Austin has a history of major fires

Published 11:09 am Friday, January 16, 2009

In frigid below-zero temperatures Thursday afternoon, Austin and area firefighters battled a blaze on Main Street that poured out bright orange flames and left most of downtown smothered in smoke.

The fire began shortly before 4 p.m. in a clothing business next to the Mi Tierra restaurant and grocery store.

Chief Dan Wilson said the incident is believed to be one of the biggest ever to destroy multiple commercial buildings in the city.

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Austin has a history of major fires.

According to the Austin Daily Herald’s story entitled, “Trial by Fire,” published on Jan. 24, 1990, the area has had its share of devastating blazes.

In 1890, the first of many landmarks was lost when the high school was destroyed just an hour before the school day.

High winds made the fire hard to control, but the city’s new water system and the work of the fire department were given high praise for keeping the fire from spreading.

Lincoln School was lost in flames in 1909. The fire department completely drained the city’s water supply and had to pump water from the river to continue fighting the second school building fire in 20 years.

Three thousand spectators watched as firefighters fought a blaze that destroyed part of the Hirsh building in 1923. An explosion in the building, which housed the furniture department of the dry goods store, was said to have raised the roof more than 18 inches.

Flames that jumped 75 feet in the air were said to have been seen in Owatonna when the Crane Lumber Company burned to the ground in 1935. The fire threatened a considerable section of the city before firefighters contained the blaze.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1945, fire destroyed the Terp Ballroom, causing $140,000 in damage to the eight-year-old dance hall that housed many acts from the Big Band Era.

The Roxy Theatre was gutted in 1950 after a film in the projection room caught fire. All 30 filmgoers and residents of the building escaped without harm.

The 80-year-old structure that housed the Grand Hotel burned in 1958. It was the structure’s second fire in 14 years.

The Turf Bar was lost to fire in 1969. The nightclub on Third Avenue was popular for live music.

The list continues.

In 1973, the state fire marshal was called to investigate two fires that erupted on opposite sides of the city. Firefighters were called to a fire at Sterling Shopping Center just an hour before a call of fire at an east side apartment building. Thirty-eight firefighters from Austin, Albert Lea and Lyle fought the two fires.

One of the most tragic fires in Austin happened the same year when a fire in the Ace Hotel took the lives of four hotel residents. Twenty residents escaped the blaze, which was thought to have been started by the hotel’s residents.

The steeple tower of St. Augustine’s Church was destroyed by fire in 1976. The 140-foot tower was the tallest structure in the city of Austin and was a historical landmark that highlighted the skyline.

Two night spots were leveled by fire in 1983. Charley’s Bowl and Stephen’s Supper Club burned the day after Christmas, causing more than $1 million dollars in damage. Six firefighters narrowly escaped injury when the ceiling and wall collapsed just seconds after the men left the area.

In the 1980s, a fire broke out at Ellis school and a blaze at the Austin Country Club caused more than $1 million in damage.