Early in the morning of December 3, 1925, James McManigall, lit an oil heater under the boiler in the basement of the Continental Furniture Company. What followed next was one of the biggest fires in Council Bluffs history.
James was thrown back by a large explosion. He managed to get himself out of the building even though he was badly injured. There was a second larger blast, that threw flames onto the hotel across the street.
The Continental Furniture Company was located at 29 Pearl Street. The back of the building extended to Main Street.
The Grand Hotel was located at the southeast corner of Pearl and 1st Avenue. It opened in 1891 and had 7 floors and 126 rooms. When it opened it was called “the most beautiful in the west”. The blast from the Continental building knocked hotel guests from their beds and within ten minutes the hotel was on fire.
The first call to the Council Bluffs Fire Department was at 4:55 AM. 4 fire companies from Omaha were called in to help with the fire. The Shugart Block, which was to the south of the Continental building was the next to succumb to the fire. Two buildings to the north of the Grand Hotel were also destroyed. Because of the tremendous effort of the fire department, the Elks Building to the west of the hotel was spared.
Amazingly only two people were injured, James McManigall and Frank Tierney, a fireman who was knocked off his ladder when a wall fell. All the guests made it out of the hotel, some left reluctantly since they were still in their night clothes. Wales B. Otis was a guest from Ames, IA. He was moving his car out of harms way when he heard the screams of James McManigall. Assisted by his friend David Jameson of Chicago, they drove McManigall to Mercy Hospital.
By sunrise the the fire was still burning but under control. The roofs and walls of the buildings had collapsed leaving piles of rubble, and a few destroyed cars, on the streets. Burning embers carried by the wind started several small fires in the surrounding neighborhoods, but these were quickly extinguished. In all it was estimated that the fire caused $1,250,000.00 in damages. That’s equal to $21,000,000.00 today.
The next day cables and dynamite were used to bring down the remaining walls of the burnt out buildings. The Grand Hotel was a tough building and required many sticks of dynamite to knock her down.
Council Bluffs didn’t have to wait long for a new hotel. The Hotel Chieftain was opened on the same site in 1927.