Fire(s) in Benkelman, 1906

Wooden buildings, no building codes, and often no fire department to speak of. What could possibly go wrong?

By David L. Bristow, Editor

 

Wooden buildings, no building codes, and often no fire department to speak of. What could possibly go wrong? History Nebraska’s collections are full of photos of disastrous fires from communities across the state.

On June 7, 1906, a livery barn caught fire in the southwest Nebraska town of Benkelman, killing fifteen horses and spreading to an entire city block, destroying a restaurant, shoe store, implement house, meat market, feed store, printing office, furniture store (though the furniture was saved), and a private residence.

Though it isn’t known how the fire started, there was talk of a lawsuit against the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. “The manner in which every freight train throws sparks . . . is almost sufficient evidence in itself that the fire was started by an engine,” the Benkelman News-Chronicle complained on June 22.

In the same issue, the News-Chronicle called for investment in “reliable fire protection” and a “good system of water works within reach of every house.” In its role as town booster, the paper extolled the community’s advantages and insisted that once rebuilt, “the fire district . . . will no doubt surpass any other in town from a point of beauty and quality.”

Such optimism may have been the point when Earl Dobbs, a local barber, ordered these cards to be printed. One doesn’t print souvenir cards for something that will be the death of the community, but rather for hardships that people might want to commemorate having survived and overcome.

Though his business wasn’t harmed by the 1906 fire, Dobbs wasn’t so fortunate on July 29, 1911, when fire swept another commercial block, including his barbershop. Starting in a restaurant, the fire caused about twice the damage of the earlier blaze. Only about half of the losses were insured, a surprisingly low figure in a town that had suffered a major fire just five years earlier. Dobbs was probably relieved that his $100 in damages were covered, though to our knowledge he ordered no souvenir cards.

 

Photo: History Nebraska RG3907-1-3

(Posted 9/21/2021; an earlier version of this story first appeared in Nebraska History Magazine, Summer 2013, 108.)

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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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