Thursday, July 18, 2013

Harvey County Flashback: KG & E Fire February 1953

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

Kansas Gas & Electric Co, 512 Main, Newton, ca. 1952
HCHM Photo Archives
Around 8:00 a.m. on Saturday, February 21, 1953, Virgil O. Brumback arrived at  his store, Brumback Paint & Paper Co. at 510 Main in Newton.  He noticed "smoke seeping through the floor at the rear of Gordon's Shop adjacent to his business."  He reported the fire. For the next several hours, both Newton and volunteer firefighters using  four trucks battled the blaze with heat so intense they could not get near the structure.  

One firefighter was "nearly overcome with smoke on two occasions."  William A. Rittstatter attempted to enter the building with a large water hose in an attempt to get at the fire base.  He had to retreat with the help of his fellow firefighters wearing masks.

KG&E Fire, 21 February 1953
HCHM Photo Archives
Fighting the fire was made more difficult by the freezing wind. Several fire fighters had water frozen in their hair due to the "water spray from the hoses."  Volunteers were an important  in fighting this fire.  According to the Kansan they helped "heave hoses and equipment to various places . . . helped police with traffic control . . . and manned large hose nozzels [sic], carrying two and one - half inch lines."
KG&E Fire, 21 February 1953
HCHM Photo Archives

Perhaps the most dramatic action of the day occurred when Newton Fire Chief, Ed Warhurst "personally made his way to the top of the blazing building and cut a hole in the roof so that the fire could 'get air'."  Warhurst later explained that if the pressure became too great in the building, "it might have exploded, spreading the flame. The hole in the roof was necessary to keep it from doing so." 

The Kansan editor credited the seventy-one year old Fire Chief with saving the surrounding businesses with his actions.

KG&E Fire, 21 February 1953
HCHM Photo Archives

The back portion of the block  long building collapsed about 10:45 and firefighters were able to get the upper hand.  Surrounding businesses, including Gordon's Ladies Wear Shop, Graber's Hardware and Brumback Paint & Paper Co.,  suffered smoke damage.

Throughout the morning "an estimated throng of over 2,000 people trampled the watery street and alley behind the building, witnessing the fighting procedure."

To thank the firemen, policemen and highway patrol officers that helped get the fire under control, a local restaurant, the Coffee Cup, gave them "the run of their dinners for their efforts . . . when they can find the time."

The Kansas Gas and Electric Company had been in the 510 Main building since 1935.  Damage was estimated at $50,000 the KG & E building alone.

Those familiar with Newton history will note that the 500 block of Main was also the site of the devastating fire on August 4, 1914.


  • Newton Kansan, February 21, 1953, p. 1
  • "E.C. Warhurst, Fire Chief, Dies" Newton Kansan, 2 November 1956, p. 1.
  • HCHM Photo Archives
  • Newton City Directory,  1952, 1954.

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