime maritime tragedy.


First flight in Hamilton by Curtiss birdmen

The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, made their first flights Dec. 17, 1903, but it wasn’t until July 12, 1912, that aviation came to Hamilton. Local residents and visitors attending the air show were treated to two days of "fancy flying and daredevil feats in the air" at the Butler County Fairgrounds.        

At 11:25 a.m. Friday, July 12, "there were only a few people on the fairgrounds," a newspaper said, when Charles F. Walsh "soared for 10 minutes midst the clouds," circling at about 400 to 800 feet in the vicinity of the fairgrounds. Walsh teamed with Lincoln Beachey on the Curtiss Exhibition Co. in flying Curtiss biplanes. They were promoted as "the world's greatest birdmen." Later Friday, Beachey reached 8,200 feet on a 25-minute, 30-mile flight. Walsh achieved about 7,500 feet the next day.

Earlier in the year, the fairgrounds grandstand had been destroyed by fire. The March 31 blaze was believed to have been arson.

A headline grabber a week later was an event in Arizona. July 19 a smoke trail preceded the explosion of a meteorite over Holbrock. According to one report, more than 16,000 pieces of debris, varying in size, fell on the town.


First baseball strike followed Cobb suspension

Of lesser consequence, but an incident of some national interest was professional baseball’s first strike, precipitated by the actions of one of the game’s most famous players, Ty Cobb. It began May 15 with the Detroit Tigers playing the New York Highlanders (later renamed the Yankees) in New York.

Cobb -- whose lifetime batting average was .367 -- tired of alleged profane heckling from a fan. After several innings of abuse, Cobb jumped the outfield fence and assaulted the disabled fan. Ban Johnson, the American League president, fined Cobb $100 and suspended him indefinitely.

The Tigers’ next game was May 18 in Philadelphia. The team refused to play until Cobb was reinstated. Johnson said the balking players would be suspended and the team fined $5,000 for each game missed.

To avoid the penalty, Detroit management organized a team of amateurs and college players to face Connie Mack’s A’s. A college pitcher was paid $25 and other substitutes received $10. The replacements lost, 24-2, with about 15,000 people watching. The dispute ended the next day when the suspension was reduced to 10 days and a $50 fine.

When the 1912 season started, the Boston Red Sox had a new home. The 100th anniversary of Fenway Park will be observed during the 2012 season. Fenway is the oldest major league stadium still in use.

A Red Sox web site notes that "after two rain delays, Fenway Park finally hosted its first professional baseball game April 20, 1912." Boston beat the New York Highlanders (Yankees), 7-6, in 11 innings before 27,000 fans. "The event would have made front page news had it not been for the sinking of the Titanic only a few days before," observes the team web site.

The baseball season ended Oct. 16 with the Red Sox beating the New York Giants in the World Series.

The series included a tie when an 11-inning game was called because of darkness. It was nearly 23 years before fields were lighted. (In the first night game, the Cincinnati Reds beat the Philadelphia Phillies, 2-1, May 24, 1935, at Crosley Field.)

The second Indianapolis 500 race was won by Joe Dawson who averaged 78 miles per hour. Dawson wasn’t alone. The 1912 rules required that a mechanic also be in the vehicle.  

There were no recognized national rankings for college football teams in 1912. Staking claims to No. 1 or superiority in their regions were Harvard (9-0 record); Wisconsin (7-0); Penn State (8-0); and Vanderbilt and Texas A&M, both 8-1. A leading player was running back Jim Thorpe of the Carlisle Indians (12-1-1).

Among teams in the Ohio Athletic Conference in 1912 were Ohio State (6-3 record), Miami (3-3-2) and Cincinnati (3-4-1).

Some major rules changes that year included: (1) increasing touchdowns to six points from five; (2) reducing the length of the field from 110 to 100 yards; (3) adding 10-yard end zones; (4) allowing four downs to gain 10 yards instead of three downs; and (5) kickoffs were from the 40-yard line instead of midfield.

College basketball was still in its infancy in 1912 and received scant attention.


Two former presidents losers in 1912 election

In a strange presidential election Nov. 5, Democrat Woodrow Wilson won his first term in the White House by defeating two former presidents. William Howard Taft (1909-1913) was the incumbent and Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) had preceded Taft. Wilson, who Ohio, won 435 electoral votes to 88 for Roosevelt and eight for Taft.

In Butler County, Wilson claimed 46.6 percent of the vote, Socialist Eugene V. Debs was second with 21 percent, followed by Taft with 20.6 percent and Roosevelt with 10.7 percent.

The odd situation developed in June when the Republican National Convention nominated Taft. In August, dissident Republicans formed the Progressive Party -- also, known as the Bull Mooser Party -- and nominated Roosevelt.

President Taft had campaigned in Hamilton May 20, speaking in front of the Butler County Courthouse on High Street.

Oct. 14, Roosevelt survived an assassination attempt while campaigning in Milwaukee.  The bullet in his chest had lost impact when it passed through his steel eyeglass case and a 50-page singled folded copy of his speech in his jacket before penetrating his skin.  Roosevelt completed the speech before going to a hospital.

Taft continued in office until March 3, 1813, but he served without a vice president in his final months. Eight days before the 1912 election, Oct. 30, Vice President James S. Sherman died, leaving the office vacant for more than four months.

Taft had the distinction of being the first president of 48 states. New Mexico was admitted Jan. 6 and Arizona Feb. 12, 1912.


Above: Governor James M. Cox

Fourth Butler County native elected Ohio governor

Locally, a political highlight was the election of the fourth Ohio governor from Butler County.

The 1912 winner was Democrat James M. Cox, who had been born March 31, 1870, in Jacksonburg in Wayne Township. He was a resident of Dayton and a prominent newspaper publisher when elected in 1912. He had won two terms in the U. S. House of Representatives, 1908 and 1910.

Cox -- who was the Democrat’s unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1920 -- had been preceded as governor by Butler County natives William Bebb, 1846-1849; James E. Campbell, 1890-1892; and Andrew L. Harris, 1906-1909.

In the May 1912 primary, Hamilton voters approved a bond issue to build a new high school. The $250,000, 45-room school for grades nine through 12 opened in September 1915 at the northeast corner of N. Sixth and Dayton streets. By 1958-59, its last year, HHS housed 1,899 students. In September 1959, it was replaced by new high schools, Garfield and Taft, and the 44-year-old building became Harding Junior High School.


In 1912 Hamilton voters also decided the location of the downtown farmers market. The market had moved Feb. 8, 1910, from High Street to Market Street with stalls and wagons stretching from Monument Avenue to North Third Street. The change was unpopular with both farmers and patrons. June 4, 1912, after a petition drive, the market was moved back to courthouse square. It became the permanent location Nov. 5, 1912, when 56.7 percent of Hamilton voters favored the courthouse site.

Hamilton dominated Butler County 100 years ago. In the 1910 census, the city had 35,279 inhabitants, or 50.2 percent of the county’s 70,271 residents. (The 2010 count listed 368,130 in the county and 62,130 in the city, or 16.9 percent of the total.)

A city document published in 1911 claimed Hamilton had 140 manufacturing plants producing more than different 250 products. Railroads were handling 35,000 freight cars a month in the city.  

The report said among the leading local industries were the 27-acre Champion mill, "the largest in the world devoted to the manufacture of coated paper," and Mosler and Herring-Hall-Marvin, producing "more than 80 percent of all the safes that are used throughout the world."

Federal income tax amendment approached approval

There was no federal income tax in 1912, but the 16th amendment -- allowing Congress to levy an income tax -- was in the ratification process. Earlier attempts to impose the tax had been ruled unconstitutional.

This time the proposal began in 1909 with a congressional resolution. Aug. 10, 1909, Alabama was the first state to ratify the amendment. Jan. 19, 1911, Ohio provided the 10th approval. Three states (Arizona, Minnesota and Louisiana) raised the total to 34 in 1912. The tax amendment gained the 36th ratification Feb. 3, 1913, with Delaware’s approval.

In 1914, the first year the tax was collected, only about 200 people in Hamilton earned enough money to pay the tax. The rate was one percent on personal incomes of $3,000 or more, or joint incomes of $4,000 or more. It went up to 6 percent for those earning more than $500,000.


1912 political cartoon, presidential candidates, top, left to right,
Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and William Howard Taft.
Below, left to right, Taft (the incumbent), Wilson and Roosevelt.