MOUNT VERNON -- Valentine's Day, 1910, was a heart-breaker for Mount Vernon.
That evening, night watchman John F. Stone was making his rounds at the Mount Vernon Bridge Company. Stone let company engineer John Croston out the south door of the industrial complex's south building, on West Chestnut Street, at 6:50 pm. Croston was the last daytime employee to leave, and Stone was the only person left on site.
Stone, a 60-year-old Civil War veteran, returned to the engine room at the north end of the building and sat for a few minutes. Just a few minutes after 7 p.m., he began his rounds. As he entered the south room, Stone saw flames crawling up the south wall of the building.
No telephone being handy, Stone rushed back to the engine room and began blowing the factory whistle.
At the same moment, Clara Frehse, daughter of plant foreman August Frehse, looked out the window of their West Chestnut Street home and saw the flames. She immediately called the fire department, reaching them just as the factory whistle began sounding.
To the southeast, an engineer in the B&O railroad yard heard Stone's alert, saw the flames, and began sounding his train whistle, too.
As Stone kept blowing the factory whistle, he realized that the fire had circled around him. He made a run for it, through the burning shop, for the Adams Street door. As he ran, melting tar from the burning ceiling dripped onto him, burning his back.
Smarting from the pain once he was outside, he immediately struck off for home to have his burns tended to.
The Mount Vernon Fire Department began mobilizing forces as the alarms sounded, but even as they approached, it was obvious the situation was not in their favor. A stiff southwest breeze was blowing, and that was causing the huge flames to rapidly spread to other buildings along the Mount Vernon Bridge Company's main entrance on Sugar Street.
The fire moved quickly, reducing several buildings to ashes in a remarkably short time.
As spraying the already burnt-down factory buildings would only have damaged the company's machines even further, the firefighters focused on hosing down adjacent buildings, to stop the blaze's spread. One such building saved was the bridge company's office building.
Company workers who had come to the scene worked on carrying out blueprints and financial records from the office building, just in case the fire spread, but hoses directed from two angles protected the building.
As electrical poles by the building burned, power lines fell to the street, threatening spectators. When the three large smokestacks over the engine room collapsed, the deafening sound caused the nearby crowd to panic and flee.
There was also fear of an explosion because of gasoline, paint cans, and oil stored in a storage building north of the main complex. But Fire Chief Pickard kept one course of hoses trained on the shed, preventing an explosion.
John F. Stone had gotten out of the building before crowds gathered, so many thought he must still be inside the collapsing, burning buildings.
A fireman was sent to Stone's house to inform his family of the tragedy. Stone met the envoi at his front door. In fact, there were no casualties at all from the massive fire, and Stone's burns the only reported wounds.
People continued to gather at the scene of the fire, unable to get any closer than half a block away, due to the heat from the flames. Mount Vernon Bridge Company employees were seen weeping as they realized that in just one evening's time, their livelihood had gone up in smoke.
By 11 p.m., the blaze was out, and the firemen called it a night. By that time, reports had come to Mount Vernon that the flames had been so massive, the fire had been visible in Fredericktown. Even as far away as Mount Gilead, in Morrow County, observers deduced that a huge fire was going on somewhere from the rosy glow in the night sky.
The investigation began the following day when the fire department's engineer, I.M. Wolverton, began inspecting the scene. There was no obvious source for the fire, and arson was ruled out, especially considering that the damage was estimated at $150,000, almost double the amount of insurance coverage the company had for the entire complex.
Wolverton noted a possibility, however. The south end of the plant was the “laying out” room, where large girders for bridges were assembled into component structures. Considering its use, the room had little in the way of flammable materials with the exception of a number of gas-heating stoves.
It was presumed that one of the stoves must have malfunctioned, overheating and catching the building's wooden trim on fire. Once the flames shot up the walls, the roof caught on fire, breaking out dormer windows, which set up a draft that helped the fire spread rapidly throughout the factory.
In the following weeks, insurance adjusters allowed $76,950.70 to be claimed for the buildings and equipment lost. A few large machines survived the high-intensity blaze, though most of the bridge company's equipment and machinery were lost. The fire put 200 laborers out of work.
Almost before the smoke had died down, rumors began to fly about the company building a new plant somewhere else. A Columbus newspaper even ran an editorial claiming that it would make more sense for the company to rebuild in Columbus. Concerned citizens approached the managers of the Mount Vernon Bridge Company and asked them what it would take to keep the factory here.
The company's top brass said that if Mount Vernon could come up with $20,000 to help the company start the rebuilding process, they would stay. Within days the money had been raised by subscription and by selling tickets for special events. This fund led to the rebuilding of the company, which continued to operate in Mount Vernon into the 1960s, creating bridge structures all over the United States.
As for the night watchman, John F. Stone, he survived the disaster with only minor burns. In perspective, the fire might not have seemed that scary to Stone, who had been through worse. He had lied to join the Union Army during the Civil War in 1864. While he told them he was 18, he was really on 14 at the time, and no one checked further.
According to Frederick N. Lorey's History of Knox County, Ohio, 1876-1976, Stone got shot in the leg during the Battle of Decatur in Alabama, and thought he would lose his leg to the field hospital surgeons, who got paid by the amputation.
Stone appealed to his commanding officer for help, and the surgeons were waived off. Stone continued to work at the rebuilt Mount Vernon Bridge Company until he retired. He kept living in Mount Vernon until he passed away just shy of his 90th birthday in 1939.
He was the last Civil War veteran to die in Knox County.