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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
The original hotel was destroyed by fire. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Sheets tied together hanging out a window show desperate attempts to escape the flames. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

HOTEL CANFIELD. Owned and operated by William J. CANFIELD, Sr., the Hotel Canfield was originally called "The Paris."

On January 24, 1925 the Paris hotel building and ground was sold to William J. Canfield, Sr. and his son, William J. Canfield, Jr. who had been operating the hotel for several years. William J. Canfield had experience in the hotel business including managing hotels in Burlington, Iowa; Galesburg, Illinois; and Wichita, Kansas. The amount of money involved was not disclosed, but was rumored at the time to be in the area of $75,000. (1)

The furnishings and fixtures for the building were purchased by the Canfields when they leased the building in 1920. In 1927, the hotel facilities were expanded to over 200 rooms an attractive lobby and a ballroom.

The 1934 Dubuque City Directory listed 4th and Central.

The 1941 Dubuque City Directory listed 397 Central.

The destruction of the hotel in 1946 was one of Dubuque's worst FIRES. On June 9, 1946, a fire broke out in the six-story 200-room Canfield killing nineteen people including William J. Canfield, Sr. His wife died at the hospital as a result of her injuries.

The fire started around 11:30 pm and destroyed the four-story section of the building, which was built in 1891.

The fire is believed to have started out in a closet near the cocktail lounge on the ground floor. The combustible fiberboard dropped-ceiling added as part of an effort to modernize the appearance of the hotel, spread the fire through the building faster than the guests could get out of it and faster than the firefighters could get to the scene. Contributing factors that added to the severity of this incident were delayed alarms, and open stairways.

Photo courtesy: Daily Kos

Flames shot up open stairs and engulfed lower floors; smoke filled the upper floors of the four-story original 1891 section of the hotel. The first floor and some upper rooms of an adjacent six-story 1925 annex of "fire-proof" construction were damaged. Guests on the lower floors of the original section, unable to escape the flames, burned to death, as people on the upper floors were asphyxiated by smoke. At least one, Mrs. Florence I. Taylor, jumped from the fourth floor but missed the firemen's net. She also lost her daughter and husband in the fire. Most of the more than 100 guests managed to escape -- some by jumping into nets, others by climbing down makeshift ropes of bed sheets, and still others by making their way through smoke-filled corridors to the roof and climbing down a fire escape.


Presented at the 23rd Annual Iowa Fire School

Harold Cosgrove First of all, Gentlemen, I am not an authority on fighting hotel fires, or any other kind for that matter. I just happen to be another fireman who was on duty when we pulled into a bad one.

I think most every fireman dreads a call to an unsprinkled hotel or institution at night where a life hazard exists.

The Dubuque firemen are not bragging about the Canfield fire. It was not a perfect job on our part. None of them are,, and like the Monday morning quarterback, the next day we could have done better. Any time a community has a fire that takes the lives of 19 persons, and a property loss of $200,000 there isn't much to feel proud of, but comparing the Canfield to the LaSalle or the Wynecoff, ours was a small job.

Bob asked me to describe how it looked as we pulled in and what we did about it. I won't go into detail as to the construction of the building other than to say it was built in 2 sections, a brick wood joisted old part, four stories high, with lobby and tap room on the first floor, and guests rooms above, and so-called fire proof annex, six stories in height. Fire doors protected the annex floors where the corridors joined.

Matchbook. Photo courtesy: Mike Avitt

Due to the pending lawsuits, I will not attempt to give the cause of the fire, but it must have been a "flash" as a woman patron of the tap room died five feet from the stool on which she had been sitting. We received a simultaneous alarm at 12:39 a. m. from a street box on the corner opposite the hotel, and also telephone alarm from the hotel night clerk. Seventeen men responded to the first alarm, with 3 pumpers and an aerial truck. We smelled smoke when about 2 blocks from the hotel. As we turned the corner it was a sight we won't forget for a while. Flames were belching from the entire first floor of the old section, and had enveloped the only outside fire escape on the old section. The base of this escape terminated at the tap room entrance.

After sounding a third alarm I started to circle the building. A man was hanging at arm's length from a third floor window. He dropped with a thud. People were shouting and screaming as smoke poured from over their heads in most of the windows. I knew we had a "race with death." After ordering the officer of an engine company that was stretching in to abandon his line and get the net off the truck, we called for citizens to help man it. About ten responded. Before we could raise it shoulder high, a woman jumped from the third floor. We caught about five or six when they had the aerial ladder raised and were going up after them.

It was then that we experienced the only trouble we had with our civilian help. I ordered the net brought to the front of the building. They shouted, "Let's get these down first." I said, "There's a lot more on the other side." They came along and we caught six more there. One woman kicked off her slippers before she jumped and then turned a double somersault on the way down.

The only stream kept in operation was used to wet down the fire escape which people were trying to use and couldn't , due to the flames. One man was dying on the second floor landing off the escape, and another was trapped on the third floor. This man jumped into the net. As fast as they jumped we would dump them onto the ground and raise it for another. Sometimes we had to move the net to catch the falling body as much as five feet.

Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

The flames were now racing through the building and as we took the net to the south side the picture was worse. A grandmother with her grandchild stood inside the third floor window, holding the child on the window sill. I begged her to push the child out and then jump. She slumped to the floor pulling the child into the room. Both died. A man and his wife were sitting on a window sill on the fourth floor with a suitcase between them. He pushed his wife off then threw the suitcase into the net, jumped onto it and broke his back. Seven net holders were injured by luggage being thrown down by victims. One man received a lacerated face by being kicked as a person rebounded after striking the net.

The most firemen helping to hold the net at any one time was five, and on account of telephone wires, it was hard to judge where to stand. We were also afraid more than one would try to come down at the same time. A woman struck her neck on the rim of the net and died. It put a bow in the iron frame. It was getting hard to see the victims by now in the upper windows, due to the smoke from below, and it was hard for them to see us.

The hardest net catches were those from the fifth and sixth floors. The impact was terrific it they failed to strike near the center. One man we caught from the sixth floor told us that the net looked as big as a silver dollar, but felt like a feather bed. I believe this was a slight exaggeration , as he received a broken leg and fractured pelvis. Most of those who jumped from above the fourth floor suffered some injuries but all seemed glad to be down regardless of bumps. They landed in all positions--some stiff legged, on backs of necks, on hands and knees, and about every way possible.

The net rescues took about ten minutes and only one net was employed. That's all we had with us. Twenty-seven were caught, 26 lived and the woman who struck the rim died. Twenty-one persons were rescued by ladders of various lengths. This took about 40 minutes although anyone not rescued from the old section in 15 minutes died, because the roof fell in about that soon after we arrived. One man rescued by ladder died from burns. It was 15 minutes before we made any effort to extinguishment. We had to use all manpower for rescue work. Chief Kirch and Senior captain Thomas Hickson directed extinguishment operations after they arrived, using deck pipes and other major stream equipment. Nine pieces of apparatus and 57 firemen worked at the fire.

Nineteen people lost their lives; another forty were injured, mainly suffering broken bones leaping from windows. According to fire captain Harold Cosgrove, 30 people had to be rescued by jumping onto nets and 27 were carried down the ladders. The state fire marshal termed it the worst hotel fire in Iowa history. By August, 1946 damage claims against the hotel as a result of the fire had reached $95,000. (2)

About $10,000 in jewelry was discovered in the hotel apartment of the Canfield’s co-owner, William Canfield, Sr., said Leo A. Steffen, agent for the hotel company. Also found were war bonds with a face value totaling $575 and the last will of Mrs. Canfield.

Removing bodies after the fire.
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Matchbook. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Photo courtesy: Joe Jacobsmeier

The fire left only the totally fireproof concrete structured portion as it exists today. The story of the fire was voted by the newspaper editors of Iowa the biggest story of 1946. (3)

Rebuilt, the hotel in 2013 had sixty rooms.



1. "Canfields Buy the Paris Hotel," Telegraph Herald, January 26, 1925

2. "July Trials of Claims Sought in Death Cases," Telegraph-Herald, August 11, 1946, p. 1

23 "Canfield Hotel Fire Held No. 1 New Story in State," The Telegraph-Herald, December 22, 1946, p. 1



Beth Humiston-email

Dubuque's Hotel Canfield, matchpro.org/Archives/2006/canfield.pdf

Daily Kos. "How Regulation Came to Be: The Hotel Fires of 1946," http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/10/25/796994/-How-Regulation-came-to-be-The-Hotel-Fires-of-1946-Pt-I

"Let's Not Forget-The History of the Dubuque Fire Department," www.dfdhistory.com/cosgrove.html

Mrs. M. L. Zambrana. E-mail, July 29, 2013

"Nineteen Dead in Dubuque Hotel Fire," iagenweb.org/boards/dubuque/documents/index.cgi?read=251607

"Tragedy Traps Taylor Family," Hollywood Legionnaire, Post 43 Newsletter, July 1946. Online: https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-tPBbqc0y-Yw/Ufb8O7QbV0I/AAAAAAAAPgY/vUZTa_9kM9I/s512/taylorfamily.jpg