This photograph of the Ruff Disaster of 1918 in Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa comes from my family’s collection. Saturday, 29 June 1918 was a typical afternoon in downtown Sioux City; although the Oscar Ruff Drug Company at Fourth and Douglas was being remodeled, everyone continued to go about their business there and at the adjoining shops, including the Chain Grocery. Then, abruptly, at 1:30 pm, the building collapsed. It was later determined that the building was much too deteriorated to have been subjected to these renovations, which involved lowering the first floor to ground level. It was only a matter of minutes before a fire broke out, and rescue workers struggled to attend to those trapped in the rubble. In the end, thirty-nine people perished.1
Although from this photograph it appears that the fire had gone on for some time – the first images show bystanders kept at bay while the firemen hose the building – the chaos is still evident.2 Debris litters the ground, crowds mill about, and someone even moved out of the frame of the photograph so quickly that only his leg appears. What looks like a firetruck can be seen in the rear, in front of the clouds of smoke.
I don’t know how my family came to have a copy of this photograph, but it looks as though it could have been a print of one that might have originally appeared in a newspaper. Circled at right is a person identified as my second great grandfather, Henry Adam. However, I’m not convinced that this was actually Henry, and not his son. As of September 1918, I know that Henry was employed as a carpenter in the Norfolk Navy Yard of Portsmouth, Virginia; as a result, he may or may not have been home in Sioux City in June of that year.3
Although Henry was of short stature, the person circled also appears quite young. He wears a casual newsboy cap as opposed to the hats donned by the men around him. I’m inclined to believe that he may actually be Gerald “Jerry” Adam of Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa, who would have been ten years old at the time.4 Jerry lived just half a mile from the scene of the Ruff Disaster, so it certainly seems plausible that he may have wandered down to the scene to catch a glimpse of the disaster firsthand.5
Did any of your ancestors fall victim to or witness a disaster? If family lore and local histories don’t provide you with enough information, check out historic newspapers or GenDisasters, a website that shares information about the floods, fires, tornadoes, and other unfortunate events that may have impacted your ancestors’ lives.
1 C.D. Arnold, Quarterly of the National Fire Protection Association, Vol. 12 (Boston: National Fire Protection Association, 1918), 204; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 31 January 2014).
2 C.D. Arnold, Quarterly of the National Fire Protection Association, Vol. 12 (Boston: National Fire Protection Association, 1918), 204.
3 “World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 31 January 2014), card for Henry Joseph Adam, Draft Board 1, Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa; citing World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, National Archives microfilm publication M1509; imaged from Family History Library film roll 1,643,352.
4 “Iowa, Births and Christenings Index, 1857-1947,” database, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 31 January 2014), entry for Herald [Gerald] Joseph Adam, 19 June 1908, Sioux City.
5 “World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 31 January 2014), card for Henry Joseph Adam, Draft Board 1, Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa.