Detroit, MI Detroit Free Press Fire, Jan 1837


I also copy from “Our Firemen” Mr. Duncan’s account of a fire that partially destroyed the Sheldon Block, now the Willis Block, on Jefferson Avenue. I copy it because I was present at the fire and can verify the truth of his statement. Mr. Duncan said:

“Just after 3 o’clock on the morning of January 4, 1837, fire was discovered in what was then called the Sheldon Block, now known as the Willis Block, on the north side of Jefferson Avenue, between Griswold and Shelby Streets. The weather was intensely cold, so that the fire department, in addition to working with inadequate apparatus, met with many annoyances and much delay in handling the hose. The fire, while it was at last brought under control, succeeded in destroying The Free Press office, Henry A.Naglee’s confectionery store and bakery, Amos Chaffee’s blacksmith shop and Dr. Rufus Brown’s general store, groceries, wines and liquors, the total loss amounting to about $23,000—a very considerable blow in those days of wild-cat panic.

“Near the close of the fire two of the younger members of the fire department passed through a scene of danger that was considered most thrilling and gave a display of cool-headed determination which was the talk of the town for the rest of the winter. The store occupied by Doctor Brown was largely filled with drugs, oils, turpentine and liquors. It was two stories high, built of brick and having a steep pitched roof, so high that the roof-tree and gable peaks were ten or fifteen feet higher than the adjoining buildings. Owing to the character of its contents Doctor Brown’s store burned rapidly, until only the bare brick walls remained. Meanwhile the late Mr. John Owen had a position astride the ridge of the roof of the adjoining building—a frame structure occupied by Cook & Burns as a dry goods store—and only about ten feet from the burning building, where he sat holding the hose nozzle, and directing a stream on the flames. At the top of a ladder, which rested against the eaves of the dry goods store, stood the late James Sutton, holding the hose which led up to Mr. Owen.


“Suddenly a cry arose from the several hundred people who, standing in the street below, were watching the picture that the walls of the Brown building were weaving to and fro.

‘The wall is falling!’ shouted a fire warden. ‘Get away from there!’ Still Messrs. Owen and Sutton held their position. ‘Get back further,’ ‘look out, John!’ ‘Slide down the ladder, Jim!’ and other warnings sounded, but to no avail.

“Evidently the young firemen did not hear the cries, for presently a large section of the wall came down with a crash, forcing its way through the roof of the dry goods store, and sending up a great cloud of smoke, cinders and fire, completely hiding Messrs. Owen and Sutton from view, and so far as the crowd could guess, carrying the entire roof and the two men down among the ruins. In a few minutes, however, when the smoke had cleared away, this anxiety was relieved by the sight of Mr. Owen still astride the ridgepole and sending water down into the flames, while Mr. Sutton, fairly covered with ashes, dust and smoke, was clinging to the hose in his old position. They had not been hurt, although the wreck made by the falling wall was within six feet of them; so close, indeed, that when the falling brick had ignited the crushed-in roof, Mr. Owen found it advisable to retreat about ten feet. There he remained, however, with Mr. Sutton, a loyal companion, until the fire was stopped. By this act the entire eastern one-third of the block in question was saved from destruction.”

Early days in Detroit : papers, 1906 by Friend Palmer, pages 353-354