County courthouse, Hamilton firefighters connected by history

Credit: thomas pate

Credit: thomas pate

On March 14, 1912, the Historic Butler County Courthouse became a fiery inferno. County employees rushed through the building to secure irreplaceable governmental records, before fleeing the building and the billowing smoke pouring out of the Courthouse windows.

The fire had started as an electrical short in one of the wires that crisscrossed inside the dome-like structure that housed the Courthouse clock atop the building. The clock stopped at 11:33 a.m., and the clock-tower collapsed into the building at 11:43 a.m.

Three Hamilton firefighters died that day: John Hunker, William Love, and George Fritz.

John Hunker was 39-years-old and was only in his first year with Hamilton Fire Department. William Love was 46-years-old, and a veteran of more than eight years with the Department. George Fritz, age 36, had been a firefighter for 12 years. John Hunker’s body was discovered under the mass of debris left by the collapsed tower. He was killed instantly. Five hours later, Fireman Love died at a nearby hospital, from the burns he sustained fighting the deadly flames. Fireman Fritz, who was also badly burned battling the blaze, died at the same hospital, five days later.

But the Courthouse still stood.

A year later, torrential rains brought a never-before-imagined-flood, that devastated Hamilton and the surrounding region. Three hundred people died in Butler County during the 1913 Flood. Entire houses were swept off their foundations, and helpless families were trapped in what was once their cherished homes, caught in the gripping currents of the river-gone-wild.

But once again, the men of the Hamilton Fire Department sprang into action. They used the horses, meant to draw their horse-drawn fire engines, as bare-back transporters for drenched Hamiltonians, stranded by the raging river.

Though the river reached the top of the lampposts outside, scores of citizens survived the storm in the safety of the Butler County Courthouse. Joining them were the men, and horses, of Firehouses 2 and 3. Their own houses flooded, the horses found their refuge on the second floor of the Courthouse.

Such is a piece of the history of the Butler County Courthouse and the interwoven lives of a few of this community’s bravest people. What a legacy they have left.

Randy T. Rogers served as a Butler County probate court judge from 1995 until 2021 and is a contributor to the Journal-News through community columns. He wrote this essay for a statewide firefighter convention being held in Hamilton last week.

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