Looking Back: The Fire of 1901


Submitted story

The Champaign Democrat reported on Feb. 28, 1901, that one of the largest fires in Urbana occurred early Monday morning, Feb. 24, and caused $80,000 in damages. The fire was first reported at 2:45 a.m. by Dr. Robert Henderson, who was returning from a night call. The fire is believed to have started at 118 N. Main St. (west side of North Main Street) where the Boston Store had been located since May 1900. (Note: No connections to the later Boston Store located on the east side of North Main Street.)

A circa 1930s photo shows the west side of North Main Street, from Monument Square to Court Street. The arrow points to 118 N. Main St. The fire spread rapidly, possibly through an elevator shaft that extended through three stories of the building. The fire consumed most of the block, affecting businesses from 112 N. Main St. to the corner of Main and West Court streets. A future article will talk about each of the businesses affected.

The fire was a spectacle, as southerly winds carried burning pieces of wood to neighboring buildings. Fighting the fire for hours in below-freezing temperatures, the firemen were covered with ice. A crowd gathered in the early morning hours to witness the devastation.

The photo of the fire was taken from the Brunswick, a recreation center across the street, at 119 N. Main St. Brunswick owner Julius Weber opened early so spectators could watch the fire safely and warmly. A future article will detail the firemen’s incredible challenge that fateful morning.

Suspicions started early and the investigation took many twists and turns. Officer Bus Hill, who had been on duty that morning, passed the Boston Store at 2:30 a.m. and saw no signs of the fire. However, he noticed someone standing on the square shortly before the fire. It was thought that the fire started on the second floor above the Boston Store, yet there was no stove on that floor, and a clerk stated that there was no coal oil in the store. Accusations and theories began to multiply for Prosecutor Frank Zimmer. A future article will reveal the results of this thorough investigation and the resulting charge of arson.


The Champaign County Historical Museum is a not-for-profit organization that depends upon donations and dues to preserve, protect, archive and display the artifacts that tell the Champaign County story. The free public museum located at 809 E. Lawn Ave., Urbana, is open to the public Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Info from Champaign County Historical Society (CCHS).

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