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Notable Blazes

Stevens Boarding House Fire, April 15, 1869. Images courtesy of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum.
Historian highlights notable fires from Kalamazoo’s past

Fire has been a challenge everywhere for years, and more than one distinguished Kalamazoo landmark has been taken down in a blaze. In 1843, after Kalamazoo became a village, an ordinance passed requiring all residences and businesses to have two ladders and one bucket to fight fires. Three years later, the first volunteer fire company was organized, followed by three more. Cisterns, wells and creeks, especially Arcadia Creek, were a source of water to fight fires.

As the community grew, so did the number of fire companies, and after a reorganization in 1870, firefighters began to get paid for their services.

Here are just five of the notable fires that have changed Kalamazoo’s skyline over the years:

Stevens Boarding House Fire

April 15, 1869

Pelick Stevens came to Kalamazoo in 1862, starting a career in construction and real estate. He owned a large boarding house, with 30 apartments, on the block bordered by West Michigan Avenue, South Park Street, Academy Street and South Westnedge Avenue. Also located on the block were several single-family homes. A fire that may have originated in the chimney of the boarding house destroyed it and several other structures. Finding water to fight the fire was a major problem, since the cisterns in the village were empty. An attempt to run a hose from Arcadia Creek was too late. Plans had been in the works for the two years prior to the fire to build a public waterworks, and the fire sped up the project, which was completed that same year.

Kalamazoo High School

Feb. 1, 1897

Most students walking to high school early on a Monday morning would not expect to see their building in flames. But that’s just what Kalamazoo High School students saw on this winter morning. Gas created by new coal in the furnace was the reason given for the explosion that destroyed the school on the corner of South Westnedge Avenue and West Vine Street. Students, teachers and staff watched as the building’s roof and tower collapsed, bringing down the bell. Students who witnessed the fire reported years later that they assumed all grade books were destroyed and they would get a week off from school, neither of which happened. School began four days after the fire at the YMCA, which was downtown at that time. It continued there until a new school opened a little more than a year later.

Hall Brothers Chemical Co.

Feb. 26, 1898

This company, which manufactured chemicals, medicines and supplies, was formed in 1895. Less than three years later, its building on the southwest corner of North Church and West Willard streets would catch fire, leading to an explosion that killed 10 people, four of whom were firemen. It was the first time a Kalamazoo firefighter died in the line of duty. In addition, 27 people were seriously injured. For 10 days after the fire, articles about the blaze appeared in the Kalamazoo Gazette, including reports of an inquest, which came to no conclusion. The large amount of chemicals stored in the building ignited by the fire and the lack of a night watchman on duty contributed to the catastrophe. The business never reopened.

Burdick Hotel

Dec. 8, 1909

The Burdick Hotel, which opened in 1854 as the Cosmopolitan Hotel and provided accommodations for visitors to Kalamazoo, was located on West Michigan Avenue between North Burdick and North Rose streets. The fire that destroyed not only this building but many others on the block began on the evening of Dec. 8 in the basement of the Star Bargain Store, next to the hotel. Before long, flames engulfed the hotel. Fortunately, all 160 guests escaped the fire, which went on for 15 hours and was fought by both the Kalamazoo and Battle Creek fire departments, with the Kalamazoo State Hospital water tower providing water to fight the blaze. The New Burdick Hotel, advertised as fireproof, opened in 1911. After business began to decline in the 1950s and 1960s and the hotel welcomed permanent and semi-permanent residents among its guests, it closed in 1971 and was taken down in 1973, to be replaced by the Kalamazoo Center, a hotel, office and retail complex (now called the Radisson Plaza Hotel at Kalamazoo Center).

The Church Fires

December 1925–July 1926

Within seven months, three prominent downtown churches suffered the same fate: destruction by fire. First Congregational, on the southwest corner of the church square surrounding Bronson Park, was the first, catching fire on Dec. 29, 1925, followed by First Methodist, at the northwest corner of West Lovell and South Rose streets, on March 13, 1926 (pictured here) and then First Presbyterian, on the northeast corner of West South and South Rose streets, on July 6, 1926. Speculation ran rampant as to the causes or possibly who may have been behind the fires. More than likely the fires were caused by or related to malfunctioning equipment. Tragically, two firefighters died fighting the First Methodist blaze. All three churches were total losses, and all three were rebuilt at their current locations. (First Methodist Church is now First United Methodist Church.)

Lynn Houghton

Lynn Houghton is the regional history curator of the Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collection. She leads the Gazelle Sports Historic Walks, a series of free architectural and historic walks at various locations in Kalamazoo County that happen during summer and fall, and she is the co-author of Kalamazoo Lost and Found, a book on Kalamazoo history and architecture. She also participated in the PBS documentary series 10 That Changed America, about the history of architecture and urban planning. She has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from WMU and a master’s in library and information science from Wayne State University.

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