Elevator Milling Co. fire, 1927

Postcard drawing, circa 1916, shows the Elevator Milling Co. Perspective is from approximately Fourth and Jefferson streets (Sangamon Valley Collection)

As many as 5,000 people stood in pouring rain the evening of April 8, 1927, watching as a historic grain mill and elevator went up in flames across from the Third Street railroad station.

The massive blaze destroyed 45,000 bushels of corn, along with the 110-foot-tall grain elevator, which had stood at Third and Washington streets since 1865. Two other buildings, the mill itself and an adjoining office structure, were badly damaged.

Flames shot 200 feet into the air at times.

“The blaze could be seen from points ten and twelve miles distant,” the Illinois State Journal said in its story the next morning. “Many telephone calls were received at The State Journal office from Chatham, Riverton and nearby towns, asking for details of the fire.”

Illinois State Journal front-page photo of the fire (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

Despite a pouring rain, onlookers started to gather almost as soon as the fire began about 5:30 p.m. Spectators first packed the Chicago & Alton Railroad Station  at Third and Jefferson streets. Then they spilled onto nearby streets.

“The crowd was as spectacular as the blaze itself,” the Journal said.

Men, women and children in all sorts of attire, beslickered, raincoated, some in shirt sleeves, rushed to the scene. The Chicago & Alton station was completely buried beneath a blanket of umbrellas. When it became apparent that the walls might give way, police cleared that portion of the depot immediately in front, but all along the Washington and Jefferson street sides, hundreds stood and watched the conflict with the blaze.

Despite the steady downpour, the crowd extended along Third street to Adams, where it seemed as plentiful as around the station, while those walking away from the scene were greeted by scores of new arrivals, rushing from all part of the city to witness the sight.

Many spectators used the windows and rooftops of downtown buildings as vantage points.

“By far the choicest amphitheater was the St. Nicholas hotel,” the Illinois State Register reported. “From the upper story of the St. Nick a representative of the State Register watched the progress of the fire, which did not reach its climax until exactly midnight.”

The blaze began in a steam dryer in the mill section. The mill’s evening crew turned in the alarm, the Journal said, and Springfield Fire Chief Matt Cullen called out every firefighter and every piece of equipment the city owned.

The four-story brick mill, situated to the north of the office building and elevator proper, was soon a seething mass of flames and a dozen lines of hose placed at advantageous points failed to check the flames. The roof of the mill fell in at 7 o’clock with a crash that could be heard for blocks, and police at once established fire lines and forced the thousands of spectators back to a safe distance. …

The elevator building, a nine-story structure covered with corrugated iron, was separated from the four-story brick mill by three fire doors. Those doors prevented the spread of the flames to the elevator for a time, but at 8 o’clock clouds of dense smoke were seen issuing from the elevator tipple and its destruction was seen to be but a matter of time.

The simultaneous rainstorm kept the fire from spreading to nearby buildings. Spectators were waterlogged, but undaunted, the Journal added.

When the engines had been working for three or four hours, streets in the vicinity were flooded and water stood to a depth of two feet in several basements in buildings in the vicinity of Third and Washington streets …

Police kept close watch to prevent accidents and in spite of the fact that the crowd at times was estimated at five thousand persons, none occurred. The police ambulance was kept at the C&A station throughout the fire period.

Restaurants in the vicinity did a thriving business due, in part, to hundreds of persons putting off their dinner hour.

The grain elevator was the only such building in Springfield when constructed in 1865-66 by Asa Eastman (1802-87) and William Post (1819-1880).

A rare photo of the Elevator Milling complex, taken from the southwest. Date unknown (SVC)

“The mill is one of the oldest industries in the city,” the Journal said in its fire story. “The constant grinding of grain has been heard by thousands of persons passing through Springfield aboard Chicago & Alton trains, and the wheels ceased only on Sunday afternoons and Sunday nights.”

Elevator Milling Co. shipped 250,000 bushels of wheat and 500,000 bushels of corn annually in the 1920s. Owners were president J.B. Kern, vice presidents George and Frank Reisch, secretary Albert Reisch and treasurer Frank Weidlocher.

Monetary damage from the fire came to an estimated $500,000 (more than $8 million in 2023 value), the Journal reported. The company, however, was insured for only up to $300,000, and the ownership group announced two weeks after the fire that it was going out of business.

The 1865 elevator was a total loss. The mill itself and the office building survived the blaze despite major damage. They sat vacant, however, until the late 1940s, when several labor union locals moved their offices into the buildings. The complex later served as a warehouse for a plumbing and heating company.

In 2023, Isringhausen Imports of Illinois, a car dealership, occupied the entire block between Second, Third, Jefferson and Washington streets. The northeast corner, the site of the mill and office structures, was the home of Isringhausen Volvo.

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