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A view of the rear of the Citizens Bank Building from Main Street on Jan. 29, 1934.

The second half of Stephen T. Jackson’s column “Living Icicles,” begun in May 2021, continues.

On Jan. 29, 1934, when the temperature plunged to 3 degrees below zero and a 45 mph wind created a chill factor of 58 below, a fire broke out in the six-story Citizens Bank Building at the southeast corner of Meridian and 11th streets.

The building was home to several businesses, including the Bell Telephone Company’s local phone exchange and the WHBU Radio Station. The Fair Store, which featured women’s clothing, was located in the northwest corner on the ground floor.

The fire, it was later determined, had its origin on the first floor of the Fair Store in the electrical wiring in the floor near the storeroom. The fire had been burning for as much as two hours before it was detected.

Flames jumped the alley, catching the domed-roof of the Paramount Theatre on fire. Firemen positioned there along with willing citizens manned hose lines until intense heat forced all to retreat.

Ultimately, the Paramount was saved by the heavy concentration of water thrown on the roof from an aerial truck and a hook-and-ladder truck directing its deluge gun on the north wall. That wall was later described as looking like “Niagara Falls in winter.”

All of the water froze quickly and encased everything in sheets of ice. There were reports of ice on Meridian a foot deep, making movement by firemen very treacherous. Ice covered not only nearby physical structures but also the firemen, themselves.

After two hours, the fire was under control. There were injuries to the firemen, some of which required a trip to the hospital. Fortunately, no lives were lost. The bank building would survive and resume its prominent place in Anderson’s downtown. The East block was too heavily damaged and was torn down.

Anderson residents awoke that Monday to find they had no phone service and would not have for the next two weeks; the entire Bell Telephone System needed to be rebuilt from scratch.

The WHBU Radio Station suffered an estimated $20,000 damage and was completely destroyed. Unable to learn why there was no phone service or local radio broadcast, the curious made their way downtown, some after hearing of the devastating fire over radio station WLS in Chicago.

One person recalled turning from 13th Street onto Central Avenue and through the open area at the back of the old Main Street School, where the library now sits, getting his first glimpse of the former Union Block, which had just had its name changed to Citizens Bank Building.

“At first sight, it looked much like a photo of old cliff-dweller ruins,” the person noted. “The glass and sash were out of all of the windows up on the east side. There was a choking pall of grayish smoke, but not much was pouring out of the windows.”

Another person recalled how the water from the firefighters’ hoses pooled into the surrounding streets and created a deep slush through which the traffic of sightseers made its way.

That created a problem for some of the automobiles of the day that didn’t have hydraulic braking systems but merely cables running to the brake drums. The cables to the rear brakes would ice up from the splashing slush and froze, causing the brakes not to work.

To overcome the problem, drivers were forced to use their intermediate or low gears to maneuver through the congested traffic, further exacerbating an already hazardous situation.

The brave firefighters found some relief from the bitter weather conditions. Harry Mayberry’s restaurant across Main Street saw a steady stream of firemen at the door, who came to be warmed, dried and plied with hot coffee. They then went back out to put on wet gloves and wrestle the bucking hoses.

History will remember it as one Anderson’s most famous fires, not only for its size and intensity, but also for the cruel weather imposed by Mother Nature on the firefighters, who battled conditions from which even a polar bear might seek shelter.

Columns by Madison County Historian Stephen T. Jackson are published monthly in The Herald Bulletin. Coming in July: “Winfield T. Durbin was a man of many accomplishments. Some would say the epitome of a self-made man. He was definitely a unique individual who lived during an age when that was more common than not.”

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