Friday, August 2, 2013


I was in St. Boniface Cemetery in Chicago recently filling a Find a Grave photo request.  St. Boniface was established in 1863 to serve the pioneer German families of Chicago - and there were many.  Like a lot of the old cemeteries, St. Boniface is full of wonderful elaborate monuments, and more than a few tree monuments as well.  When I am in an old cemetery like this, I wander around to see what unusual things I might "dig up."   Even though it was a hot Chicago-humid 98 degrees the day I was there, I still wandered around to see what I could find.  In Section C, I came across a tree tombstone with a carved fireman's hat perched on top:

This tree tombstone marked the final resting place of Nicholas Dubach (1842-1901) and his son Frank Dubach (1871-1948).  I figured that the fireman's hat meant that one or both of them had been firemen. Nicholas Dubach was a fireman, all right - during the biggest, most horrific fire in Chicago's history.  Yes, Nicholas Dubach was a Chicago fireman during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 - "The Great Conflagration" as it was known then.  I figured there was probably an interesting story there, and I was right.    

Nicholas Dubach was born October 15, 1842 in Petit-Moselle, Lorraine, France.  When asked where he was born, he usually replied "Germany."  He was the sixth of nine children born to Andres Dubach (1811-1844) and Catherine, nee Brouder (1815-1878).  The Dubach family came to the US in 1850 when Nicholas was 7 years old.  Andres was a carpenter by trade.  The name Dubach sounds very German, although it is more French in origin.  While doing my research, I discovered that the "Dubach" spelling is an Americanized version of the French "DuBach".

Records indicate that Nicholas Dubach joined the Chicago Fire Department in 1865.  He was assigned to the steam fire engine "Economy" first as a pipeman and ultimately as a fireman.  In the smaller towns the steam fire engines were pulled by hand, but in Chicago they were pulled by horses.

Here are two pictures featuring Chicago's horse drawn fire engines of the era:

When Nicholas Dubach joined the Chicago Fire Department in 1865, he was joining one of the top fire-fighting outfits in the country.  Being a fireman was hard work back then, as it is today.  Nicholas Dubach was young and energetic and he did well as a fireman, but in 1867 he was out of work for sixteen days because of a back injury.

But it was not all work for Nicholas Dubach.  On September 23, 1866 he married Chicago native Susan Schroeder (1849-1920).  Two of their children were born before the fire:  John (1869-1953) and Frank (1871-1948).  After the fire they were blessed with five more children: Joseph (1874-1939), James (1877-1946), Katherine (1878-1920), Louise (1881-1953) and Gertrude (1888-1965).

But the lives of Nicholas Dubach and all Chicagoans were irrevocably changed by the events of October 8-10, 1871.  Little did Dubach realize that everything that had happened to him and his fellow fire-fighters up to that point was just preparation for the greatest challenge of their lives - the Great Chicago Fire.

As the fateful date of October 8, 1871 approached, Nicholas Dubach was still assigned to the steamer "Economy", Engine Company #8 which was housed at the firehouse located at 284 Twenty-second Street.  Dubach held badge #67 and was a pipeman for the "Economy". Here is the roster for the "Economy":

and here is a drawing of the "Economy".

Dubach, as a member of the Chicago Fire Department was ready for whatever came his way.  Chicago had one of the best fire departments of any big city in the US.  Chicago boasted twenty-six fire companies in 1870, fire hydrants around the city, and a watchman and fire alarm system second to none.  What happened?  A combination of dry weather and a city built largely of wood.

Most everyone knows the story of the Great Chicago Fire of October, 1871, but if you don't, there is a good writeup about it on Wikipedia:  We know a little bit about Nicholas Dubach's actions during the fire because he was called to testify in the inquest/investigation after the fire.  Dubach was called to testify on November 28, 1871. A summary of his testimony was printed in the Chicago Tribune of November 29:


Foreman (sic) of the Economy, No. 8, was called upon.  His testimony was to the effect that a quantity of moss in the Sherman House was on fire, probably used for bedding.  He reached the scene of the original conflagration in about eight minutes.  One man had offered to go shares with him if he put out his coal.  The Foreman replied that the city had paid him, and he would not work on shares.  Beyond this, no offer had been made.  When he reached the fire there were four building on fire.  It was about an hour and a half after he arrived there that he had orders to go ahead of the fire.  No one had sent him to the South Side, but he had gone over there on his own responsibility when he saw the fire near the Armory.

I could not find Nicholas Dubach in the 1870 Census, but the 1870 Directory of Chicago has him living at 199 Arnold Street - near 22nd and Arnold.  Today that would be just east of Cermak and Wentworth - two blocks east of the fire station where he worked.  There is still a fire station on that spot today,

and is still the home of Engine Company No. 8:

but today it is right in the heart of Chinatown.   Dubach doesn't say so in his testimony, but I would bet that when he realized just how bad the fire was, that he went back to his station and then on to check on his home and family.

City officials estimated that more than 300 people died in the fire and over 100,000 were left homeless. Over 4.0 square miles were destroyed by the fire.  The fire came to within about a  mile of Dubach's home, but mercifully it came no closer.

After the fire life went on, and Dubach could watch the massive rebuilding taking place all around him.  And this time, all construction looked toward fireproofing as a critical element.  Dubach was considered a hero, as were all the firemen who survived the Great Chicago Fire - and they were all men.  The Chicago Daily Tribune from May 25, 1883 carried this interesting item about Nicholas Dubach:


At a meeting of the citizens of the Fifth Ward, numbering about 400, held last evening at No. 2701 Wentworth Avenue, Mr. Jesse J. Rook, Representative of the district in the Legislature, put in nomination the name of Nicholas Dubach for alderman - a gentleman fully qualified, he said, for the position, and has the entire support of the party present.  A Committee was appointed by the Chairman to wait upon Mr. Dubach and request him to allow his name to be used as an independent candidate.  It is thought probable that the gentlemen would accept.

It doesn't look like Dubach did accept because the records show that the Independent candidate for alderman of the Fifth Ward was a man named Hillock.  Dubach may have realized just how corrupt Chicago politics were (are???) and dropped out.  The Chicago Daily Tribune of April 2, 1884 says "The Complexion of the New Council Not Materially Changed."  

The next time Dubach pops up was during the Worlds' Columbian Exposition of 1892-93.  The Chicago Daily Tribune from October 7, 1893 gives the line-up for "Chicago Day" at the Fair:


Nicholas Dubach retired from the Chicago Fire Department in 1890, after twenty-five years of faithful service.  In 1895 Dubach was honored at a service where he received his Veterans Pin from the CFD:

Nicholas Dubach died at Mercy Hospital on March 19, 1901 of pneumonia.  He was 59 years old:

I would guess that all the years of fire-fighting finally caught up with him.  As mentioned above, he was buried at St. Boniface Cemetery in Chicago.  Here's his obituary from the Chicago Daily Tribune of  March 20, 1901:

Interesting that his obituary says that he was 61 - his death certificate and tombstone say 59.

After his death and burial, his family commissioned a tree tombstone to mark his grave.  It is a fairly typical tree tombstone, except that it is topped with a fireman's hat - a fitting symbol for a man who devoted his life to fire-fighting.

Nicholas Dubach, Chicago Fireman during the Great Chicago Fire - a living part of Chicago history - what stories he must have told!  May he rest in peace.  

Although others of his family are buried at St. Boniface Cemetery, only Nicholas' son Frank shares his tree tombstone.

Frank Dubach (1871-1948) was a lifelong member of the Chicago Police Department.  Here's his obituary from 1948:

1 comment:

  1. Hi Craig,

    This was my second great grandfather through the line of James DuBach (Chicago police official), one of Nicholas’ sons. We often heard family stories, and knew about his accounts as a fireman and captain during the Chicago Fire, past down from generation to generation. I would have to say, you have done a fine job of putting this tribute together and we really appreciate you hard work. It’s too bad that Nicholas has not received recognition as an important figure that he was during that time in Chicago’s history. I'm sure our cousins would appreciate his credit. Our fore family, immigrating from France/Germany, has served Chicago through many generations in the fire, police and civil service positions. My son, who is not affiliated in any Chicago civil service, now carries the name of Nicholas as tribute the great firefighter and to my Great, Great Grandfather.

    This year is the 800th anniversary of the DuBach family name, and I would like to take you work to our family reunion in France this August to tell part of the story of the part of the family who immigrated to the U.S.

    Kind regards,
    Christopher J. DuBach