What caused the Great Corning, Iowa Fire of 1896?

Fall had settled into the rolling hills of Adams County in southwest Iowa. Harvest had begun in the largely rural region, and farmers and their families toiled in the fields as the temperatures began to drop and the leaves slowly changed their color.

In the city of Corning, the county seat, and the largest city for miles around, people also adapted to the changing season. In addition to the everyday tasks and chores, many were already starting to prepare for the harsh winter months quickly approaching.

For nearly everyone, their shopping needs would have brought them to Davis Avenue, Corning’s main street and the business hub of the city. Lined with restaurants, mercantile, banks, and businesses, the avenue stretched up a gently sloping hill from the railroad yard on the south end of town all the way to the Adams County Courthouse at the top of the hill.

West Side Davis Avenue, Corning, Iowa

Largely self-sustaining, farms in the late 1800’s didn’t require a constant stream of resources to make their operation run. As a result, farm families didn’t leave the farm very often, maybe making the long trip into town once a week or so

However, they did require certain things on a semi-regular basis, and when they did, it was time to go into town. When that time came, it was generally quite the event for them. It was a time for them to get cleaned up a little and see another side of the world.

Going to town was a way to escape from the monotony of farm life. There was a rhythm to living on the farm, and much of it became routine. When they stepped down from the wagon on Davis Avenue, they got to see a different side of the world that added a breath of fresh air to their lives.

They saw the fine black suits that the bankers wore as they did business at the National Bank of Corning. They would have seen the latest innovations in agricultural equipment being sold at the S.G. Johnson and J.B. Wilson implement dealers. Some young men, wanting to look their best at the next major social function in town, went to get a trim at McKinley’s Barber Shop.

Groups of locals probably took some notice of the railroad workers and other travelers who were rooming at the Park Hotel for a few nights before passing on to their next destination.

Reporters wrote the latest news for the Adams County Union, the local newspaper. Workers sold raw materials at the local hardware store, while J.H. Eldridge sold the finest cuts of meat at his butcher’s shop. The Corning City Hall was also located on Davis Avenue, along with the local library.

This was everyday life on Corning’s main street, the very heart of the town.

But just like the farm, Davis Avenue had its own rhythm. By evening, the crowds eventually died away and headed home by evening. The businesses closed, locked the doors, and headed back to their own homes, resting up to repeat the entire process the following morning.

The night of October 9, 1896 was no different. As the twilight faded into darkness, the citizens of Corning settled into their warm beds and drifted off to sleep.

At 2:30 a.m., the sharp sounds of a clanging bell rang clearly through the night, breaking the deep silence that had been there. It was an alarm call, warning that a fire had broken out somewhere in the town.

The volunteers of the Corning Fire Department leapt out of bed and quickly made their way through the dark toward the fire station on Davis Avenue to find out what had happened.

The Reynold’s grain elevator by the railroad yard had caught fire. Under normal circumstances, they would have been confident that they could put it out. The city boasted a nearly state of the art water works which would provide them the means to deal with any manner of fire.

Unfortunately, the boiler, an integral part of those waterworks, was broken.

They had a repairman come to look at it, but they had left without fixing it. Arrangements were made for someone else to come and make the repairs, but they wouldn’t arrive until the following Thursday. In the present moment, that did them absolutely no good.

The only viable piece of fire equipment that they had was an old-fashioned hand pump fire truck. Two men worked a handle in tandem, building pressure in the tank and allowing the hose to spray water with force.

It was far from ideal, but it was what they had. With grim determination, the firemen filled the truck’s water tank and began pushing it toward the railroad yard.

By the time they got there, the elevator itself was already engulfed in flames, and three nearby railcars had caught fire. The firemen knew that the elevator was beyond saving. A strong wind was already blowing from the south, and they were afraid that the fire might start spreading further than it had.

The decision was made to work on containing the fire where it was. One group of firemen manned the pumper truck, spraying down not only the fires, but also the surrounding wooden structures to make it harder for them to catch fire.

Others worked on moving railroad cars and other objects away from the fires, or used buckets of water to help bring down the roaring blazes.

As they worked, Corning residents, awakened by the fire bell, came out to help.

For the next few hours, they all worked tirelessly. Finally, after what must have seemed like an eternity, the fires had died down to small flames and embers. The danger had passed. They had done it.

Exhausted, the firemen and normal citizens congratulated each other. They shook hands, and clapped hands on exhausted shoulders. They smiled through soot-stained faces, eyes bleary from smoke.

They had lost the elevator, but they had saved everything else. The fire had died where it had started.

As they began to survey the extent of the damage, someone noticed something in the wreckage of one of the box cars. There, obscured by charred wood and rubble, was a human hand.

With a sickening feeling, the firemen realized that someone had seemingly been killed in the fire. Quickly, they began to uncover the remains. The corpse’s features had been burnt away, and what remained of their clothing suggested that it had once been a male. Beyond that, there was no other clue to the man’s identity.

The firemen were sure that it wasn’t anyone who had come out to fight the fire that night. The fire had been far too hot to go inside the burning railcar, and everyone seemed to have been accounted for when the fire had been mostly put out.

So who was it? Who could it be?

The firemen concluded that the man, whoever he had been, must have crawled into the railcar to take shelter for the night. They must have fallen asleep, and then had succumbed to the smoke and gasses produced by the fire. The corpse had been burnt when the fire had spread.

There wasn’t anything else that they could do for him. He was far past saving. They made plans to contact the police later. The authorities would take the investigation from there.

For now, it was nearly 4 o’clock in the morning. Their job was done. Exhausted, the firemen and volunteers began to leave the scene, making their way back to their beds.

But as they approached Davis Avenue, they noticed an orange glow lighting the night sky. With a sinking feeling, they realized what it was. Davis Avenue was on fire!

The wind must have blown some of the embers from the grain elevator fire north onto one of the many wooden buildings on Davis Avenue. It had caught fire, and with no one to sound an alarm, it spread rapidly to the buildings around it.

Quick as they could, the firemen sounded a second alarm, but it was already too late.

The fire had become an inferno that consumed everything in its path. It was almost a force of nature, beautiful and powerful in its fury and intensity. Fighting the blaze was going to be near impossible, and the everyone in town knew it.

Hardware stores, meat markets, harness shops, barber shops, and jewelry stores were all consumed by the fire. In just about two hours, the fire had spread and consumed buildings the length of the entire business district of the main street.

The pride of Corning, Iowa, was literally disappearing in clouds of ash and smoke.

The citizens did what they could, which was mostly run and salvage whatever they could find. At Johnston’s implement dealer, several pieces of agricultural equipment, along with horse carriages and buggies, were removed as they saw the fire advancing rapidly northward.

By this time, fire departments in neighboring towns had been alerted to what was happening. Firemen from the nearby towns of Villisca, Clarinda, and Creston sent their respective fire departments via railroad to fight the blaze.

Just like the first fire that night, however, the beleaguered firemen could do little more than try and contain the massive fire. As the sky began to brighten and the first, cold light of dawn arose, the entire length of the Davis Avenue business district was little more than a smoking ruin.

The incredible heat from the fire had shattered windows and buckled walls. The streets were covered in debris, ash, and broken glass. Across it all, an uncaring rain fell from a dismal gray sky, almost like nature itself wept for Corning’s loss.

Wooden frame buildings had been almost completely consumed, leaving virtually nothing behind. The Park Hotel, which had stood proud and strong just the day before, was gone. Only the smoking basement walls remained. Other buildings fared slightly better, with only a few walls left standing, the rest blackened and broken.

At the bank, people gathered what bank books and ledgers they could find that hadn’t been burnt and carried them away in whatever containers they had. Another group of men worked at forcing their way into the bank vault to check on the contents, while several people eagerly looked on.

The worst of the rubble was blocked off and watched over by national guardsmen. While the fire had consumed much, there were still come things left that were worth taking.

While everyone was content that that the fire on Davis Avenue had been caused by embers from the first fire, the cause of the Reynold’s elevator blaze was never fully determined. It could have been anything, and several people had their own theories about it.

The corpse found in the burned box car was never identified. When he was first found, it was thought he was killed in the fire.

However, when the body was examined, a hole was found in his side. Investigators initially took that as an indication that he had been murdered. Looking closer, it was discovered that the firemen had made it when they used a hook to pull the body out of the rubble.

There were other rumors, but they amounted to nothing. The official cause was unknown, and the identity of the burned corpse was never found.

Corning had worked hard to build their first main street, and they would work even harder to build it back again.

A year later, it had been completely redone, with a few exceptions, such as the Park Hotel. Almost all traces of the fire had disappeared, and the main street was stronger than ever.

Davis Avenue in the modern day.

In 1998, a little over one-hundred years after the fire, Corning was awarded with the Great American Main Street Award. It was a vindication of all the hard work that they had invested in Davis Avenue.

Today, Davis Avenue is still alive and thriving, a true testament to the tenacity and spirit of the citizens who have built and maintained it.




A Great Blaze. Adams County Free Press, 10/15/1896

Risen From the Ashes. Adams County Free Press. October 14, 1897

Destructive Fire at Corning. Audubon Republican, 10/15/1896

W.C. Chubb. The Laclede County Republican, 9/14/1927

Schweider, Dorothy. “Iowa: The Middle Land.” Iowa State University Press. Ames. 1996.

City of Corning, Iowa. http://www.cityofcorningia.com





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