(KC 1900 Series: # 13)
The Great Kansas City Convention Hall Fire is about to start. And those who were there will tell the fire’s story. The accidental witnesses, the denizens of the boarding houses and shops in the vicinity, the newspaper reporters, the civic leaders all have a view to share. There were so many, in fact, that their pieced together stories provide a continuous story of the day, raising this event from a common conflagration to an influential milestone in the city’s history, and deservedly so.
Thanks to the exhaustive reporting of the Kansas City Star and other local papers, as well as an excellent retrospective that appeared in the Star fifty seven years after the event and a few other miscellaneous sources, it is possible to capture the big and small moments over the course of the day from multiple points of view. The March 31, 1957 Star retrospective, “The Fire that Gave Birth to The Kansas City Spirit 57 Years Ago,” was written by Henry Van Brunt. Van Brunt was a well-known architect who had submitted a design proposal for the hall in 1898 at the start of what became a long, distinguished career.
Monday, April 2, 1900: Two days before the fire
That evening, the Chief of the Fire Department, George Hale, came to the Convention Hall to meet with some of his men, in anticipation of the National Democratic Convention, still three months away. That same night, the local Democratic Party was meeting at the hall, to plan the individual events of the convention in the spaces where they were to occur.
Hale walked with his men around the arena, assessing the hall for fire hazard concerns related to the convention. As the firefighters toured the building, Hale noticed piles of old straw under the arena balcony, some empty paper boxes and other debris in a corner, left behind after a recent event, and the number of people inside – workers and visitors both – freely smoking. Smoking was prohibited inside the building but the rule was rarely observed. Hale immediately called the hall’s manager, J.P. Loomas, to the site and ordered the mess cleaned up as soon as possible. Loomas promised to attend to it first thing in the morning, so Hale kept watch by the piles for the remainder of the evening.
Tuesday, April 3: One day before the fire
As directed by Chief Hale the prior evening, J.P. Loomas put a crew on clearing the debris under the balcony. He later told the Star, “I had the old paper and rubbish carried away so that the place had been cleaned thoroughly the day before the fire. Except that there was tobacco on some of the floors that had not been cleaned since the Democrats had their big meeting Monday night, the building was cleaner than it had been, I might say, since it was built.”
Also that day, the city had elected its 32nd mayor. Democrat James A. Reed succeeded Republican James M. Jones, and would be sworn in two weeks later.
Wednesday, April 4: Morning of the fire
Four carpenters and a plumber were working on the flooring in the building’s interior roof garden. A group of boys who had been hired as part of the janitorial crew were working on small jobs about the building. When interviewed later by Fire Chief Hale, the boys said they had seen two men walking around inside the building smoking cigars in the late morning. The boys ordered them to leave, but the men ignored them. It is worth noting that the story the boys told was later corroborated by Chief Hale, and so was deemed credible. It is also worth noting that the boys were identified in the newspaper account as “negroes.” That, and the fact they were young boys likely accounts for why their order to leave the building was ignored, and the fact that they did not press the point further.
12:00 pm: An hour before the fire
Noon brought the lunch hour. Three janitors were inside the building, taking a break. The building manager, Loomas, went home for his meal. Despite the blustery southwest wind and the mid-day chill of early spring, the sun was shining and the downtown sidewalks were filled with people going about their lives.
12: 45 pm: The fire starts
Based on the investigation that followed the event, the actual fire likely started somewhere around 12:45. It must have traveled quickly through the building. The first sightings all focused on the northwest corner. There were two potential sources of heat or combustion housed in adjacent rooms in that northwest corner – the circuit room and the boiler room. Whatever the source, the fire likely used the wiring to start spreading out, slowly igniting the wooden elements as it went, until there was sufficient fire to break through the roof, where the flames were fanned by the strong southeast wind.
1:00 pm: Flames sighted
At 12th and Broadway, just a block north of the hall, someone outside the Eyssell Drug Store spotted smoke coming from the northwest corner of the hall. At 1:00 pm, the store clerk made the first call to the fire department. At the same time, or shortly thereafter, the janitors inside the hall discovered the fire, and made another call to the fire department.
At the Lathrop School, just across from the hall on the west side of Central, lunch period was over and the study bell at the school had just rung. About 200 students were at school that day. Principal J.A.Barnard looked out his window and saw flames and smoke right across the street, coming from the Convention Hall. Walking toward the school from the schoolyard where students had gathered before the bell, the teachers and students saw fire too. Barnard ran to the front entrance only to discover the front façade of the school was already hot. Embers at first, then pieces of wood on fire floated with the wind and settled around the school. As teachers and students came down the stairs toward the front entrance, Barnard directed them to the back door, away from the fire. Some of the teachers and children who were still outside first headed for the front door, but by then the school had caught fire, so they ran north on Central. No serious injuries were reported, but the newspaper noted that “the pupils nearly all lost their schoolbooks.”
Sitting just south of the Lathrop School and across Central from the south entrance to the hall was the sanctuary and the parsonage of Second Presbyterian Church. The school and the church buildings were most likely ignited by the flames from the south end of the hall, so the church likely caught fire shortly after the school.
1:05 pm: Fire engines head to the fire
Fire Chief Hale was enjoying his luncheon in a downtown eatery, having left Assistant Chief Alexander Henderson in charge at the department’s headquarters at 8th and Walnut. Henderson led the first crew to respond to the call. The minute the team left the firehouse, Henderson could see the smoke billowing above the buildings in the direction of the convention hall eight blocks away to the southwest, and he called back to the men on watch in the firehouse to give the second alarm.
More calls started flooding in, including one from Edward H. Murray, a sign painter, who saw the smoke from the back door of his shop at 13th and Main, about two blocks east of the hall. According to Murray the first fire engines arrived on the scene nine minutes after he called in the alarm.
1:10 pm: Reporters on the scene
On the fifth floor offices of Peck Dry Goods Store at 11th and Baltimore, Charles Blood, editor of the Star’s regular feature, “Forty Years Ago,” was waiting for Mr. Peck. Peck’s had provided one of the prizes for the Convention Hall’s subscription drive – a pedigree English bulldog named Buckskin Pritscher, and Mr. Blood, the winner, was there to pick up the dog’s certification. Mr. Blood was waiting by the window when he noticed a plume of smoke in the general direction of the Convention Hall, quickly followed by the clang of the fire wagon bells and the sound of galloping hooves on the cobblestone streets below. Fires being fairly common , Blood paid no particular heed until he left the Peck building and came out on Main Street, just as another fire engine raced past him. He watched the horses as they turned to climb the 11th Street hill, and then noticed the growing mob following in the fire engine’s wake. Blood followed the crowd until he reached the Kansas City Club at 12th and Wyandotte, only a half block from the hall.
Another reporter, Louis Shouse with the Kansas City Times, was walking down Baltimore when one of the first fire engines came by, led by Dan and Joe, the horse team that Chief Hale and his men had made famous at the international firefighter competitions in recent years. The horses headed up 10th Street, then turned south on Central. In a 1950 edition of the Star commemorating Kansas City’s 100th anniversary, Shouse recalled the moment.
“By the time I reached Twelfth Street, flames were bursting out of the roof of the hall…It soon became plain that there was not a chance of saving any part of the building…Exposition buildings of this type had in them enough wood to create such terrific heat that the thousands of panes of glass melted to a liquid and the steel girders twisted like strips of tin…”
1:15 pm: Word spreads far and wide
Twelfth Street was flooded with onlookers who, along with Mr. Blood of the Star, were catching their first glimpse of the fire by peering down the alley between the north end of the hall and a row of boarding houses known as the Williamson block. But by then, there was little to see of the hall but “smoke and ashes and stark, twisted girders.” Mr. Blood looked at his watch. It was 1:15 pm, just 15 minutes after the first call, and about 30 minutes after the fire had started.
It could not have taken more than ten minutes for at least the first two fire engines to arrive on the scene. However, it is true that there were some engine teams – one from the West Bottoms was mentioned in the reports – that had trouble getting to the site of the fire quickly. Poor equipment, steep terrain and aged horses all played a part in the delays. At the fire, the water was woefully under pressured. There was also one report that one of the hoses had become disconnected and that for nearly ten minutes there was no water being sprayed on the fire. But none of this likely would have changed the outcome. When Assistant Chief Henderson and his men arrived, first on the scene, it was already too late to save the hall. From the Star:
“When we reached the hall,” [Henderson] said, “the heat was so terrific that we never got inside the building. It was a blessing to the firemen that we did not, for if it had been possible for human beings to stand the heat I would have sent those boys into the building and they wouldn’t have hesitated to go. Every fireman who was there contributed to the building of the hall and had the interest in it that a man has in his own property. But we never got nearer than across the street. The men dragged one line of hose across 13th Street, but the heat drove them away, and before the water could be turned on or the hose dragged back the hose was burned to pieces.” The fire was so intense that there was really no need for the rope blockades the fire department had put in front of the crowds: the heat was enough to keep everyone far back from the fire.
Fifteen minutes after the first report of the fire had come through the phone company’s Central exchange, word of the disaster had passed to towns all over the region. Between the calls from locals wanting to know what was happening, and the newspapers from all over the area trying to call in for information, the Central exchange reportedly set records for the number of calls handled within an hour. The Star reported the manager of the exchange claimed, “Our operators were so busy that several of the girls fainted from exhaustion. It was by far the busiest day in the history of the system.”
Meanwhile, Charles Blood headed back to the Kansas City Star’s offices, but first stopped to talk with some of the men he knew who had come out of the Kansas City Club to witness the fire. The men were collecting money from people in the crowd, money that was then stuffed into envelopes. When Charles Blood asked the men what they were doing, they answered they were starting a fund for donations to rebuild the hall, just as they had done for the one that now lay in ruins. The hall, they reminded Blood, had to be rebuilt in time for the Democratic Convention, just 90 days away.
1:30 pm: Breaking news
Charles Blood raced all the way to the Star’s offices, and up the inside stairs until he found William Rockhill Nelson himself in conference with city editor Ralph Stout. Blood would later claim to be the first to tell Nelson about the fire, even though it would be reported later that there were already 34 reporters on the scene by this time. Blood noted how both men were stunned to hear the awful news, and in a retrospective on the fire in 1857, the author, Henry Van Brunt’s account reported that the story Blood told brought tears to Nelson’s eyes. While that might be hyperbole, it is important to remember that this was more than a major newspaper story to Nelson. This was one of the major civic projects where he used the Star’s position and influence to promote broad community support for something he believed was absolutely necessary for Kansas City’s growth. So when Blood further told him about the fund raising efforts that were already underway, Nelson declared this would be the feature of the paper’s evening story on the fire. The evening edition did focus on the donations, and reported that already, almost before the fire was extinguished, Kansas Citians had contributed more than $30,000 for reconstruction. This time, the largest contribution that first day came from the Kansas City Star.
By 1:30 a fire engine arrived at the south end of the hall, only to spot a workman on the roof. It took four long minutes to raise the ladder to the roof, and in that four minutes the wind had shifted and was quickly spreading the fire southward. The workman (identified only as Roby in the Star, but as James Brennan in the Kansas City Gazette), and the fireman who climbed the ladder to reach him both came down unharmed.
When the roof had burned nearly all the way to the south end, Charles Blanton, a janitor at the hall and a black man, made a daring decision. His boss, J.P. Loomas, having gone to lunch, had locked the door to his office near the front (south) end of the building. Blanton knew the office held the hall’s most important records. Many were in a safe, but as to the rest, he broke into the office and took as much as he could hold in his arm, rescuing these papers from the fire. Included among the papers were correspondence, invoices, contracts, photos and other documents that told the early history of the Convention Hall, some of which served as invaluable resources for this series on the Convention Hall fire.
1:45 pm: A complete loss
The far south end of the Convention Hall, the last part of the building to catch fire, finally succumbed. It crashed onto 13th Street, taking with it the brick Corinthian columns that had become a signature feature of the hall. And with that, at last, the remainder of the ceiling and the burned twisted trusses crashed to the floor of the burned out shell that had only moments before been the building that was the pride of Kansas City. As if choreographed, at the same moment, just across Central the tall graceful steeple of the 2nd Presbyterian Church leaned to the west and collapsed almost silently while suddenly sending up a column of sparks and smoke.
2::00 pm: More devastation
The wind-stoked flames and the flying embers and debris caught the Williamson block on fire. The Williamson block consisted of six different boarding houses, directly north of the hall along 12th Street. Firemen evacuated the buildings as quickly as possible, while some residents stayed behind to save belongings. Eventually, however, though the block was a total loss, the residents were all safe.
The 1200 block of Broadway, the stretch directly west of and behind the 2nd Presbyterian Church and the Lathrop School caught fire, too. The fire eventually reached six private homes, the Arklow boarding house, Carey’s book store, A.G. Gardner’s tailor shop, Wolf’s meat market, the Hotel Cunningham, and Eysell’s Drug Store, where the original call to the fire department had been made just an hour before.
As the occupants of the Broadway buildings struggled to save whatever possible by dragging their belongings into the street, linemen were working to cut the wires along both 12th and 13th Streets, creating a level of chaos and a threat of electrocution that the police department struggled to control.
2:30 pm: It’s over
The fire was finally contained and with the exception of a few remaining hot spots, nearly extinguished. The crowds moved back to their position next to the ropes that kept them from harm’s way, straining to get a look at the extent of the damage. One look and they saw the awful truth – virtually nothing remained of the Convention Hall. Even the stone and concrete work that remained standing looked unstable, visibly pitted and scorched, and broken in places where the great, twisted trusses shattered it apart as they fell to the ground.
3:30 pm: Wasting no time
The Board of Directors of the Commercial Club quickly convened an emergency meeting at their offices just a few blocks north of the hall. The meeting was largely ceremonial. They entered into their minutes a statement describing how the devastation of the loss of the Convention Hall struck at the heart of the City and its residents, and that the Club was committed to the effort required to rebuild the hall or, in the event that wasn’t possible, to find a suitable place for the meeting of the Democratic Convention. They had three months. The manager was directed to begin the site clean-up. Secretary Clendening was directed to meet with the insurance companies, and to give notice of a public meeting to be held the following evening. The Kansas City Star was already tallying the fundraising efforts.
The work of rebuilding the hall had begun. And the story continues.
(All photos courtesy the State Historical Society of Missouri – Kansas City)