The great fire of 1900 in Bloomington, Il
From: History of McLean County Illinois
By: Jacob L. Hasbrouck
Historical Publishing Company
Topeka-Indianoplis 1924


There is no doubt that the dividing line between the Bloomington of the olden days and the Bloomington of the modern era was that night and day in June, 1900, when fire swept away the heart of the business section of the city and gave room and occasion for the rebuilding of a retail district which has no parallels in the country for a city of the size.

It was 20 minutes past midnight on June 19, 1900, that an alarm of fire was turned in from box 31, located in front of the city hall, at the corner of Monroe and East Streets. The fire was located in the basement of the B. S. Green building, at that time occupied by the Model Laundry. The fire apparently originated in this part of the building. Officer Brennan first noticed the flames and rang in the alarm. Within a few minutes after the alarm the whole fire fighting force was on the scene, but in spite of their efforts the flames spread from the laundry quarters to the main portion of the B. S. Green building, and within 20 minutes that structure was clearly doomed.

Fanned by a strong northeast wind, the fire threatened to clear the alley to the west and take in the George Brand furniture store and other structures facing on Main Street in the 300 block. Efforts of the firemen were confined at this time to trying to check the advance of flames westward, but without avail. With the many streams of water drawing from the mains and lessening the pressure, and with the strong wind fanning the flame the fire got beyond control, and soon the whole block bounded by Main, East, Jefferson and Monroe was in flame, except the postoffice, which was saved by its isolated position.

Terrible as was the destruction up to this time, the story was but half told. The fire leaped across Main Street to the west and across Jefferson Street to the south, and before the dawning of daylight these two more blocks were in flames at several points. The tall cupola of the Griesheim Building was first to ignite to the south, and to the west the R. C. Rogers Building, the old Ark, the Corn Belt Drug Store, C. W. Klemm's Store, The McLean County Coal Company offices, the Stephen Smith's Store, New York Store, Wilcox Bros., and other occupants of stores and offices rapidly in succession yielded up to the onrushing conflagration. To the south, the Griesheim Building, the Cole Bros. Building, the Metropole, the G. H. Read, and the State National Bank in turn fell victims of the devouring flames.

Can the Court House be saved? This question was upon the lips of the watching crowds as the fire leaped from two sides of the county building. Apparently the heat was too great for even the stone walls, and in time the fire ignited the dome and then ate its way down into the upper stories. North and east the fire seemed to be definitely checked at Monroe and East Streets, but it was uncertain how far it might spread to the south and west. The clock in the dome struck four o'clock, and soon afterward the hands stopped moving, the heat having disorganized the machinery and put an end to the clock's career. Down into the body of the Court House crept the fire, and soon the law library with its 10,000 volumes, worth $50,000, was ruined. Some of the records of the circuit clerk's office on the second floor were damaged, but luckily the fire stopped before it got down to the first floor, with its valuable records in the county clerk's recorder's and county treasurer's office.

The open space around the Court House impeded the spread of the flames in that direction, but the fire leaped across Center Street and took the Windsor Hotel and part of the Fervert Building. It also got over Jefferson west of the Court House and attacked the Braley Building.

It was shortly after two o'clock in the morning that Mayor Thomas, Chief Henry Mayer and other city officials came to the conclusion that a hurry call for help must be sent out to other cities if any of the business district of Bloomington was to be saved. Peoria and Springfield answered this call. A detachment of the Peoria fire department, with engine and several firemen, made the run by special train to this city in 58 minutes, arriving in Bloomington at 5:10. Peoria was stationed at Jefferson and Center Streets, and the Springfield detachment of firemen, who arrived soon afterward, were stationed at Washington and Madison, the fire having by that time eaten well into the middle of the block west of the Court House.

That these timely arrivals of additional fighting forces had their effect in stopping the fire, there is no doubt. It was about seven o'clock in the morning that the fire was definitely under control. At that time it had burned most of the block bounded by Center, Jefferson, Monroe and Madison, and had eaten out a jagged corner of the block bounded by Center, Washington, Madison and Jefferson. The upper part of the Court House was in ruins, and the fire had been stopped at Washington Street south of the Odd Fellows Building, although the heat had damaged the First National Bank, on the south side of Washington Street. All the burned over district was a chaos of broken walls, smouldering piles, tangled wires and blockaded streets. Such a spectacle had never before greeted the dawn of a morning in the history of Bloomington. Following is the complete list of the buildings and the total losses on buildings and contents:

Griesheim building, Cole Bros. building and store, Meyer & Wochner building, George P. Davis building, Mrs. J. H. Merrick building, G. H. Read & Bro. building, Odd Fellows building, Livingston Estate building, Eagle block, A. Brokaw barn, Mrs. Swayne's Durley building, Jeff Burke building, McGregor Estate building, Heafer-McGregor building R. F. and W. L. Evans building, L. H. Weldon building, George Brand building, Model Laundry building, B. S. Green building, Hayes Estate building, J. W. Evans Estate building, C. W. Klemm building, Thompson building. Marble building, Braley building, Stephen Smith building, Phoenix Hotel, Belle Plumb building, Hudson Burr building, Samuel Thompson building Lyman Graham building, Sans building, Dr. Schroeder building, O. Helbig building, Chris Frevert building, Windsor Hotel, Mahaffey barn, Bruner building, J. W. Riggs building, Braley building, Withers Estate building, Stepp building, I. H. Johnson building, James Stevenson building, Springbaum building, First National Bank damage, I. Livingston building, George Hanna building, Court House, Second Presbyterian Church damage, law library and many miscellaneous losses.

Grand total of losses $2,032,000. Grand total of insurance, $864,238.

The ashes of the business district of the fire of June 19, 1900, had not yet cooled, and streams of water from several fire engines were still pouring upon the smoking embers, when the owners and managers of the various establishments had already begun to make plans for getting back into business and to rebuild the burned district in better shape than it ever was before. Signs hurriedly painted were stuck up at many points of the smoking ruins, telling the temporary locations of the different business concerns. Meantime architects and contractors were besieged with owners of the burned buildings to get plans quickly made and the materials on hand for constructing new buildings where the old had stood. Sites of the burned structures were cleared at once in many cases, and enlarged and modernized structures were planned for these sites.

It is impossible to tell the story in detail of the rebuilding of the burned district of the city. Suffice it to say that when the first anniversary of the great fire rolled round, a large proportion of the district had new structures already completed or at least under way.

The fire having occurred almost at the middle of the building season, it behooved the owners of the buildings to get quick action if they were to get their new structures ready for occupancy by the coming of winter.

In honor of the energy and optimism shown by the business men in their active working in rebuilding, the citizens planned a jubilee celebration for June 19, 1901, the first anniversary of the fire. At that time over $1,300,000 had already been expended for new structures.

The Court House which had stood as the seat of justice in the county since 1868, was badly damaged by the fire. On the day following the conflagration, the board of supervisors met in special session to take action on the repair or rebuilding of the Court House. A contract was let on July 6 for the tearing down of the dome and upper stories. This work was completed in August, and by that time it was seen that the whole structure was too much damaged to be rebuilt economically. After some discussion, the contract was let to the Peoria Stone and Marble Works to complete the demolition, and this same firm secured the contract to erect the building. How the building was to be paid for was one of the big problems. At a meeting of the board of supervisors on October 31, at which it was decided to submit to the voters of the county at the November election the proposition of a bond issue of $400,000 to pay for the new Court House. The bonds were to run five years. The voters gave a large affirmative majority for the bonds, and this end of the enterprise was secured.

The first stone of the Court House was laid on Dec. 28, 1900. The lower walls had been completed to the point of laying the corner stone, and this ceremony was held on May 22, 1901. There was a grand parade of military and civic bodies, and these gathered at the Court House, with a great crowd of the civilian population. The address of the day was made by Grand Master Hitchcock of the Illinois Grand Lodge of the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons. The Court House was completed and dedicated in the summer of 1902.

At the end of the first year, the following new buildings had, been completed or were under course of construction:

Court House-cost in round numbers-$400,000; New Illinois Hotel, $115,000; Griesheim building, $105,000; Corn Belt Bank building, $70,000; C. W. Klemm building, $30,000; Livingston-Strouse building, $25,000; McGregor building, $15,000; Burr building, $6,000; Belle Plumb building, $5,000; Cole Bros. building, $30,000; McLean Co. Coal Co., $15,000; Graham building, $4,000; Durley building, $65,000; Brand building, $20,000; Winter building, $7,000; Evans Estate building, $25,000; Marble-Thompson building, $30,000; Odd Fellows building, $30,000; Stephen Smith's Sons building, $35,000; Weldon building, $15,000; Metropole Hotel, $35,000; Unity building, $80,000; B. S. Green building, $25,000; Braley building, $15,000; Model Laundry building, $10,000; Braley-Field building, $14,000; Jeffry Burke building, &12,000; Frevert building, $15,500; Col. Smith building, $10,000; repairs made necessary by fire, $20,000; other new business houses, $35,000.

Grand total for first year's buildings, $1,304,500.

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