Bowen-Merrill Fire, 1890
This historical marker is located near the site of the former Bowen-Merrill Bookstore, which caught fire on March 17, 1890. Twenty firefighters battling the blaze fell from the building's roof when the building's walls and the roof collapsed. Twelve of those men were killed by the accident; a thirteenth firefighter perished as a result of his injuries. The fire was the deadliest in the history of the Indianapolis Fire Department. As word of the tragedy spread, residents of the city established annuities for each of the nine widows and twenty-two orphans. The state of Indiana responded to the tragedy by creating the first statewide pension fund the following year.
Backstory and Context
The Indianapolis Fire Department dates back to 1826 when a group of volunteers established the city's first fire company. The city hired its first paid firefighter in 1859. Although this fire killed more firefighters than any other in the city's history, it was not the deadliest fire in Indianapolis History. That distinction belongs to a fire that happened two years later at the National Surgical Institute.
On January 21, 1892, 19 patients were killed when the Surgical Institute caught fire. Despite the tragedy, the fire could have been far more deadly without the rescue effort, as over 300 people were in the building when the fire started, and of those individuals, 194 were trapped above the fire on the top floor. Brave volunteers joined the firefighters as they rescued patients and staff from the hospital's top floor.
David J. Bodenhamer, Robert G. Barrows, ed. The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, Bloomington, the University of Indianapolis Press, 1994, p. 568.
"The Bowen-Merrill Fire," Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection, Indianapolis Public Library, accessed 12/28/16, http://digitallibrary.imcpl.org/cdm/bowenmerrillfire/collection/ffm
Image from Indiana Historical Bureau website, http://www.in.gov/history/markers/387.htm