EVANSVILLE, Ind. (WEHT) – In the mid 1800s, downtown Evansville saw several large fires, which led to the institution of the city’s first fire department. That would only be the start of historic fires in Evansville. Images of the Morton warehouse fire are still fresh on many minds, including Vanderburgh County historian Stan Schmitt.
“It’s not going to be dollar-wise one of the most expensive ones in history there,” explains Schmitt, “but the size of the warehouse there, makes it a major fire.”
Evansville Fire Department Division Chief Mike Larson agrees, and says this most recent fire ranks towards the top of his list.
“In my career,” recalls Larson, “probably 3 or 4 that were close to this size. I would say the unique thing of this fire is due to how close it was to other addresses that could affect them.”
The River City is no stranger to large fires, including a string of downtown fires beginning in the mid 1800s, one of which claimed a downtown courthouse. Schmitt also says while each fire is unique, many were related to saw mills and lumber facilities. By the late 1990s, Evansville dealt with two major fires, first in 1997, which damaged another piece of Evansville history; a P-47 Thunderbolt.
“Across Franklin Street,” says Schmitt, “the Franklin warehouse fire, that was really right across from that.”
Next, in February of 1998, a large fire lit up the night sky on Evansville’s north side.
“Roundy’s there had a more than 100,000 foot warehouse out on Hitch and Peters Road that burned down,” says Schmitt, who says that fire was, at that time, estimated to be one of the most costly in the nation with damages totaling $17 million.
“Roundy’s, which was pretty massive, it was mostly free-standing so it wasn’t quite as complex as this one is,” explains Larson.
Other large fires made headlines across the Tristate, including a large fire in Omaha, Illinois in 2006 at the Omaha Furniture Store. Another large blaze in Tell City destroyed the Swiss Plywood facility in December of 2019.
“I think now things are built, and the codes there,” explains Schmitt, “I mean your chance of having the fires you used to have has gone down.”
Other notable Tristate fires include the Upstage Dinner Theater in the 1970s, and a massive blaze at a GE facility in Mount Vernon in 1999.