Forties fire on Hyman Avenue |

Forties fire on Hyman Avenue

Willoughby CollectionCitizens commiserate over Aspen's most devastating fire.

Aspen’s fires favored Hyman Avenue. The worst, in the 1940s, destroyed several businesses and burned important buildings to the ground while threatening to spread throughout the town. Valiant work by Aspen’s volunteer fire department contained the fire to the northwest half of the street, saving the mid-block brick Kolby building for the second time in history.

The nighttime fire concentrated on several two-story wood commercial structures. The fire claimed Mrs. Al Anderson’s beauty shop on the corner of Hyman and Mill. She and her husband lived on the second floor. They barely escaped with their lives. Hugh McCabe, a blind old-timer who operated the small tobacco store next door, managed to save his life, but not his store. A cafe and bar run by Jim Gavin, the Al Lamb Drug Store and Sweeny’s second-hand store had survived the Great Depression only to be erased from Aspen’s major business street. Another tobacco store, run by Ed Tiederman, was lost to the fire. Tiederman, unlike the other store owners, later reopened across the street.

The following day, my grandfather, mayor at the time, asked my father to bring the Midnight Mine bulldozer to town to clear the debris. Doing so would avoid accidents and diminish the blight. Another empty lot was not as serious a concern to a struggling town as a half-block of fire debris.

After a couple of hours pushing charred wood from the lots, my father heard underground explosions over the din of the ‘dozer motor. Sheriff Otto Johnson, who was keeping curious onlookers from traipsing through the remains, also heard the distressing sounds.

Surveying the scene, they narrowed down the source of the sounds to Gavin’s bar basement. Gavin was spraying cold water from a garden hose onto a hot steel safe that was surrounded by charred timbers. He intended to remove the contents as soon as the safe was cool enough to open. It didn’t take Sheriff Johnson long to find the explosions: Gavin’s beer kegs. One by one they blew up, releasing a muffled boom that caused no one harm.

One bystander, a frequent patron of Gavin’s, hoping Gavin’s plight might result in his gain shouted, “Turn that hose on them kegs, cool them off, I’d like one.”

However, the small crowd that gathered to mourn yet another city setback found no humor in Gavin’s loss.

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