April 13, 1948, ended normally for the citizens of Laramie. The temperature was above average and had reached the upper 50’s. The wind was not too bad, maximum gusts were out of the southwest but peaked at about 15 miles per hour.
An ordinary day
The Laramie Daily Bulletin announced that building permit applications marked the end of the winter construction slump and Greyhound advertised that a trip to Los Angeles would set you back $19.85.
That evening moviegoers had their choice of three venues, the Fox, Crown or Varsity with movies starring Charles Boyer, Katherine Hepburn and Ronald Coleman, respectively.
You were also advised by the Bell System that if you made long distance telephone calls after 6 p.m. you could be connected to your party much faster than during business hours.
An extraordinary event
By the morning of the 14th, however, Laramie residents would wake up to find that a major portion of the downtown had been destroyed by a devastating conflagration. The Daily Bulletin and the Republican Boomerang combined to issue an extra edition. The front page had a huge headline, which said, “$1.5 million Fire Guts 3 City Blocks.”
At about 2 a.m. Harold Olson was on his way home from his UPRR job at the depot. While walking up Garfield Street he noticed a fire at the rear of the Holliday Building. That four-story structure at the southeast corner of Second and Garfield Streets happened to be the largest in town and a major employer in the business district.
The fire alarm is sounded
Olson sounded the alarm and was soon joined by city policemen and directed to go to the police station to report that the fire was “pretty big.”
The Laramie fire department, under the direction of chief Blake Fanning, was on the scene immediately. Despite their efforts the blaze quickly engulfed the entire building. The only occupants, the store manager’s wife Mrs. E. H. Walker and her daughter, were in an apartment on the upper floor of the building when they smelled smoke. They immediately realized the situation and were able to escape unharmed.
The blaze was so intense that it was immediately noticeable several blocks away. Henry Therkildsen and Gordon Barrows were drinking coffee and chatting at the latter’s apartment at 1300 Grand Ave. when the bright light to the west perplexed them. They drove to the location, saw the immense fire and were soon enlisted by police to control onlookers who had congregated downtown.
Wind carries embers
Within 45 minutes of discovery, most of the Holliday building collapsed with the south wall crashing down on the Mehse-Baker automobile dealership next door to Holliday’s at 2nd and Custer Streets. The fire immediately consumed that building. About the same time a wind out of the south picked up and carried the fire north across Garfield Street and east to Third, destroying store after store. Gusting to well over 20 miles per hour, the wind carried the fire almost to Grand Avenue.
By this time the blaze was overwhelming the Laramie fire department and the call was sent out for help. Units from Cheyenne and Fort Collins were soon on the scene and provided much needed assistance. So great was the concern that the fire could not be contained that Connor Hotel guests were notified to be ready to evacuate.
Embers from the fire were found as far east as Ninth St. One landed on the roof of the American Legion Building at the corner of Fourth St. and Ivinson Ave. causing about $3,000 in damage before the beleaguered firemen could put out the flames.
Soon the wind changed directions and began swirling from the southeast; businesses to the west (across Second St.) were slightly damaged. Only because the wind died down and the additional fire departments arrived to pour great amounts of water on nearby buildings, was the fire finally brought under control by 5 a.m.
24 businesses damaged or destroyed
In all a total 18 businesses were destroyed, and six others were damaged. Ironically, the only building left standing on the entire Holliday block where the fire started was the old Laramie fire department station located on the southeast corner of that square block, at the intersection of Third and Custer Streets. Mostly undamaged, it was later torn down.
The exact cause of the fire was never known. The Holliday building had older and newer sections with the fire originating in the newer section. Fire doors between the sections were in place but an elevator shaft with only wooden doors was likely the conduit for the blaze to spread throughout the entire structure.
No loss of life
Despite the devastation and the number of personnel responding to the fire, no major injuries were reported. Local boys Jimmy Fun, a senior at Laramie High School and 15-year-old Kay Tuey Hing, were singled out for their efforts to prevent the spread of the fire.
By the 15th the estimate of the damage rose to almost $3,000,000. Insurance adjusters arrived in the city the next day. Unfortunately, initial estimates were that only one quarter of the damage would be covered. That same day, a fund-raising effort was launched to help those who were burned out. Housing was also offered to the displaced.
Many of the businesses were able to relocate and eventually reopen. Florist Jim Killian’s store was the last to burn of those near the corner of Third and Garfield, at 312 S. Third. The Rosedale Dairy building next to his was only slightly damaged but they vacated the south end of their building which had been a dairy bar—Killian renovated that space at 310 S. Third. “You can still see the blackened timbers at the rear of our store,” says Janet Killian, daughter of the founder who continues the flower shop today.
The Holliday Company building was not rebuilt and the company never regained its singular stature in Laramie.
The burned out portion of the business district, however, did recover. The square block previously occupied by the Holliday Building is now the home of Dodd’s Shoe Company, the Library Sports Grill & Brewery, Bank of the West and Source Gas among others.
By Kim Viner
Caption: The Holliday store at SE corner of Second and Garfield in downtown Laramie burns on the night of April 13, 1948 in the most extensive fire damage Laramie had ever experienced, when a total of 18 businesses were destroyed. These color slides were taken by an unknown photographer that night and the next morning, courtesy of the Laramie Plains Museum.
Caption: The devastation around Third and Garfield Streets the morning after the fire. Parked trucks belonging to Rosedale Dairy were lost though the dairy building at 310 S. Third survived with partial damage. Courtesy of the Laramie Plains Museum.