The deadly wildfires that took out entire neighborhoods in Colorado and California in recent months remind me of the three horrific fires that crippled Norman but led to safer building codes and fire protection systems. The first, 120 years ago this summer, began in a restaurant on the south side of Main Street just east of the railroad tracks.
The flames were fanned by high winds and spread quickly to the other wooden buildings.
Only the Norman State Bank building and the Carey-Lombard buildings, both made of brick, withstood the fire, according to newspaper accounts.
Water supply was limited. Businesses were required to place barrels of water out front, but that proved to be no match for the inferno that July afternoon. Flames jumped across Main Street and damaged buildings on the north side, too. Most only suffered broken windows and smoke damage.
Firefighters alerted Oklahoma City fire crews for help but they were unable to respond. So townsfolk turned out to help fight the fire on their own. Losses were estimated at $50,000.
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Sixteen years later, nearly to the month, a fire broke out in a ward building at the Oklahoma State Hospital (now Griffin Hospital) taking the lives of 40 patients. It destroyed a hospital dining room and three dormitories. All of the casualties were from one dormitory.
It was the largest single loss of life in a fire in Oklahoma’s history. According to newspaper and eyewitness accounts, the blaze broke out in a linen closet in one of the wooden, ward buildings and spread quickly. Many of the men suffocated in their beds.
All but one of the victims were buried in a mass grave on the northern side of the IOOF Cemetery. The exact location was unknown until 2014 when Norman’s Deputy Fire Chief Jim Bailey and a ground-radar team from OU were able to find a spot where the ground had been disturbed and determined that was the mass grave.
A granite marker, listing all of the names, was installed in the spring of 2015. Lawmakers had authorized funds for a new, better built dormitory before the fire but the money had been held up in the courts.
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Ninety-nine years ago this week, an early-morning fire that started in the Berry Department Store, destroyed 10 businesses in the 200 block of East Main Street, also on the south side.
The buildings included the Security National Bank building, Rucker’s Department Store, the Lewis and Taylor Hardware store, the Berry Mercantile company store, a grocery store and other, smaller businesses.
A passerby spotted the flames about midnight and sounded the alarm. On the same side of the road were several bakeries, the post office, a furniture store and a drug store.
An estimated crowd of about 1,500 townsfolk turned out to watch firefighters from Norman and Oklahoma City battle the block-long blaze. They had to be moved back often on account of the exploding dynamite and shells from the hardware store.
The other two banks and the post office helped Security get back in business quickly. Norman Rotarians presented a silver loving cup to the Oklahoma City firefighters who rushed to the town’s aid and helped save other buildings from the spreading fire.