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Warren Bodge and the deadly enemy

When the fire alarm came in on that November 1910 evening, Warren Bodge had been thinking a lot.

He had just celebrated his 32nd birthday and only a few weeks earlier had returned from Montana, where he buried his only sister, a victim of a runway team of horses that had overturned the wagon she was riding in.

Now, only two of his family were still alive. Warren’s mother died in 1884 when he was 6, and his father had passed in 1906. A younger brother had been sick most of his life and died just after his 21st birthday.

Warren and his older brother, John, were the only ones left. Both were tailors and both were living in Oregon. John had moved from Medford to Klamath Falls a few years earlier, while Warren had only been in town five months, returning after nearly 6 years working in Roseburg.

Although Warren had been a member of the Medford Fire Department for only three months, he had quickly fit in with the “fire boys,” as they liked to be called. On Nov. 10, he was on duty in the firehouse at Sixth and Front streets.

It was just after sunset when word of a fire in west Medford came in. Warren and the other men quickly harnessed the team of two horses to the town’s chemical fire wagon, and were on their way.

The two horses were new to the department and had completed only six weeks of training, but with Warren on the reins, everything seemed to be going smoothly.

A half block later, as they approached Main Street, Warren prepared to steer the team right and then head west on Main Street, but when he pulled on the reins, there was barely any tension. Instead of a right turn, the wagon smashed straight on into a telephone pole standing on the southeast corner of Main and Front.

Warren was thrown to the ground, stunned, but eventually stood up. The horses passed by on either side of the pole and were barely scratched, but the telephone pole had toppled and the wagon’s hitching pole had shattered.

Warren said he felt fine, but agreed to be carried across the street to the Nash Hotel and be checked for injuries. He joked with his friends and finally left, telling them he had to find his lost hat that had blown away.

Finding his hat, he walked up Main Street to William Eifert’s tailoring shop, where he called Cleone, his wife, and Eifert’s daughter. Eifert was already city council president and soon would be Medford’s mayor.

Warren and the Eifert family were neighbors in Ada, Ohio, and had come by train to Medford in January 1904. Eifert came at the insistence of Charley Palm, Medford’s millionaire real estate developer, who was also a development partner with Warren’s brother, John.

Chatting about the accident with Cleone as they walked home, Warren suddenly stopped and yelled out that he couldn’t see. Cleone got him home and called a doctor. The examination found that Warren had struck his head and there was a blood clot in his brain. In 1910, there was no safe way to operate.

Warren lingered in a coma for a day and a half and died Nov. 12, 1910. He was the first on-duty Medford firefighter to die.

His death briefly brought a controversial charge against the firefighters. Some believed that in their rush to respond to the fire, the fire crew had incorrectly attached a rein to a horse’s halter instead of the bridle, leaving one horse uncontrollable.

John Butler, who had helped establish Medford’s second fire unit, came to the fire team’s defense. He showed a broken piece of a snap found at the scene of the accident that matched the fragmented snap, still attached to the harness. He believed the “firemen should be exonerated” because the snap was flawed and “it was a wonder it had not broken before.”

Butler then urged the critics to “investigate before making damaging statements against these faithful men,” these firefighters.

Two days after Warren Bodge’s death, after he had lain in state in the Presbyterian Church, an elaborate funeral procession took him to his final rest in Medford’s Eastwood Cemetery.

“It was a fitting tribute,” said a Mail Tribune reporter, “for the young man gave up his life while on his way to fight the city's most deadly enemy — fire.”

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.