Doomsday KC

Convention Hall burned to ground, but that couldn’t stop Kansas City

By RICK MONTGOMERY

The Kansas City Star

On April 4, 1900, Kansas City’s destiny changed on the unrelenting winds.

It all happened so quickly: a furious and fast-spreading fire, a decision that day to rebuild. And, three months later, the city found itself basking in national attention as a place of can-do spirit.

One of the city’s proudest epochs began with a curl of smoke out of a corner of the Convention Hall. A moment later a crowd watched the year-old edifice become an inferno stoked by stiff gusts from the southeast.

Being early afternoon, a fire department that won contests for its speed was at the scene in an instant. But already “the magnificent structure was a roaring furnace … beyond the power of man to subdue,” The Kansas City Star reported.

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Within 15 minutes, flames had destroyed the empty arena, which covered most of what now is Barney Allis Plaza.

Embers carried by the wind jumped the road and raced to the north and west, igniting a school, destroying the Second Presbyterian Church and somehow sparking fires even in household closets. Despite the rapid pace of the disaster, The Star reported no deaths.

“George Hale was known as one of the best chiefs at the time in suppressing fire,” said Ray Elder, a Kansas City Fire Department historian and retired captain. “But Mother Nature spread this one for him. There was just no way of stopping it with the winds they had.”

The average annual wind speed in Kansas City is a touch above 10 mph, rivaling that of Chicago, the Windy City. A famous fire there in 1871 was aided by winds strong enough to spread flames from a barn blaze across four miles of the business district.

The cause of the Convention Hall fire never was determined, though suspicion arose about workers swinging tools near the building’s boiler room.

Wind speeds at the time were not recorded either. But later accounts of witnesses recalled dry, gusty conditions that made the pine-filled hall and its wrap-around latticework a conflagration waiting to happen.

Not that its vulnerability to fire lessened the city’s shock. Convention Hall was one of the world’s newest and largest indoor arenas. The hall had signaled Kansas City’s entrance into the 1900s as a major metropolis — 164,000 residents and booming — and the arena was scheduled to welcome the Democratic National Convention that summer.

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Even while the structure burned, a civic booster named U.S. Epperson hit up the crowd for donations to replace it. Someone asked: “Can the hall be rebuilt in time for the convention?” Epperson was doubtful; the convention was in 90 days.

Still, Epperson pitched a full-trottle rebuilding effort that afternoon with hall directors at the Commercial Club, comprised of the business elite. At the same time, residents began showing up at The Star’s editorial offices to offer donations. A streetcar conductor hopped off his vehicle and handed the newspaper $5.

Within four days, the rebuilding fund swelled past $60,000. (In today’s economy, that would equal about $1.7 million.)

Epperson rescinded his earlier doubts.

“Kansas City spirit, Kansas pluck and Kansas City money will restore Convention Hall,” he pledged, “and this time we will make it absolutely fireproof.”

That task fell to architect Frederick E. Hill — with some local chagrin, since he designed the original firetrap. But city leaders had no time to vet others. Design something safer, Hill was told, and oversee its construction in a third of the time it took to build the first hall.

Yet it happened.

On the Fourth of July, the hall opened to 11,000 Democrats and 600 national journalists.

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Yes, indeed — the new hall was finished just in time for the Democrats to nominate Willian Jennings Bryan for president. (He would lose the election.)

Praise from the East Coast press was genuine, if sometimes backhanded.

“Whatever New Yorkers may have to say for or against Kansas City as a summer resort,” wrote a New Yorker, “there is no getting around the fact that its citizens have risen to the occasion.”

A photograph taken outside the new hall captured a busy scene: well-dressed visitors scurrying by a leafless tree, scorched by the blaze. And a row of American flags snapping in the wind.

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