Between December 1925 and July 1926 there were fifteen major fires in the Kalamazoo area. The origins of these fires were never discovered, though it was thought that it was the work of one or more arsonists. Of the fifteen fires twelve of them took place in churches or places where fraternal organizations met and the damages totaled approximately $700,000. The fires that happened at the First Congregational Church, First Methodist Church, and First Presbyterian Church were among the worst of the fires that plagued Kalamazoo.
First Congregational Church
In 1925 the First Congregational Church was the largest Protestant church in Kalamazoo. It boasted a congregation of 1,000 members, including many prominent businessmen from the community, and had a building that was worth an estimated $175,000. At noon on December 29, 1925, a fire was discovered by two young boys walking past the church on their way to the Y.M.C.A. The fire spread quickly and 30 minutes after it had been discovered the entire building was engulfed in flames. One explanation as to why it spread so quickly was that it had begun in the basement of the church and the flames followed furnace pipes and the ventilation system as a way of advancing through the entire building. The cause of the fire was never discovered. At 1:05, just over an hour after the fire was first discovered, the roof collapsed. Shortly after the collapse, and before the fire had been entirely put out, the People’s Church offered their building to the Congregational Church as a temporary home. The Congregational Church continued to meet there for almost three years while a new church building was being built. The new building was dedicated in 1928 and was located on the same site as the previous structure that had burned down, on the northeast corner of Park and Academy Streets. This is the current building that the Congregational Church uses today.
First Methodist Church
The Methodist Church is one of the oldest church organizations in Michigan. The First Methodist Church was established in Kalamazoo in 1833 and became very popular with the Kalamazoo community. At 6:00 pm on March 13, 1926 flames were discovered in the First Methodist Church building located on the corner of Lovell Street and Rose Street. Firefighters arrived and battled the blaze for over an hour. Unfortunately, two firemen were killed when a balcony collapsed, and five others were also injured in their attempt to control the flames. While the balcony collapsed with the fire almost under control, it took two hours before the bodies of the two firemen could be recovered from the underneath the debris. The fire was believed to have started in the south end of the basement of the church and was thought to have been caused by either an overheated furnace or defective wiring. After the fire the members of the First Methodist Church held services in the Masonic Temple and later moved into the Capitol Theatre. On November 3, 1926, during a church banquet, the congregation began a campaign to raise $100,000 in pledges, and met their goal within four days. Ground was broken on October 1, 1927 for their new building, within which the church currently resides. The church was dedicated on March 17, 1929 and is located at South Park and Academy Streets.
First Presbyterian Church
The most spectacular of the church fires was also the last. The First Presbyterian Church caught fire on July 6, 1926. It was the third church fire in a year, and it was the third fire in that church in four months. The other fires had taken place in a moving picture booth and the church lobby. The fire was discovered at 11:20 pm on the night of the 6th when police officer Sergeant John Sperry saw the first spurt of flames from two blocks away. The flames started near the pipe organ at the rear of the pulpit and leapt from the organ to the ceiling beams and then began moving toward the front of the building. It was a rapidly spreading fire; the ceiling caught fire only 15 minutes after the alarm had been sounded, and the building was in ruins only one hour after it began. The firemen were unable to save the interior of the church. On their only attempt to do so, two men were overcome by the smoke and were unable to resume their posts. After the roof collapsed, firefighters were able to subdue the flames and began focusing on preventing the nearby buildings from catching on fire. By 2:45 the next morning the fire had ended, leaving behind only the charred remains of the walls of the church. The church held services in the old Central High School Auditorium from 1927 until the new building opened on April 13, 1930.
Rallying After Disaster
While it is unknown what caused these fires, the impact they had on the city of Kalamazoo was long lasting. The $700,000 in damages had to be repaid by the members of the organizations targeted and, in the cases of the churches that caught fire, new buildings had to be erected. Besides money, the fires had an impact on the lives of the firemen and their families, particularly those of the two firemen who were killed in the First Methodist Church fire and the families of all the firemen who were injured during this unpredictable and dangerous time. While these fires might have damaged the morale of all those that they affected, ultimately church and community members were able to raise the capital needed for reconstruction.