Historical Society of
County Seat Council Bluffs, Iowa
30 Years Ago: Long Time Bluffs School Destroyed by Fire
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Thirty years ago this month about a thousand Council Bluffs children found themselves without a school following a blaze that destroyed the original Kirn Junior High building. The structure at 511 Bluff Street had served as "Council Bluffs High School" and "Abraham Lincoln High School" prior to being renamed for longtime educator Gerald Kirn in 1967.
Two ninth grade students at the school and a 17-year-old high school dropout were arrested the following day for the incident. News accounts at the time reported one of the 15-year-olds said he set the fire to a teacher's desk drawer to burn up some papers. In a different version of the story one of the youths claimed in a 1996 interview they had been playing a few blocks away at Zeplan's Palace game room (now Duncan's Cafe) and ran out of quarters. They broke into the school to see if they could find any stereo equipment or other valuables that could be sold for cash, and the fire was completely unintentional. To avoid detection the trio didn't turn on any lights, instead using matches to see. One match accidentally dropped into a teacher's desk drawer and set a small fire; they closed the drawer hoping to smother the fire and left the building hastily.
The fire started in an art room on the third floor. The first alarm was received at 1:50 a.m. Sunday (October 3, 1976); fifty firefighters and twelve trucks were needed to bring the blaze under control. Virtually no room escaped fire or water damage.
Charges against the 17-year-old were eventually dropped, as were arson charges against the 15-year-olds. The two younger boys did plead guilty to breaking and entering were sent to the State Training School for Boys at Eldora.
Kirn students were accommodated at Woodrow Wilson Junior High in a split shift arrangement in which Wilson students started classes at 6:25 a.m. When the Wilson students were dismissed those from Kirn took their places for classes that lasted until 5:15 p.m.
Ironically the fire put an end to a controversy that had been bitterly dividing the school board. The majority of the board members wanted to abandon the old building in favor of a new structure; a minority but vocal faction wanted to save and restore the old building. Two newly elected board members appeared to favor the old building, giving the "restoration" side a majority. Two days before their first school board meeting, however, three youths and some matches removed this as a possibility. Voters had rejected three consecutive bond issues for school system improvements but by a narrow two percent approved a new school in February, 1977. The new Kirn Junior High held its first classes September 16, 1979, amlost three years after the fire.
Story below reprinted from the October, 2006 issue of the Historical Society's "Member Journal"...
Photo credits: Top from HSPC archives, center from October 4, 1974 Daily Nonpareil, bottom courtesy of Robert Warner, Sr.
(Story by Richard Warner. Dr. Warner is vice-president of the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County.)