BLOOMINGTON - It was the most destructive eight hours in Bloomington history. | From Our Past page
Just after midnight on June 19, 1900, a great fire began sweeping through much of the city's downtown. By 8 a.m. the next morning, stunned residents struggled with the enormity of the devastation - 45 buildings and 4½ blocks reduced to little more than smoking rubble.
It all began at 12:20 a.m., when Bloomington patrolman John Brennan spotted flames in a second-story window of Model Laundry in the 100 block of East Monroe Street between Main and East streets.
Flames quickly spread to Benoni S. Green's harness and saddlery business immediately to the east. From the beginning, antiquated equipment combined with low water pressure hampered Bloomington firefighters.
"The city water pressure was very poor, and the only source was from six-inch water mains," Green's son, Ralph, recalled in 1948. "I well remember the four or five hose lines from which was flowing very scant and weak streams of water."
The 16-year-old Green watched his father's business burn, story by story, from the relative safety of Second Presbyterian Church across East Street. "On the fourth floor we had stocks of horse collars hung on racks," he remembered, "and in my mind's eye I can still see those leather collars burning."
Steady winds pushed the fire in a southwesterly direction, and within an hour flames had engulfed most of the block running from Main to East and Monroe to Jefferson streets.
The fire spread to the east and north sides of the Courthouse Square. Even the largest, most substantial brick structures, such as the five-story Griesheim Building, proved no match for the flames and blast-furnace-like heat. This high rise, at the southeast corner of Main and Jefferson, was home to Wolf Griesheim's street-level men's clothing store and more than 30 doctor, dentist and law offices.
Help is on the way
At 2:30 a.m., Bloomington Mayor Lewis B. Thomas requested assistance from the Peoria and Springfield fire departments. Both arrived around 5 a.m., coming by express train with their equipment lashed to railcars.
"Perhaps the most thrilling sight of the entire fire was when Peoria's fire department arrived on the scene," Claude McLean recalled on the 50th anniversary of the fire. "I'll never forget seeing those three big gray horses pounding up Center Street pulling the Peoria department's steamer. There was a 4-foot blaze coming from the boiler stack and the horses were running like the wind."
Chester Williams, another eyewitness, said Peoria firemen tore down billboards and used them as fire shields. As soon as a billboard would burst into flames from the intense heat, they would find another one and head straight back into the inferno.
Burning embers and sparks filled the air. Sparrow nests on the courthouse roof caught fire, and the flames spread to the wooden rafters. Thus, the supposedly fireproof building burned from within. By morning, according to one account, the courthouse resembled "a skull, sightless and cavernous."
On the north side of the square, the fire jumped across Center Street, bringing down the Windsor Hotel (today the site of the Illinois House) and an old Baptist church, then serving as a livery stable (today Pantagraph Printing & Stationery Co.).
Chester Williams remembered men running out of the Windsor with bottles of whiskey. "They had bottles jammed in all their pockets and three or four in each hand, with the necks laced between their fingers," he said.
Thankfully, the flames spread no farther, due in part to the efforts of local residents manning rooftop "bucket brigades." The last blaze was extinguished a little before 8 a.m. Later on, paper and letters were found in farm fields three to four miles southwest of downtown, carried by the maelstrom's updraft and the strong winds.
In the aftermath of the fire, Corn Belt Bank could not open its big vault, so a professional (but law-abiding) safecracker was brought down from Chicago. He constructed a battering ram-like apparatus suspended from a chain, and this "ponderous piece of wood" was swung repeatedly against the steel door, eventually forcing it open. "Several thousands of dollars had passed through the fire all right and not a paper was crumpled," reported The Bloomington Daily Bulletin newspaper.
Estimates placed the losses at more than $2 million (or more than $50 million today, adjusted for inflation). In Chicago, LaSalle Street insurance companies lost an estimated $750,000, according to newspaper accounts. They would have lost much more, though, if not for the false sense of security within the Bloomington business community.
"No fires had taken place in Bloomington for so long that the residents had come to the conclusion that the city was flame proof," noted The Chicago Chronicle. Most downtown businesses, for instance, had carried no more than 40 to 50 percent coverage on their buildings.
The new Griesheim Building opened Dec. 11, 1900, a mere 175 days after what became known as the "Great Fire." Other businesses would follow, including long-standing landmarks such as the Corn Belt Bank building and the Illinois House. The new courthouse, today home to the McLean County Museum of History, opened in 1903.
To mark the first anniversary of the fire, Griesheim's clothing store held a "phoenix sale." One of its advertisements featured a winged phoenix arising from the ashes of the Great Fire. The message was simple - downtown Bloomington was back.