Thursday, May 23, 2019
City Government and Civil Service, Heroes and Villains

Bridgeport’s Heroic Firemen

By:  Rob Novak, Bridgeport Fireman

Some years ago, fellow firefighters showed me the following excerpt in the August 2004 edition of Firehouse magazine – “August 20 1904: Bridgeport, CT – An explosion during a fire in a powerhouse of the Burritt Lumber Company hurled two men, a building employee and Fireman Thomas Weller, from the roof of the building, killing both. Twenty firemen, including the chief, were buried under a huge pile of sawdust and rescued by the firemen”.

            For over a decade, I have been trying to identify Line of Duty deaths (LODD) in the Bridgeport Fire Department. For a variety of reasons, no definitive list was ever compiled, and it is my sincere belief that anyone who gave their life in the service of the City of Bridgeport deserves to be remembered. It appeared that Thomas Weller fit that criteria, but first I had to be sure. So I visited the Bridgeport History Center.

First, I checked the August 20, 1904 edition of the Bridgeport Post on microfilm, where I found a very different story. There had been a serious fire and explosion at the Burritt Lumber Company on Knowlton Street near Kossuth Street. During the explosion, firefighter Thomas Weller of Engine Company 2 and a Burritt employee were hurled a great distance and were missing for some time.

Investigating further, it appeared that Weller was thrown 60 feet from a 45’ high roof, but his landing was cushioned by a large pile of sawdust. Burned from the explosion, he picked himself up and went on his own to a nearby doctor’s office, apparently without informing anyone, and a frantic search ensued.

So now I knew that there had been an explosion, and Thomas Weller was injured, but did not die. There was no mention of 20 firemen buried, though since Kossuth Street was showered with debris it is understandable how that may have been initially reported. A week later, the Post stated that Weller was improving in the hospital. Perhaps he later took a turn for the worse and died of his injuries?

The next step was to walk across the room to the City Directories. The 1903 and 1904 editions established only one Thomas Weller lived in Bridgeport. He lived on the East Side and worked at the Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine factory near Engine 2’s Crescent Place firehouse. This revealed that Weller was in fact a “callman” – a type of auxiliary fireman who was paid only when he responded to a fire. This might explain why he left the scene without telling his superiors.

Since Weller was also listed in the 1905 and 1906 Directories, I felt I could safely conclude he did not die from injuries at this fire. So the final question was, how did a national magazine erroneously report his death a hundred years later?

Bridgeport boasted a number of local newspapers in 1904. It is likely that one or more of them went to press while Weller was missing and presumed dead. The wire services probably picked up the erroneous story, and it was reported nationwide. The Bridgeport Post, an evening newspaper, hinted this, stating “The affair caused much excitement around town, and at first it was reported both men had been killed”.

Once again, the History Center at Bridgeport Library provided the perfect one-stop venue to solve this mystery, and shed light on a long-forgotten incident from the Park City’s past.

Robert J Novak
Robert Novak
Robert Novak has been studying local history for over 20 years, and is currently an independent community historian at hometownhistoryct.com. He is employed as a captain in the Bridgeport Fire Department, is an officer in the Bridgeport Firefighters' Historical Society, and wrote four books including "Images of America - Bridgeport Firefighters".