"Big Loss at Paine's"

“Big Loss at Paine’s”: The Watery Legacy of the 1899 Paine Warehouse Fire

By Emily Rock, Registrar


While researching the history of the Oshkosh Fire Department, I learned of a Paine Lumber Company warehouse fire. I was interested because the archives hold several images from the event, so I dug further into newspaper reports. I found that the fire occurred during a broader public issue known as “the water controversy,” and this warehouse fire added fuel to those flames (pun intended). So I thought I would use the Paine fire as a jumping-off point into the broader issue of the battle between the City of Oshkosh and the Oshkosh Water Works.

At about 9 pm on August 24, 1899, Paine firefighters noticed smoke coming from the second and third floors of a warehouse. They sounded the alarm for the Oshkosh Fire Department, who rushed to help fight the blaze. The fire spread quickly within the warehouse itself, but due to wind conditions and preventive measures, it did not extend to any other building, though some lumber stacks near the building caught fire. It was a total loss—the structure and stock (including 40,000 finished doors) were valued at about $70-75,000 (about $2-2.3 million today). There were no injuries or deaths.

The Paine Lumber Company, being in the business it was in, took fire prevention seriously. The company banned smoking on its campus, had its own fire engines, coated most buildings in sheet iron, and used rows of poplar trees as firewalls (like hardwood, poplars are more resistant to fire). Obviously, even the best precautions are not perfect.  

  The 15,300 square foot warehouse was located on the corner of West Algoma (now Congress) and Pearl Street (now Summit Ave), across from where the Fox River Brewing Company is today. Luckily, Paine’s fire engine house was about 40 feet away, so the alarm was sounded quickly, but not fast enough.[1] It burned from the inside out, destroying the sashes, doors, and blinds inside, and its sheet-iron shell was the last part of the building to collapse. The Oshkosh Northwestern reported that this iron shell became so hot that any water sprayed on it condensed almost immediately.  At one point, 20 hoses were directed at the building. The Paine had its own water pump, which was used to supplement the pressure from the water company’s hydrants (Remember this!). Additionally, four OFD steam engines drew water directly from the Fox River. By midnight, the fire was out except for some smoldering rubble, which firefighters continued dousing with water.

The warehouse fire was the night's spectacle and attracted a crowd—the Northwestern reported “several thousand people” came to watch the building burn. The city trolleys ran later than usual so they could take people home safely. Two days later, a personal ad in the Northwestern offered a reward for a gold fraternal pin that an RH Downes lost at the fire. Hopefully, it found its way back to him!

The cause of the fire was never determined, and the general consensus was that it was accidental. Nathan Paine (who was in upper management at the time) put forward two theories, but no proof, to the Northwestern: 1. That an employee carelessly threw away a match while lighting a cigarette or pipe; or 2. That an employee lit up a pipe “on the sly” and hid the pipe in the pocket of his work coat, which he left behind in the warehouse. The second theory contains a lot of conjecture. Both theories blame an employee for smoking. It was against the rules for employees to smoke while at work, but perhaps it was a rule commonly broken. However, the fire started, the loss was covered by insurance, and the Paine Company rebuilt the warehouse within six months.

In the days after the fire, the Northwestern hinted at low water pressure due to small water mains and that this could have impacted fighting the warehouse fire. So City Council named a “council on fire and water” to investigate the water pressure issue. This was but one more item in a list of issues in “the water controversy.”

  Some background: The Oshkosh Water Works Company was a privately held business that was established in 1883. The two wells it drew from could not keep up, so in 1884 a water treatment plant was built to supplement with water from Lake Winnebago. By 1898, two steam pumps pushed more than ten million gallons of water a day through forty-one miles of water mains. The company provided water to both private residences, businesses, and government buildings. The City of Oshkosh rented its 362 fire hydrants.

The “water controversy” began in 1890 when the health department advised the City Council that Oshkosh’s water was “a menace to public health.” The waterworks' bacteria levels from the Water Works were too high “for domestic purposes,” which the Water Works blamed on the fact that the city sent sewage to the Fox River and Lake Winnebago. In response, the city did not pay the fire hydrants' rental fees until the water quality and water pressure were improved. So then the Water Works took the city to court for unpaid bills. The litigation went round and round. WaterWorks owner Warren G. Maxcy claimed that he would not stop his legal action until the city stopped dumping sewage in the lake.[2]

Oshkosh residents had their own water-related qualms: they claimed prices were too high and that the Water Works nickel and dimed them with $1 fines ($31 today) for breaking the rules such as using a garden hose without a nozzle, and if you did not pay the fines, they would turn off your water. Some residents also thought that business people should not profit from something as necessary as water, and lobbied for the city to buy the company and make it a public utility.

The Water Works was a 30-year franchise[3] and was due to end in 1913, at which time the City could buy it back, but because of all these issues described above, the Common Council decided to try to purchase the Water Works in 1895. Maxcy stalled and would not negotiate a price until the city paid the hydrant bills. They did not pay, and the battle between the City Council and the Water Works continued.

The water controversy did not get as much newspaper coverage for a few years until 1899 when the Paine fire reignited it with the claim that the water pressure was too low to fight fires properly. The water pressure had been questioned in the past, but this time the influence of a huge company like Paine pushed it to the front of the newspapers and City Council. Maxcy claimed the Paine’s pipes were too small in diameter to withstand high water pressure, so in September of 1899, the Paine conducted a test by disconnecting from the Water Company’s pipes and using their own pumps. They concluded that the 8-inch diameter water mains could withstand 160 pounds per square inch of pressure, so it was the Water Work’s fault that the pressure during the fire was low (or “simply a matter of coal at the water station” according to George Paine, president at the time.) After his own water pressure test at the Water Works that also reached 160ppi, Maxcy contended that the water main size fulfilled the requirements of the franchise agreement.  The City took the position was that if the mains were too small or the pressure too low, then the Water Company should make adjustments, but the city attorney was hesitant to continue a legal battle because it would be a drain on city coffers.

  On December 5, when Maxcy presented an offer to end the fight. In brief, the ultimatum stated that the Water Works would lower prices and add additional filtration as long as the city paid the back rent on the hydrants--$27,000 ($845,500 today). It also offered the creation of an oversight committee composed of 6 former mayors. But the city refused to compromise unless some other issues were also ironed out, such as water pressure and negotiating a lower price for the hydrant rental.

The fight continued into 1900, and even got petty: according to the Northwestern, at midnight on January 15, Maxcy and two employees dug up the sidewalk in front of former mayor Alison B Ideson’s new home[4] and plugged the water main, shutting off his water. When Ideson went out to see what was going on, Maxcy claimed there was a “leak.” This action was in response to Ideson’s opposition to Maxcy’s ultimatum, and because supposedly Ideson did not apply to have the water turned on in his new house, and was not being billed. (This incident was shortly resolved and his water was turned back on).

Negotiations went back and forth until on September 28, the Northwestern was happy to report that the “Water Fight Ended.” A compromise was reached in the form of an amendment to the Water Works franchise agreement. The Water Works would add another filtration plant, ensure correct water pressure for fighting fires, and determine water rates on a sliding scale. The city would pay its overdue hydrant rental fees with the assurance that the hydrant fees would be reduced for the next 13 years. After 10 years of stubbornness on both sides, the “water controversy” was finally over.

In 1913, Oshkosh purchased the Water Works for $515,700 ($15.9 million today), which included court litigation costs, the business, mains, and buildings[5].

[1] Paine’s fire station still stands today on Congress Avenue, near Congress Avenue Bridge, across the street from Fox River Brewing Company. It is privately owned and used as a maintenance building for Riverside Apartments.

[2] As you’ll find out in Mr. Larson’s article, the cessation of dumping sewage in the waterways would not happen for years.

[3] In the 19th Century, a franchise meant that the government bestowed a right on a person or business. For businesses, it was usually a contract stating they had the right to sell and disperse a publically beneficial utility such as gas, electricity, or water. Conflicts between municipalities and franchises were common in the US.

[4] 1304 Algoma Blvd, a William Waters-designed house which still stands across the street from the Museum.

[5]It should not surprise the reader that the purchasing process did not go smoothly. It even included trying to condemn the property, but that’s a story for another newsletter.


Oshkosh Water Works Company in 1900. It was located on Washington Avenue on Lake Winnebago, the same area the City Water Filtration Plant is today. OPM# P1930.2.53

A large crowd gathered to watch the warehouse burn. OPM# P1944.2.4  

Firefighters dowsed smoldering piles of lumber with water. OPM# P2007.49.2     

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