VALPARAISO — For want of $500 in repairs, the Porter County Courthouse was destroyed by fire on Dec. 27, 1934.
It was a spectacular fire that changed the face of downtown Valparaiso.
Firefighters from as far as Gary and LaPorte raced to Valparaiso to fight the fire.
A LaPorte firefighter’s face was frozen while driving the firetruck without a windshield in subzero weather. A LaPorte firetruck overturned on the way back to LaPorte, injuring four firefighters.
Several other firefighters were injured while fighting the fire, said Kevin Pazour, executive director of the Porter County Museum.
The building was a costly loss. In 1886, the county auditor put the building's final cost at $157,348.10 — about $4.3 million in today’s dollars, Pazour said. Among the contents lost were valuable murals in the circuit courtroom, where the fire apparently began, along with records of current and previous trials and some tax records.
Some of the county’s records were preserved in fireproof vaults, and others were rushed to safety by volunteers during the fire.
The fire drew hundreds of spectators from throughout the city and nearby rural areas during the eight hours it took firefighters to extinguish the flames.
Restaurants and businesses were opened so spectators could crowd inside and seek protection from the subzero weather.
Pigeons had roosted in the building’s tower, confounding county officials who tried to prevent them from doing so. Two pigeons flew into the flames, never to be seen again. "Perhaps they saw their roost being burned by the carelessness of man and decided to let it serve as a funeral pyre,” a reporter for The Vidette-Messenger speculated in an extra edition published that day.
“Flying embers from the burning building were carried for blocks on the wind. The air was full of myriads of sparks that reminded of a Fourth of July celebration,” the newspaper reported.
Volunteers leaned ladders against nearby buildings to check for damage to rooftops. Snow prevented the fire from spreading to other buildings.
According to newspaper accounts, county officials were warned as far back as 1929 that the wiring was unsafe.
Roland Reed of Gary, an electrical inspector for the state fire marshal, found open wiring run over wooden joints, touching the wood and girders at many points “and furnishing an ideal opportunity for an electrical fire,” the newspaper reported the day of the fire.
In 1933, Civil Works Administration, a Depression-era job creation program, could have done the necessary rewiring for $500.
A Federal Emergency Relief Administration electrician spent two days estimating the rewiring job. The county spent the money on a bridge serving a single family instead.
With an insurance settlement of $98,024, the county had nearly half the $225,000 cost of building the fourth courthouse. FERA offered to pay up to half the labor cost, which helped keep the total construction cost down.
The old courthouse had a tower and bell that weren’t replaced. During the fire, the supports for the bell collapsed and it fell to the first floor, knocking a hole in the floor and sending part of the broken bell into the basement.
The new courthouse scrapped the tower in favor of a third floor and the design recognizable today.