Fern: Heating problems at the courthouse? What else is new?

The County Power House on State Street was built in 1916 to power heat for the courthouse and jail. It was razed in 1931. (Photo from the book “La Porte County and its Environs” by Fern Eddy Schultz)

By Fern Eddy Schultz, La Porte County Historian

How often today we hear “Everything Old is New Again” when we hear of the day’s activities. That happened when the La Porte courthouse temperature problems were published recently during a major cold spell. It’s a definite part of the history of the present courthouse, almost from its beginnings. It

La Porte County Historian Fern Eddy Schultz

probably all started with the bidding process for plumbing, heating and gas fittings for the courthouse in 1891. Bids came in from a number of companies and the work was awarded to Napier & Company at $14,500. The successful bidder was a firm of Michigan City plumbers backed by a Chicago establishment and endorsed by Michigan City capitalists and businessmen.  

John Madden of Fort Wayne, who had also submitted a bid, wrote a letter to the editor of the La Porte Argus, objecting to the choice of Napier and asking for an explanation for that choice. A response appeared April 28, 1892, in which it was stated that “It appeared that the kind of heater the commissioners bought for the courthouse is quite different from some of those offered by the bidders. There are almost as many different kinds of heaters for such buildings as there are different kinds of stoves, and of course some of them are much better and more valuable in every way than others.” That same day, it was announced that a “Fort Wayne bidder says he is going to get out an injunction to prevent the commissioners from letting the heating contract to Napier & Co.” The commissioners responded on April 30 that “there is a great deal of difference in the steam heating apparatus offered by the bidders. The boilers differ a great deal in their construction.”

Commissioner Bennett remarked in response to Mr. Madden, explaining that “the courtroom will only need to be heated for the November term of court, which usually runs to December, and the February term into March. Now a claim that by the use of one small heater for this department as a matter of economy in fuel, this heater can be shut down only to be used at court times. Then another of the small heaters is to heat the county offices separate and distinct from the courtroom heater.” Bennett also cited a number of other benefits offered by the Napier bid. His response was disputed by E.H. Scott, who asked Bennett to give “the real reason for accepting the proposition of Napier & Co.”

The first court session was held in the current courthouse in 1894. In January 1895, it was published in the local newspaper that “there was considerable mistake somewhere about the construction of the courthouse. There are open fireplaces in each room in the building but there is not enough draft in half of them to keep a fire going. It is quite evident that something is wrong with the flues. During the cold snap the clerk’s and sheriff’s offices were so cold that it was almost impossible for the officials to work. The steam apparatus was not sufficient to heat the offices. Owing to the misconstruction of the flues connecting the grates with an outer air, fires could not be started in the grates.”

In February 1899, it was reported that the county commissioners were seriously considering the advisability of erecting “a large brick chimney on the northwest corner of the courthouse, the present chimney not being of sufficient size to give the large boilers in the county building the necessary draft. The necessity for a better draft for the courthouse heating apparatus was made quite apparent during the recent cold snap when it was almost impossible to heat the building to the proper temperature. The chimney, if built, will be a large brick structure between 80 and 100 feet high. Red stone, the same as that used in the courthouse, will be placed on the outside of the old chimney. The improvement, if made, will be the tallest chimney in the city.”  

February 9, 1899, was the coldest morning in 27 years—it was reported that day that the thermometer was found to have stood at 28 degrees below zero. On the previous date of December 16, 1871, the thermometer at the water works registered 23 degrees below. It was decided that owing to the difficulty experienced in getting the present chimneys to draw properly and in order to “obviate the nuisance now experienced by the smoke from the courthouse chimney enwrapping the building in its black folds on sultry days,” in the spring a smoke stack would be erected. The top of the chimney would be about 90 feet from the ground.

In 1916, the County Power House was built on State Street. (See photo provided.) At that time, the courthouse and the jail were warmed by this heating plant.

In September 1931, the eight tall chimneys were in the process of being taken down. They were by then considered “relics” of the days when fireplaces were the means of heating the courthouse. A scaffold had been erected around one chimney to assist steeplejacks working on other jobs on the building. The chimneys were to be torn down stone by stone.

In 1982, it was reported that when Alban Smith became judge in 1959, the courthouse needed attention. By 1960, the heating system had started to malfunction. Judge Smith reported there was no heat and they were lucky if the temperature was 60 degrees in winter. Smith said, “Everyone would wear overcoats. We’d be trying a case in the winter, with our overcoats on, and snow would be blowing through the windows and the pigeons would be sitting in the loft cooing.”

Two fireplaces remain in the circuit courtroom to this day. Three others may be seen in other areas in the courthouse. Original locations of all may be viewed on an original drawing of the courthouse. It may seem strange, but reports indicate these fireplaces were never used for fires. They were decorative outlets through which heat was blown from the basement of the courthouse.  

FERN EDDY SCHULTZ is La Porte County’s official, state-appointed Historian. Learn more about our fascinating history by visiting the La Porte County Historical Society Museum and its website, www.laportecountyhistory.org.

One Response to “Fern: Heating problems at the courthouse? What else is new?”

  1. Maurice G Levine

    Jan 09. 2018

    Fern, maybe the commissioners thought all the hot air the local politicians were blowing would heat the building sufficiently? Who needs fireplaces when the politicians are there?

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