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May 24, 2014

Historical perspective: Major 1893 fires in Terre Haute link two businesses

TERRE HAUTE — Fortunately, the City of Terre Haute was not the site of any major commercial or industrial fires between May, 1890 and May, 1893.

Newspapers began lauding local citizens for its enviable record in 1892.

The May 28, 1890 blaze which destroyed Early Pork House on the east side of Water St., between Canal and Sycamore streets, was the last significant fire during that three-year period. Since the pork house had closed in 1879, the fire was an historic local milestone, marking the end of an era during which pork packing was a chief local industry.

Two major 1893 fires gave ample notice that the city was not exempt from such  disasters and unwittingly linked the fates of the businesses affected.

The tranquil ended at 11:30 p.m., Monday, May 15, 1893, when John Byers, night watchman at the Hudnut Hominy Co.’s riverside complex at Chestnut and Water streets, discovered a fire in the four-story grain elevator.

Byers notified a policeman, who triggered Alarm Box 64 at First and Wabash. When the fire’s intensity was recognized, a general alarm called every fire company on duty to respond. The city’s only aerial truck was disabled, impairing the ability to combat the blaze.

The large red light actuated by the sounding of the general alarm could be seen for many blocks, attracting a large crowd. Flames, propelled with exceptional force into the night sky, delivered nearly unbearable heat.

Four streams of water doused the fire. It was too late to save the elevator so firemen focused on stopping flames from spreading to the brick mill only a few feet away.

A strong wind made the task difficult. Window panes in the mill cracked and firemen were confronted with other obstacles, including a hose that split in several places.

Despite the problems, firemen worked with strength and  determination. As dawn was approached the fire finally seemed to be under control. However, several men remained at the site all night to oversee and smother smoldering embers.

The Hudnuts grain elevator had a capacity of 150,000 bushels but only about 25,000 bushels were in bins at the time of the fire. Firemen repeatedly saturated small piles of corn and oats, which often erupted into fire.

The cause of the blaze was not immediately determined but a spark from a passing locomotive, a common hypothesis, received the blame.

The loss of the elevator, machinery and grain, as well as damages to the Riverside mill, were estimated to total $30,000 or more at 1893 prices. Benjamin Hudnut believed the losses were adequately covered by insurance.

Sixty hours later a fire at the Bronson Exchange Artesian Bath House and Swimming Pool at Tenth and Chestnut streets caused more damage.

Erected by David Bronson in 1890, the resort already was attracting visitors from long distances. It was newer and closer to railroad depots than Andrew Conant’s popular Magnetic Mineral Springs Bath House at Water and Walnut streets, founded in 1870.

Bronson’s Bath House was reputed to be the best equipped facility of its kind in Indiana, costing more than $40,000.

Dennis Golden, 734 N. Twelfth St., a switchman for the Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad, apparently saw the fire first during the morning of May 18. He was startled to see a sheet of flames surrounding the cupola on top of the three-story brick structure.

Golden dashed from the railroad yard to the nearby bath house to notify occupants. Someone else triggered Alarm Box 30 at Tenth and Chestnut.

Proprietors David and Mary Bronson were in the cellar of the facility when an employee rushed down to tell them the building was on fire. When the Bronsons reached the upper floor the blaze was consuming the bath department. Several scantily clad women who were bathing made a quick exit.

The interior finish of the building was made of hard pine and the fire rapidly gutted it. The blaze seemed to spread over the entire structure but the core of the fire was located in the northeast corner, near a gas generator.

A large crowd assembled but was forced by intense heat to stay a half-block away. In many ways the fire resembled the Hudnut Hominy Co. fire three days earlier.

Only after the interior of the building was totally destroyed were the firemen able to get the blaze under control. Meanwhile, efforts were focused on preventing the fire from spreading to Bronson’s Saloon, in a separate building on the same tract.

After four streams of water began dousing the flames, the self-supporting main roof collapsed with a crash, leaving the exterior walls standing. A separate roof over the swimming pool did not fall but eventually was destroyed by the fire.

The business office and some furniture sustained water damage. However, with the help of Will Dorsey and a few others, many desks, chairs, sofas and books were carried out before the fire reached them. Closets surrounding the pool were not severely damaged.

Particles of burning timber were carried airborne by the brisk wind.

Hoses broke during the fire and water pressure was not at its peak. Terre Haute Water Works superintendent Leonidas S. Williamson said the firefighters’ inability to use the water main on Thirteenth St. caused the problem.

Damage estimates exceeded $40,000. The building could not be repaired for the summer of 1893, the peak season for the Bronsons.

Though insured for only $12,000, the Bronsons were committed to rebuild. Indeed,  the buildings housing Hudnut Hominy and Bronson’s Exchange Bath House thrived for nearly 30 years, providing a twist to this story which linked the two businesses once again.

Bronson’s Exchange Bath House (and Sanitarium) was severely damaged by fire on May 6, 1921. Though the Bronsons planned to rebuild, Hollie N. Oakley purchased the damaged building and converted it into business offices for Oakley’s huge grocery chain.

In 1902, after marketing America’s first edible corn oil, called mazoil, Ben Hudnut sold the riverside mill and the elevator in Terre Haute to the American Hominy Co.

Destroyed by fire on Sept. 12, 1922, the hominy mill was not rebuilt.


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    March 12, 2010