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Woods Opera House Fire 1902
Southeast corner of Washington & Sixth, Bay City, MI.
  • Transcribes August 2004.
  • Bay City Tribune - August 29, 1902


    Bay City Theater Went Up in Flame and Smoke This Morning
    Spectator Crushed to Death by Falling Wall Following Explosion
    Fire Started on Stage Soon After Playing Company Had Left.
    Fenner's Store and Bay City Club Rooms Also Destroyed.
    Total Loss Will Reach Over $100,000; Insurance Half.


    Eugene Zaremba, 22 years old, crushed under falling wall.



    Wood's Opera House Co. ....$100,000
    J.H. Fenner ...............8,000
    Bay City Club .............5,000
    Total .....................$113,000


    Wood's Opera House Co. ....$40,000
    J.H. Fenner ...............2,000
    Bay City Club .............4,000
    Total .....................$46,000


    Bay City's hansome opera house is this morning a mass of smouldering ruins. Fire swept through the big building shortly after midnight and completely gutted the structure. Large sections of the bare walls are standing, marking the site. There was no salvage on scenery or fixtures in the opera house and very little in Fenner's stores and the Bay City Club. The fire was so fierce and spread so quickly rapidly that there was not much change to get near the building. The dangerous condition of the walls was made apparent in the early stages of the fire and the men were kept at a safe distance, occasionally risking their lives by creeping up close to the building to send a stream into some opening from which fire sprouted.

    One life was lost in the fire, Eugene Zaremba being crushed to death by a falling wall.

    The fire was discovered by pedestrians about 10 minutes after 12 o'clock. It was then confined to the stage and feeding fiercely on the inflammable scenery. There was some delay in turning in the alarm, and it was 12:15 before the department was notified by a call from box 39. Hose company No. 1 was first on the scene, with the chemical, and No. 2 and 3 followed in swift succession. Chief Harding came as fast as horse-flesh could carry him and at 12:23 sent in a general alarm, bringing out every piece of apparatus. Lines of hose were speedily laid and the firemen went to work with a will. They at first fought the blaze through the stage door and from points of vantage on the ground floor, but were driven back when the falling roof over the stage caused the bulging of the wall on the north side of the building.

    The building was surrounded by firemen, all working at a disadvantage of keeping out of danger. Long streams of water shot into the windows and every opening, but they seemed to have no effect on the flames. At first the fire on the stage appeared to die down, and was succeeded by clouds of smoke from the windows of the balcony and gallery. Streams were shifted and the firemen turned more attention to the front of the house. Despite their efforts, however, the flames gained the upper hand, and soon sheets of flame the full size of the windows began to pour from the openings at the west of the theater proper. Hose was taken into the lobby, and water poured through from that side. Hose company No. 1 came over from West Bay City and assisted in the fight against the great odds.

    When Chief Harding reached the scene he was convinced that the building was doomed. There was every facility to aid the fire in it's spread and then there was the condition confronting the department of not being able to get close enough to do effective work. Assistant Dunbar, who has been suffering from a broken arm reached the scene early and lent his aid to the chief, who was also reinforced by Second Assistant Kempter.

    Up to 1 o'clock there was hope of saving the front portion of the building, occupied on the ground floor by J.H. Fenner's drug and bicycle stores and upstairs by the Bay City Club. But heavy smoke began to pour from the windows and around the cornice and men were sent up the fire escapes with hose in an effort to head off the flames. The smoke grew denser and drove the brave fighters to the windows for air more than once.

    At 1:30 there was a tremendous roar within the building. Thick black smoke belched from the windows of the gymnasium of the Bay City Club and with a roar that was heard for blocks a volume of flame swept from every opening half way across the street. A few persons were directly in the path of the shower of glass that fell to the farthest curb, but they escaped by running. The explosion blew out a section of the wall at side and front of the southwest corner and dropped a piece of the roof into the cauldron that formed below.

    Pipemen Hennessy and Rowell, of hose company No. 6, were on the fire escape at the center window on the third floor. The torrent of flame and smoke poured over them and they dropped their line of hose and slid down to the balcony in from of the building. Chief Harding ordered men and hose down and directed the streams towards the upper floors from the street.

    The explosion gave the fire fresh impetus. It shot up high above the building and sent out showers of sparks that were carried toward the northwest by the light breeze. The tower of the Sixth street corner was soon ablazed, and the flames carckled and roared as they ran up the flag pole. Soon the tower was a mass of fire and about 1:45 fell inward with a crash that sent more sparks over surrounding property. This was followed at brief intervals by the falling of walls or portions of roof and floors, and by 2:30 the fire was under control, though burning fiecely.


    The fatality of the fire occurred when the accumulation of gas in the southwest corner of the building on the second floor exploded at 1:20 and blew out both upper stories for a space of 10 or 15 feet on each side of the wall. Eugene Zaremba, of 1501 Kosciusko avenue, the victim, was either standing or walking at exactly the corner of the building and he was overwhelmed and buried beneath the thousands of bricks, only a small portion of his back showing. His body lay there for an hour before Russel Callender a firemen, discovered it. He at once notified Chief Harding and eager hands were soon tearing the debris from the unfortunate young man's remains although in constant danger from the heavily inclined and broken remainder of the wall.

    The remains were removed to Hyatt's undertaking rooms and Coroner Ewell summonded.

    Zaremba was about 22 years old and was unmarried. His identification was first established from his pockets by Chief Harding The dead man was a graduate of the high school and was until recently a clerk in Walther's Great Cheap Store. For some time, however, he had not been working. He was well known throughout the city and many of his immediate friends were about in the crowd which viewed the fire. His older brother was also a spectator but did not learn of Eugene's death for some time. He then carried the news to the parents. He has three sisters living in Chicago.


    The fire followed the close of the performance of "The Tide of Life," which held the audience in the building until nearly 11 o'clock. The company had removed all its scenery and apparently everything was in safety when they theater was close for the night.

    Manager Daunt, who was early on the scene, was at a loss to account for the fire.

    "I was the last one in the theater," he said, as he viewed the work of destruction. "After the audience had been dismissed I turned out the lights and shut up the front of the house and then went back on the stage. I remained there until all the scenery had been taken out and carefully inspected every portion of the stage to see that everything was all right. Then I locked up and went home. I had not gotten into bed before a telephone message announced that the opera house was on fire."

    President Tyler, of the Wood's Opera House Co., was called by telephone and rushed to the scene. He said the opera house, with scenery and fixtures complete, was valued at in the neighborhood of $100,000, and the loss would be total. There was an insurance of approximately $40,000 on the building.

    As to rebuilding, Mr. Tyler said that would have to be determined at a meeting of the directors of the company.


    The building was constructed in 1886. It followed the destruction by fire of the Westover opera house building, where the Phoenix block now stands, in January 1885. Soon after this fire a number of Bay City gentlemen became interested in a project to give Bay City a modern theater. They consulted with Architect Woods, of Chicago, and as the result the building now in ruins was planned. Work was started early in the spring of 1885 and in September the opera house was formally opened by late Emma Abbott. Since that time the theater has been the only place of amusement of that kind in Bay City, and some of the most eminent members of the theatrical profession have appeared there. The building had length of nearly 200 feet and a width of 60 and was three stories high. Several years after its construction the opera house company built the addition known as the library building, on the east. The theater was supposed to be nearly fireproof as such structures usual are, and heavy fire walls separated it from the front portion and rear addition. In the wall in front there were several openings for entrances to the gallery and into the Bay City club rooms and through these the fire went to the front.


    The opera house building was valued at approximately $100,000, this including furnishing and fixtures of every kind. The loss is total, as it is a question whether the any portion of the walls could be used for another structure. The insurance is $40,000.

    J.H. Fenner's loss on drug store and bicycle store is complete, very little being saved. His loss was estimated last night at $8,000, with insurance of $2,000. The loss of the Bay City club will reach about $5,000, including all furniture and fixtures, and is fully covered by insurance.


    The fire was well handled. The men crept as close to the high and dangerous walls as they could, even when the section at the stage was bulging in a threatening manner. There was not much danger to surrounding buildings, except immediately after the explosion that blew out the south wall, and when showers of sparks were sent over surrounding structures. These hose was turned on the buildings endangered and men were sent out to patrol adjacent streets and look out for incipient fires.

    The fire was the most spectacular in the history of the city. At the start flames broke from the windows high up in the stage loft and them came through the roof. As the convering of the building gradually fell in long tongues of flames would shoot into the air, followed by more intense volumes and heat that at times drove back the workers. When the explosion came there was a sudden darkness in front, followed by a bright glare, and the burning of the high tower followed.

    James Frost, of No. 5 hose company, was working in the vacant lot south of the building when the first crash occurred and a flying brick hit him in the small of the back, tearing his rubber coat and bruising him severely. He continued at work however.

    The entire south wall of the block is sprung outward about two feet. A strip along the top of the north wall also fell, partly outward and partly inside. The firewalls gave away in a short time and the wall in which the proscenium arch is built also went within an hour after the fire started.

    The fire according to Chief Harding, as was later substantiated, had crept through from front to rear of the block between the roof and the ceilings of the third story almost before an alarm was turned in. Its utter inaccessability prevented any work by the firemen. The fact that there are only three windows in the opera house on the north wall, and all of these heavily curtained, was another factor in delaying the alarm, the fire being almost invisible.

    A store of alcohol and whiskey in the basement of Fenner's drug store caused an explosion and added considerably to the fierceness of the fire.

    About 4 o'clock policemen and firemen began working at the pile of brick and debris at the southwest corner of the building, there being a strong probability that other bodies were under the heap. Several spectators aver that Zaremba was not alone when the corner fell. Falling bricks, however, drove the men from the work.

    Subject Notes

    1890: Woods Opera House
    Related Pages
    Woods Opera House Writings/
    Woods Opera House Opens
    People Referenced
    Abbott, Emma (actress)
    Callender, Russel (fireman)
    Daunt, (opera mgr.)
    Dunbar, (fireman)
    Ewell, (coroner)
    Fenner, J.H. (merchant)
    Frost, James (firemen)
    Harding, (fire chief)
    Hennessy, (pipeman)
    Kempter, (fireman)
    Rowell, (pipeman)
    Tyler, (oper Pres.)
    Walther, (merchant)
    Woods, (architect)
    Zaremba, Eugene
    Subjects Referenced
    Bay City Club
    Fenner's drug store
    Fenner's bicyle store
    Fire death
    Fire explosion
    Hose company No. 1
    Hose company No. 2
    Hose company No. 3
    Hose company No. 5
    Hose company No. 6
    Hyatt's undertaking rooms
    Kosciusko avenue, 1501
    Library building
    Opera house stage
    Opera house tower
    Phoenix block
    Proscenium arch
    Sixth street
    The Tide of Life (play)
    Vacant lot s. of bldg.
    Walther's Great Cheap Store
    West Bay City
    Westover opera house
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    WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.