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.

 

Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

You May Also Enjoy

Making Rain

Making Rain

How pioneer trails shaped Omaha streets

How pioneer trails shaped Omaha streets

Marker Monday: Atlas D Missile Site A

Marker Monday: Atlas D Missile Site A

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.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Upcoming Events

View our new and upcoming events to see how you can get involved.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.

History Nebraska Education

Learn more about the educational programs provided at our museums, sites, and online.

Education Digital Learning Resources

Find games, lists, and more to enhance your history education curriculum.

History Nebraska Programs

Learn more about the programs associated with History Nebraska.

Latest Hall of Fame Inductee

The Nebraska Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize prominent Nebraskans.

Listen to our Podcast

Listen to the articles and authors published in the Nebraska History Magazine with our new Nebraska History Podcast!

Nebraska Collections

History Nebraska's mission is to collect, preserve, and open our shared history to all Nebraskans.

Our YouTube Video Collection

Get a closer look at Nebraska's history through your own eyes, with our extensive video collections.

Additional Research Resources

History Nebraska Research and Reference Services help connect you to the material we collect and preserve.

History Nebraska Services

Digital Resources

Find all of our digital resources, files, videos, and more, all in one easy-to-search page!

Support History Nebraska
Make a cash donation to help us acquire, preserve, and interpret Nebraska’s history. Gifts to History Nebraska help leave a legacy and may help your taxes, too! Support the work of History Nebraska by donating to the History Nebraska Foundation today.

Volunteers are the heroes of History Nebraska. So much history, so little time! Your work helps us share access to Nebraska’s stories at our museums and sites, the reference room, and online.