Marshfield, January 1883: The Rivers House fire
How a blaze in 1883 was the impetus for creating the Marshfield Fire Department
By Kris Leonhardt
On a crisp, clear, quiet Tuesday morning in 1883, Marshfield sat in silence. At 26 degrees below zero, residents were content to stay huddled indoors to escape the harsh burn of the cold.
As business owners slowly began to prepare their shelves for the rush of the upcoming day, the cry of “fire” hit their
ears and redirected their attention to the world outside. People quickly made their way outdoors, and they were greeted with a large plume of smoke billowing from the Rivers House.
The Rivers House, built just three years earlier by one of the area’s first European settlers, Louis Rivers, was constructed on a stone foundation. Standing a stout three stories high, the building measured 77 feet from the beginning of the street to the rounded cupola atop of the roof.
A two-story wing had been built onto the hostel, and just that past summer a one-story kitchen had been added. The fire now appeared to be emanating from that new area.
Rivers, a known drinker and gambler, had already fallen on hard times personally. Just one year earlier his wife had left him and moved back to her parents’ home near Neillsville. Now, he stood watching the source of his livelihood disintegrate before his eyes.
The church bells rang, a whistle blew, and residents continued to drop what they were doing to advance to the area where the fire was building and building. A large crowd gathered, standing in confused disarray. With no water, pails, ladders, or orderly system, they had no choice but to watch as the structure burned.
Citizens flung furniture and important belongings from windows as others items were carried through doors until the first and second stories were emptied. With the fire advancing, what remained in the basement and third story would be left for destruction.
By 11 a.m. that morning, the building and its remaining contents would be nothing but smoke and ashes. As residents began reliving the events of the morning, discussions resumed about creating a system for fire protection.
The frigid conditions and lack of organization had created conditions that made it impossible to fight the all-consuming blaze. What if the fire had threatened nearby structures? Something had to be done.
Within months the city was incorporated, the first step to providing protection to residents. In May of the same year, a group of Marshfield citizens met to form a volunteer organization, which was then named the Pioneer Hose Company. At the same time, a volunteer ladder company was also created.
In 1884 the two were merged to form the Marshfield Fire Department with Robert Howarth as the first captain. The organization would be in operation for three years prior to the fire that would destroy nine blocks of the city and the massive Upham mill after a seven-hour battle with the blaze.
This fire would prove to be the “granddaddy of them all,” known all over the state as “The Great Marshfield Fire.”