In the course of researching and writing about local history, you discover very quickly that you are not alone. There is in fact a growing fraternity of like-minded souls who also spend their days and hours immersed in the pages of time, looking for undiscovered and forgotten truths about our past. For some of those spelunkers of local history, the searches are personal. Such is the case of Doug Tracy, of Columbus, who, since retirement a few years ago, started tracing his roots and found himself being led back to the streets of Toledo where many of his family members led notable lives of public service. Some of those stories are a part of Toledo’s historical landscape. It has become part of Doug’s purpose in life to share those stories with others and I am pleased that the Toledo Gazette can offer itself as a venue for that purpose. I know you’ll enjoy them.
The following story is the story of Toledo Fireman James Fraser, written by Doug Tracy, his great-great grand nephew.
Beneath Promenade Park
Toledo’s Promenade Park lies quietly along the riverfront where Water Street meets Madison, providing no indication whatsoever of the tragic events that took place at that very site in early January of 1894. Beneath the concrete and sod, unbeknownst to the passers-by who visit the park, lie the remains of the ‘brave and fearless’ Toledo firefighter Captain James Fraser, who valiantly died battling the King-Quale grain elevator fire, the largest fire in Toledo’s history – a fire that very nearly destroyed all of downtown Toledo that cold winter night. You will not find a marker or a plaque at the site where the massive grain elevators and other offices once stood, but Captain Fraser is still there somewhere beneath the grassy fields of the park. Despite an intensive search of the ashes and still-smoldering rubble in the days following the fire, Captain Fraser’s remains were never found. Only Captain Fraser’s brass suspender buckle, a pair of his glasses and a partially melted brass fire hose nozzle were found, grim testament to the intense heat of the inferno.
At the age of 12, ‘Captain Jim’, as Fraser was known to his firefighting brothers, came to America from Fermoy, Cork County, Ireland, with his 11 siblings, mother and father. The Fraser’s sailed from Liverpool, England, during the height of the horrific Irish Famine, arriving in New York City in 1849. Within a year, the entire Fraser family had found their way to Toledo and set up shop as shoemakers, the family trade. In 1864, young Captain Jim enlisted in the 130th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and found himself guarding Confederate prisoners at Johnson’s Island, followed by duty at Bermuda Hundred, Virginia, in support of the siege of Petersburg.
Following his discharge from the Union Army, Captain Jim worked 8 years as a sailor on Great Lakes ships before being hired as a Toledo fireman in 1872. He rose through the ranks of the Toledo Fire Department and was appointed Captain of Engine House #1 just weeks before the King-Quale Elevator fire erupted the evening of January 3, 1894.
The first fire alarm came just before 6:00 p.m., when a grain elevator worker noticed smoke and flames at the top of one of the tall wooden structures. Within minutes, a series of 3 massive grain-dust explosions created an immense blaze. Captain Jim and his crew were among the early responders to a rapidly growing fire that was already out of control by the time they arrived. Captain Jim and his partner, Alfred Blaine, entered the King Elevator with their dry fire hose, planning to work their way to the top of the building, signal firefighters below to turn on the water and pour a stream of water downward. They managed to reach the 3rd floor, but were immediately knocked to the floorboards by a fiery explosion that occurred just as they broke through a door. A stunned Alfred Blaine yelled in the dark to Captain Jim to “follow the hose” to safety, but never heard another word from Captain Jim. Blaine somehow managed to reach the stairway and stumbled down a flight, landing near a window. Dazed and badly injured, he lunged toward the light of the window, only able to summon enough strength to partially break through the glass, severely cutting himself in the process. His comrades below saw him hanging out of the window, bleeding profusely, and carried him to safety. Captain Fraser was not so fortunate. He was never seen again.
Throughout the rest of the night, a wind-driven shower of sparks and embers ignited building after building in its path in a seemingly unstoppable advance from the waterfront toward the heart of the business district. First the King elevator, then the Quale elevator, followed by the Chamber of Commerce building, Wonderland Amusement Center and scores of smaller storefronts, were all consumed by the conflagration. The firefighters were powerless to stop the onslaught and late in the night had given up all hope of saving the rest of Toledo’s thriving downtown. But in the wee hours of the morning, a miraculous 180-degree wind shift took place, allowing the exhausted firefighters to bring the fiery beast to its knees.
Early the next morning, while thousands of curious onlookers silently surveyed the many blocks of devastation, Captain Jim’s comrades painstakingly sifted through still-steaming debris at the northeast corner of Madison and Water streets, the exact location where Captain Jim was last seen entering the King building, searching for any trace of their beloved comrade. The next day, January 5, 1864, a Toledo Blade headline declared “Fraser Is Dead”, noting that, “Captain Fraser was one of the bravest firemen that ever wore a uniform. He was absolutely without fear. Intense heat and suffocating smoke had no terrors for the gallant officer.”
Three days after the fire, while the debris still smoldered, all hope of ever finding Captain Jim was officially abandoned. Fire Department Chief Chris Wall reflected on the loss of his dear friend: “Twenty years ago, when, as a boy, I began to work with the Toledo Fire Department, old Jim Fraser taught me how to do it best, and from that time until Wednesday night, he needed no one to point out the work, or tell him how to handle it. He was not ordered into the King building; he did not need to be. He saw what was wanted and his own sense of duty took him there without the word of command. Neither did he order his men there. He said, ‘Come,’ and led the way himself. ‘Don’t let go of the line,’ he has told me many a time, ‘you can always find your way out by it,’ and Jim Fraser never feared a fire before him or behind him, so long as he had a stream of water to fight with.” [Toledo Commercial Times, January 6, 1894]
A reporter in that same edition of the Toledo Commercial Times, went on to describe Captain Jim as, “A brave and noble man. Personally he was a pleasant man to meet, of kindly heart and gentle disposition. The children of the neighborhood of No. 5 (sic) Engine House will mourn over his death, for he was a dear friend to them. His gentle, kindly nature found pleasure in the company of the little ones, and hardly a day passed but what they came to him in little knots of five and six to ‘play’ and pass away a happy hour.”
On January 21, 1864, throngs of solemn Toledo citizens congregated at Memorial Hall to pay their last respects to Captain Jim. At the service, the eulogies were many and heartfelt. Fire Commissioner L. G. Richardson paid tribute to Captain Jim’s devotion to his city and his country, saying, “Born in a foreign country, Ireland, he came to America and soon offered his services and his life for the preservation of the nation of his adoption.”
After his death, Captain Jim’s legacy of service and devotion was carried on by subsequent generations. One nephew, George W. Fraser, became Chief of the Toledo Fire Department in 1914, and another nephew, Lewis B. Tracy, was a career policeman and Captain of Detectives with the Toledo Police Department during the early 1900’s.