#TBT From The NFPA Archives: Canfield Hotel Fire on 6/9/1946

Blog Post created by jrodowicz Employee on Jun 13, 2019

On June 9th, 1946 a fire at the Canfield Hotel in Dubuque, Iowa captured national attention when 19 people died and 20 others were injured.


The Canfield Hotel consisted of two buildings: the original four story brick joisted section and the six story fire resistive annex that was built in 1925. The original building did not have a sprinkler system and had installed a wooden stairway to connect the original building to the three upper floors of the annex. The annex had a closed non-combustible stairwell with automatic fire doors that lead to an exit on the ground floor.


Guests accessed the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th floors of the annex from a sub-standard elevator or the open stairway from the first floor of the original building. Additionally, corridors between the original building to the annex continued across all floors but were protected with automatic fire doors. Guests accessed the fifth and sixth floors of the annex from an elevator.


The fire started in a small closet in the Red Lounge on the first floor of the hotel. Waitresses were instructed to put cigarette butts in paper napkins and place them in a paper trash can in the closet. At 12:10 am, four guests had gone to play the juke box and heard a crackling noise and smelled smoke, went to investigate, and discovered that the wall in the closet was on fire. The guests and the hotel manager tried to extinguish the fire with a wet towel and a fire extinguisher but their attempts were unsuccessful. The fire quickly spread to the combustible finish on the walls of the bar. Fifteen minutes after the fire began, the hotel manager tried to warn guests on the upper floors. The night clerk notified the fire department at 12:39 am. Many escaped by using the fire escape on the annex.


When the fire department arrived, the fire had encompassed the lounge and the lobby. The fire department did not have enough staff to simultaneously fight the fire and save lives so they made the decision that life-saving took priority over fighting the fire at the time. At 12:42 am, another alarm was sent out by police radio to call for additional help. Civilians, the police department, and National Guardsmen assisted the fire department. They were able to rescue 35 people using ladders and 27 people jumped into life nets. It took the fire department 2.5 hours with six pumping engines, an aerial, and two ladder companies to extinguish the fire.


For more information regarding this and other moments in fire history, please feel free to reach out to the NFPA Research Library & Archives.

The NFPA Archives houses all of NFPA's publications, both current and historic.
Library staff are available to answer research questions from members and the general public.