Fifty years ago was GalesburgÕs greatest tragedy


By Norm Winick

The Zephyr, Galesburg


It was fifty years ago tomorrow, May 9, 1958, also a Friday, that Galesburg suffered its greatest loss in history. Nobody died — but the archives of an entire community were lost. On that night, the one architectural gem in the city and the repository for the history and culture of Galesburg perished forever.

The Galesburg Public Library was then — and now — underappreciated. Even the Library Board and the City Council insured the magnificent structure for only $240,000 — well below its estimated value at the time of $850,000.

The building we now use, after a series of expansions, is larger in square footage but pales in comparison to the grandeur of the structure it replaced. It took until 1998 until the book collection was as large as the collection of 200,000 volumes that was lost. Much of what was lost we will never know because the card catalog was destroyed as well. We do know there were five irreplaceable original Lincoln documents, many original newspapers from the 1800s, and thousands of other archival documents never to be seen again.

GalesburgÕs first library was started 100 years before the fire, making this the sesquicentennial of the Galesburg Public Library. In 1858, the Young MenÕs Literary Association of Galesburg was formed with an initiation fee of $1 and dues of 50¢ a quarter. With that, the 176 members (by 1860) could  borrow one book at a time from the collection housed in rooms over ReedÕs Bank. It was open three hours per week and was organized by Albert Hurd, a professor at Knox College.

In 1872, the Illinois legislature established free public libraries in the state and in 1874, the Galesburg City Council took action. The 4,500 books of the Young MenÕs Literary Association became the collection of the Galesburg Public Library.

Twenty years later, a new home was needed for the growing collection. The city council authorized spending $50,000, $12,500 over four years from a special tax levy, to construct a permanent library. The bids came in above that and they authorized another $15,000. A location on the southeast corner of Broad and Simmons Street was selected, despite some objections.

Along the way, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was solicited and agreed to donate $50,000. In 1902, after ten years of planning and arguing, the Galesburg Public Library opened its doors, debt free. $73,500 was spent on the land and building.

The beautiful building contained private meeting rooms for several clubs and spacious reading rooms.

 An archives, The Illinois Collection was started in 1940.

While many Galesburg residents used the library, it was an imposing structure and not a particular user-friendly facility. It wasnÕt air conditioned. Librarians controlled who had access to which materials. Quiet was enforced.

The facility was quieted forever when, 56 years after it opened, a fire started by an attic exhaust fan rapidly spread. The city had inadequate water pressure and the fire department was impotent to extinguish the blaze. More than 5,000 onlookers, many downtown shopping on a Friday evening, watched the fire spread at will. The next morning, a carcass, eerily reminiscent of whatÕs left of the buildings of ancient Greece or Rome, was all that remained.

There was some discussion after the fire of rebuilding the new library inside the shell but the $240,000 in insurance money wouldnÕt be close to accomplishing that. The City had exhausted its bonding authority with a $5 million bond issue to pay for a water line from the Mississippi River which had passed the previous year. The City Council placed a $650,000 referendum on the ballot in 1959 to build a new library. It was soundly defeated.

Eerily like the OT JohnsonÕs Fire this decade, the structure remained standing for more than a year after the fire before demolition started.

With just the insurance money and a low-interest loan from local merchant Julian Mack, the current library was constructed. It was expanded in 1967 with the addition of the childrenÕs room and in 1996. It wasnÕt debt-free until 1979.

 While it is now larger than the one that burned 50 years ago, the current library is again too small for the collection and the use it receives. Libraries have been an important part of Galesburg life for 150 years.