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Fire destroys downtown

Andy Ouriel • Mar 31, 2014 at 11:50 AM

Jim Wichman vividly recalls an eerie, reddish glow burning through his Shelby Street home window.

The chilling scene, occurring 75 years ago today, overtook Sandusky’s skyline and still haunts Wichman’s mind.

   “I remember my dad waking me up, and we looked out the window toward the east. The sky was all lit up,” said Wichman, who now lives in Akron. “It looked like London in World War II. The devastation was enormous”

   It was Sandusky’s most destructive fire. In 1939, a raging inferno engulfed a large chunk of downtown, destroying several businesses and resulting in $2.5 million in damages. Today, the cost of damage would be about $40 million.

   The blaze started at the Herb & Myers department store on East Market Street just before 4 a.m., across the street from where James A. Bertsch Jewelers & Gifts is located today.

   The fire spread onto Wayne and Water streets before more than 100 firefighters from all across northern Ohio — units from Sandusky, Huron, Fremont, Berlin Heights and Norwalk, among others — finally extinguished it 12 hours later.    Flames towering higher than the Feick Building ended up scorching a bevy of businesses, including irreparable damage to the Sears and Roebuck Co. store, the W.S. Frankel Co., the McLellan Dollar Store, the E.B. Ackley Co., Stephens Printing Co., the Cohn Store and the two floors above the Cohn Store.

   “It was devastating to downtown to see that many buildings lost” Sandusky fire Chief Paul Ricci said.

   Miraculously, no one died or sustained any serious injury.

   “It was a blessing,” said Wichman, who still remembers seeing hundreds of people descending on Sandusky and lining downtown’s street to witness the fire.

   “People came from all over to see the devastation” he said.

   Residents also rallied around one another, according to newspaper reports.

   Till’s Dairy, a downtown ice cream shop, the closest building to the fire not to suffer major damage, gave free ice cream cones to firefighters battling the blaze.

   E.B.J. Carroll, district manager of the largest local insurance company, announced all the employees who lost their jobs as a result of the fire — more than 200 people — could remain insured until they found employment again.

   Shortly after the fire, R.L. Wilke, the chairman of the Merchants’ Division of the Chamber of Commerce, declared the city would come back stronger than ever.

   Wichman, a historian who also serves as Sandusky fire’s chaplain, recently set up an exhibit at the downtown fire station to clue people in on the event. The display features photos and captions, with information taken from past Register stories on the fire.

   “It was a huge loss to the city,” Wichman said.

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