A Winter Fire in Downtown Omaha, Nebraska

Early on January 4, 1940, a fire broke out in the Henshaw Hotel. The hotel, located at 1511 Farnam Street in Omaha, Nebraska, was one of many hotels in the downtown business district. The fire was believed to have started in the Henshaw Cafeteria next to the eight-story Henshaw Hotel building. During that winter night, guests poured out of the hotel building onto the cold streets. Firefighters rescued those people who became trapped on the hotel’s upper floors.

“Nebraska State Journal”, January 5, 1940, page 1

“Nebraska State Journal”, January 5, 1940, page 1

Several hotel guests and firefighters were injured in the chaos of the fire. While some people evacuated using the fire escapes, others used blankets as ropes to climb down and reach the roof of a neighboring building. Thomas Puryear, the hotel’s night clerk, suffered burns after remaining inside and using the elevator to transport guests to the ground floor. Sadly, one woman later died from pneumonia caused by the smoke and cold air she was exposed to that night. After everyone evacuated the building, the fire continued to burn for several hours before being controlled. The fire department battled frigid weather conditions that January night. The surrounding buildings and streets were coated with ice when the sun rose.

“Omaha Morning World-Herald”, January 4, 1940, page 1

“Omaha Morning World-Herald”, January 4, 1940, page 1

Omaha photographer Nathaniel Dewell took a series of images documenting the aftermath of the Henshaw Hotel fire in January 1940. He captured views of the damage and the crowds of spectators who gathered downtown to view the fire scene. Dewell also photographed scenes of the firefighters clearing debris and equipment from the ruined building. These images are now part of a photograph collection preserved and digitized by History Nebraska. Nathaniel Dewell created thousands of images of life in Omaha from the 1920s through the 1940s.

View of Farnam Street after the Henshaw Hotel fire. (RG3882.PH000022-000049)

After the fire, ice covered signs for the Henshaw Hotel and Cafeteria. (RG3882.PH000022-000059-1)

Firefighters worked in the ruins of the Henshaw Cafeteria near where the fire started. (RG3882.PH000022-000058-1)

Click here to view Dewell’s images of other Omaha hotels.

Click here to browse the entire Nathaniel Dewell photograph collection.


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About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
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