Pathfinder explosion changed our downtown

2006-07-24T00:00:00Z Pathfinder explosion changed our downtownBy Patti Emanuel-Vaughan/SQ150 Fremont Tribune
July 24, 2006 12:00 am  • 

As we shook our heads over Watergate (1975), and the Vietnam War era ended, hippies nationwide started trading in their VW buses for compact cars (due to the fuel crisis).

Fremont’s Cycle Barons gradually stored their motorcycles as they married, had children and took day jobs. The local make-peace-not-war generation, and our veterans, had completed their job and mostly went on to an 8-to-5 existence, or maybe 11-to-7 at Hormel or Valmont.

One winter day, as the work-a-day world went about its business in Fremont, a massive explosion rocked the city.

It came at 9:32 a.m. Jan. 10, 1976, when an underground buildup of leaking natural gas ignited and lifted the six-story Hotel Pathfinder off its foundation at Sixth and Broad streets.

The blast was so powerful it threw slabs of sidewalk into the air, over Broad Street and crashing down into the customer area of Vienna Bakery across the street, and blew out windows at the Fremont Mall, a mile north.

Sixteen fire departments arrived to help rescue victims and quell the resulting fire — Fremont did not have a ladder truck tall enough to reach the upper floors, where many elderly lived in apartments. The explosion killed 20 people and injured more than 40.

It was the worst natural gas explosion in U.S. history and made national news. Gas had seeped into the hotel basement when an underground coupling pulled apart. Investigators never determined what ignited it.

The explosion destroyed or undermined the integrity of six other downtown buildings; all were condemned and razed, including the entire half block where the hotel sat.

Demolition didn’t start until a year later and the hotel — long the social gathering spot of generations of Fremonters — stood as a mute sentinel to its glorious past, dark and dirty, with tattered curtains flapping out of broken windows, looking much like a casualty of war.

More than 80 lawsuits were filed and Northern Natural Gas Co. was found liable. Redevelopment of the property took eight years and today American National Bank of Fremont sits on the hotel site, with a mini-mall to the east.

The Fremont landmark was built in 1917 by a consortium of Fremonters and for nearly 60 years was Fremont’s central meeting place. Its destruction changed — as perhaps nothing else ever has or ever will — the social, cultural, economic and historic fabric of downtown Fremont.

Nation’s bicentennial

And so, as the nation celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, Fremont absorbed the loss of its gathering place and continued on.

Our farmers were suffering at the time (which always dampens the local economy exponentially); as they faced the fourth year of drought, the local mood was a bit uncertain.

Overcrowding at the Fremont Junior High School, Ninth and Main, was a constant school board issue. After three bond issues to build a new school failed, a $4.6 million one passed in 1977 to renovate and expand the junior high, to build Washington Heights Elementary School and add on to Clarkson School. The school board also voted to build the football field and track east of the high school in 1976.

Saving history

The local historic preservation movement to save turn-of-the century buildings throughout Dodge County was burgeoning in 1974 and rapidly advancing by 1990. Under the leadership of Fremont attorney Ray Simmons, along with Loell Jorgensen and others, several public buildings and private homes were placed on the National Register of Historic Places:

Love-Larson Opera House, 541 N. Broad St., in 1974; May Museum, 17th and Nye, 1977; Ideal Steam Laundry, Fifth and Broad, 1978; Hooper Historic District (21 buildings in downtown Hooper), 1980; J.D. McDonald House, 310 E. Military Ave., 1980; North Bend Carnegie Library, 1981; R.B. Schneider House, 234 W. 10th St., 1982; Samuel Bullock House, 508 W. Military Ave., 1985; Schneider’s Opera House, Snyder, 1988; Harder Hotel, Scribner, 1989; Dodge County Courthouse, Fourth and Park, 1990; Barnard Park Historic District (14 square blocks surrounding Barnard Park at Military and Clarkson), 1990.

FEVR opens

An historic preservation of a different sort also occurred during this time. On Memorial Day 1986, the Fremont & Elkhorn Valley Railroad became reality as the fledgling tourist railroad made its first trip to Hooper on former Chicago & North Western tracks. In the early years, the train was pulled by a 1942 steam engine, No. 1702, while passengers traveled in vintage rail cars dating to the 1920s. Today, more modern cars, some with air conditioning, are employed, and FEVR still operates weekend excursion runs to Nickerson and back from May through October. The privately-owned Fremont Dinner Train, which uses the same tracks, operates weekends yearround.

Restoring hotel

Also in 1986, another preservation project began when Fremonter Seth Paulson started restoration of the former Brunswick Restaurant and Hotel on the northeast corner of First and Main streets.

“I want to create a sense of refined elegance for the building,” Paulson said at the time. He opened the Brunswick Art Gallery a year later, while his sister, Sue Paulson, and her husband, Brian Buckham, opened the Brunswick Inn restaurant. It featured northern Italian-style cooking, done in the open so customers could watch. Today, the business is Andy’s on First, also an Italian restaurant.

Buying a depot

The late John Ronan of Fremont also contributed to our railroad preservation movement when he bought the rather derelict 1903 C&NW rail depot at First and D streets in 1988. The 11,000-square-foot building had been vacant for years and for sale for sometime when a news article stated it would be razed. Ronan already owned the two properties east of there where he housed his insurance marketing business. He weather-proofed the depot, but it has remained vacant since then.

Just this summer, a young couple purchased the depot. Dennis Smith and his wife, Jeanne Petty, plan to turn the structure into their home, with studio and gallery space for Petty, a graphic designer, and possibly other artists. Smith, an electrical engineer, works with car manufacturers, coordinating the robots that put cars together on an assembly line.

And in 1989, the Barnard Park Historic District Society was formed to preserve the historic integrity of the park at Military and Clarkson. From sandblasting and painting old light fixtures, to installing irrigation, benches, decorative fencing, a gazebo and new playground, the non-profit group raised and spent thousands of dollars on the park.

Helping our community

Fremonters have always been generous to help their community develop. During the late ’70s through the 1980s, local philanthropy continued to thrive.

In 1977, Paul and Marcella Christensen of Fremont started donating farm land west of the city at 16th Street to provide a site for the annual Fremont 4-H Fair. The city received a half-million dollar grant to build a multi-purpose building and, as the Christensens continued to donate more land, additional development monies were raised through the years. Christensen Field now includes pole barns, indoor and outdoor horse arenas, the Fremont Senior Center, baseball and softball diamonds and a huge soccer complex. The facilities are constantly used by a variety of groups, drawing thousands of people to Fremont for the fair, horse shows, swap meets, toy and gun shows and a multitude of other events.

Another well-known donor of the day was Marie Anderson. She and her husband, John, were 1934 graduates of Midland Lutheran College. In 1985, the $2.8 million, 45,000-square-foot Anderson Complex, named for the couple, opened. It houses administrative and faculty offices, and the business, journalism and art departments.

A group of Fremont businessmen took local charitable giving to a new level in 1980 when they started the Fremont Area Community Foundation. Through this non-profit organization, more than $7 million has been donated and invested, with the interest income doled out for community improvements. There are several components of the plan, and to date, it has contributed about $2 million to community and area projects.

Other news of ’79

Other events of the era include: in 1979, gas was 78-81 cents per gallon and a gas shortage and truckers’ strike were closing local gas stations; Fremont’s’ first cable TV franchise was awarded; Kathy Saathoff was named Miss Nebraska 1979 and went on to the Miss American pageant in Atlantic City, N.J.; federal funding was approved for Gifford Tower, Fremont’s second high-rise tower for low-income elderly; Don Peterson of Fremont, along with five others, were killed in a plane crash near Norfolk; patriot Sam Berek was honored for 50 years of volunteering with the Boy Scouts of America; and Russ Weber resigned as publisher of the Fremont Tribune after 31 years with the paper.

Also by 1979, the local economy picked up a bit as our farmers had a record corn crop in 1978, and 3M Corp. bought a manufacturing plant in Valley and hired more than 100 local people to manufacture disposable respirator masks.

This feel-good era was short-lived, however.

The early ’80s held many labor disputes and strikes, sometimes violent, at Stormor Inc. and at Hormel. The national economy was in sad shape and words like recession and inflation dominated the headlines. There were widespread work stoppages and layoffs, affecting Fremonters who worked for Hormel, Magnus Metal, Valmont, Campbell Soup and other large employers. Hormel threatened several times to lay off hundreds of local workers, but, as the union conceded to wage and benefit cuts, the jobs were saved.

Farmers hit hard

The farm crisis of the early to mid-1980s was another crux in our midst that saw hundreds of area farmers lose their livelihoods, or take day-jobs so they could keep farming. Rallies, marches, “tractorcades” and other protests were rampant as 250 farmers, per day, were losing their farms nationwide.

Local farm equipment auctions were routine; one near Linwood saw $2 million of ag equipment sell for $200,000. Rising interest rates (from 7 to 21 percent on new and existing loans) and low commodity prices (due to grain embargoes on other countries and excellent crop years) forced bankruptcies, foreclosures and suicides as small farm operators sold out and bigger (corporate) farmers got bigger.

Our farmers had not had such problems since the Depression and 15 Nebraska banks had closed by October 1985, most because of bad farm loans. Nebraska had the highest ag debt-to-asset ratio in the nation.

Leading the city

In 1980, a shy, unassuming but very brilliant young man joined the administration team at city hall. Randy Reyzlik, a Herman native with a masters degree in public administration from Purdue University, joined the city administration team as a researcher, while also working as director of EMCOG, a cooperative group of northeast Nebraska municipalities. Reyzlik went on to serve in various positions with the city, and was named city administrator in 2004, following the retirement of long-time administrator Jack Sutton in 2003.

Other early ’80s events included: a court ruling that Dodge County must build a new jail; city and school officials dealing with unions over wage and benefit increases; Gina Shaw won first place in the Midwest Spelling Bee and went on to national competition in Washington, D.C.; 23rd Street was widened from three to five lanes; and the Dodge County Domestic Abuse program started. Also, as farm families struggled, late mortgage payments were noted nationwide, even in Fremont, and local food stamp requests rose rapidly.

Also in the early ‘80s, the controversial Rawhide (Creek) flood control project moved through courts all year; Safeway closed two grocery stores — one on east Military Avenue, site of Mr. Movies today, and another at Fremont Mall, now site of Hy-Vee; Dodge County Jail inmates went on a hunger strike, protesting bad food; Gwen M. Bechtel became the first woman to join the Fremont Volunteer Department; the Fremont Mall erected “no trespassing” signs to keep teens from gathering; and in 1983, American National Bank opened on the former Hotel Pathfinder site.

‘Buster’ dies

“Fremont’s best-known resident was found dead Saturday at the Union Pacific Railroad depot,” a Nov. 12, 1984, Fremont Tribune news story said. “His name was Herman R. Jeseph, 73, of downtown Fremont. Few knew him by that name — even some of his family. But all knew ‘Buster’.”

Buster had been Fremont’s lone street person, and was beloved by all who knew him.

“He could be found most any day or night — at any hour — roaming the streets of downtown Fremont, which was his home, his bicycle loaded with junk. Bicycle tires, gunny sacks, tools, pots, pans and other things most people would throw away. … Slowly he moved, never riding, but straddling his bicycle and inching along, step by step. The bike simply was a vehicle to haul his junk … .”

Buster did odd jobs for downtown merchants and recycled what he could. But mostly he was intent on his job: scanning downtown streets and alleys so he could keep them clean. His job was strenuous after the Hotel Pathfinder explosion, but he didn’t complain — he just kept picking up junk.

Buster always wore layers of clothes, and usually wore two hats. Most of those clothes, and his bicycles, came from the former Salvation Army Thrift Store at Fourth and Broad. After his death, friends built a memorial to him, a glass-enclosed case that included his bike, some clothes, and some of his junk. The last written record of its location was the Fremont Mall in January 1985. Fremonters loved Buster and more than 500 people attended visitation to say goodbye. He was buried in a donated casket and donated burial plot at Memorial Cemetery.

Parking ramp opens

Also in 1984, the Kavich parking ramp (named for downtown businessman and promoter David Kavich) opened at Fifth and Park; the old 1904 Union Pacific Depot at First and Main was razed; and KC’s Cafe & Bar opened downtown as a “gathering place.”

On Sunday, Jan. 19, 1986, the town was stunned to learn that a single-engine plane carrying four Fremonters had crashed into Lake No. 2 at the Fremont State Lakes. Killed in the crash were pilot Shawn W. Brady, 31; his mother, Twila “Tillie” Brady, 64; Kathleen “Kitty” Bang, 41, and her daughter, Linda Bang, 19.

Just a few weeks after the Brady crash, we were all stunned again as the space shuttle Challenger exploded, carrying a young school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, and six crew members into space. Later that year, the new Dodge County Judicial Center — with jail, courtrooms, court offices and sheriff’s office — opened; and the Gambles distribution center, which had been at 1035 E. Dodge Street for 50 years, closed, costing more than 100 local jobs.

Planning a festival

By late 1986, with the local attitude and economy dragging, two Fremont women decided to coordinate a project to raise folks’ spirits a bit, and to celebrate our history and all the good things about our hometown.

Cherrie Beam-Clarke and I had been friends for sometime as we sipped a glass of wine at KC’s one evening in November 1986. We first started talking about a fund-raising project for FEVR, but that idea escalated, and before we knew it, we had started planning a community-wide festival called John C. Fremont Days. We quickly asked Sue Stoeber-Reyzlik to help us put a plan together for the first festival in August 1987. Early benefactors were Don Hinds, who donated cash and a downtown office; Ray and Marianne Simmons and Loell Jorgensen, Fremont’s premier historic preservationists; and a cast of thousands who volunteered to make it happen. The festival went on to garner a multitude of state, regional and national awards through the years and we celebrated the 20th annual event a week ago.

Utilities expand

Under the controlling arm of city administrator Jack Sutton, the city and department of utilities continued expansion plans to serve a growing community. A well field was purchased and developed, highway bypasses were built around town, and underground water and sewer projects were undertaken. By 1989, work was beginning to lengthen runways at the Fremont Municipal Airport so that corporate jets could use them.

In 1988, Russ Peterson announced plans to build housing for the elderly on north Nye Avenue on the former Plumfield Nursery site. Through the years, he built Oakwood Townhomes, Nye Square for independent living and Nye Courte for those needing assisted living. It is the region’s largest retirement community.

Industrial development was looking up by 1989, when Fremont Beef Co. announced it would build a 46,000-square-foot, $6 million plant south of town to process beef for shipment to Japan; Campbell Soup was expanding, Magnus Metal and the new Shade Pasta were hiring, Valmont was in a healthy position and telemarketing firms were starting to open locally.

Although our growth was slow, it was steady, and we were preparing for the building boom of the 1990s.

Patti Emanuel-Vaughan is writing about Fremont’s history and sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) events each Monday through August. She can be reached via fax at (402) 721-8047, via mail at P.O. Box 9, Fremont, NE 68025 or via e-mail at . Her previous columns can be read on the Tribune’s Web site, , under the tab heading SQ150.

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