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Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Main Street Fire

The late radio news (television wasn’t here yet) on the frigid evening of Jan. 3, 1951, was focused on the pullout of United Nations forces from Inchon, Korea. Senator Robert Taft, a conservative Republican, was urging President Truman to declare war on China. Newspapers were clucking about Liz Taylor’s divorce from hotelier

Nicky Hilton and a like-new 1950 Ford Sedan was selling for $1,500 at O’Daniel Ranes Downtown.

Most of Evansville was asleep at 1:30 a.m. when the fire department alarms began to sound around the city as a bright orange blaze was spotted Downtown. By the time the first engines arrived a few minutes later, almost half the block of Main Street between Third and Fourth streets was ablaze and the fire was quickly spreading. The city Christmas wreaths were still on the double-acorn top streetlights and the entire area was as bright as morning. Newspaper reporters and photographers raced to the rooftops of the tallest buildings to watch in horror what was happening below.

In 1951, the central retail hub of Evansville was Main Street. No large shopping centers existed at the time, no malls, or big box stores. The Downtown was home to almost every large department store: Schear’s, Salm’s, Sears, Hoffman’s Mens Store, and De Jong’s for women. Smaller upscale shops included Bon Marche, Kaisers, and the largest — the Economy Store in the middle of the block, which was a Main Street fixture (Innovation Pointe now stands on that spot and was itself, rebuilt as the Evansville Store after the fire).

The fire started in the rear of the Economy Store and quickly spread to the adjoining Walgreens Drugs on the corner (where the closed Roger’s Jewelry store now stands) then south across the alley to Reed’s Shoes and the Bon Marche. Nearly all of the fire department’s 180-man force, plus an additional 20 or so firemen from outlying towns, eventually were on the scene of the conflagration which by 2 a.m. had jumped across Main and set Hoffman’s clothing store ablaze and threatened the Citizens Bank tower (now Kunkel Square), set the Evansville Federal building alight, and threatened the Hulman Building.

Fast acting firefighters created a “firewall” to protect both high rises. After several hours the fire was finally under control, but the central retail area of the city was in ruins and insurance estimators put the damage at $6 million ($58 million today). The fire destroyed or damaged 11 stores and six office buildings, and more than 200 people were unemployed as the large retail establishments were rebuilt. Some never reopened and others took their place, like the Evansville Store. Several firefighters were injured and all suffered from the cold night air when temperatures fell to below freezing.

Throughout its history, Evansville has seen its share of major fires. Notable fires include the January 1943 fire that destroyed the State Hospital and the 1946 fire that wiped out the Evansville Shipyard where LSTs were built. But no other fire changed the landscape of the Downtown like the Jan. 4, 1951 blaze that could have destroyed almost all Main Street landmarks we know today, if not for the fast action of area fire fighters.

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