1967 grain elevator fire was dramatic, damaging

Amorette Allison
Star History Columnist

Miles City has a long history of dramatic fires but few are as dramatic as grain elevator fire. The top of the buildings are too high for fire hoses to reach and they burn spectacularly, fine grain dust being practically explosive.

On the night of Oct. 9, 1967, the Peavey-Occident grain elevator on North Seventh Street went up in flames.

An elevator on the same site had burned just six years before, on Aug. 9, 1961, so this structure was new. According to the story in the Miles City Star written by George Larson — who was also a Star photographer and took the dramatic photos — the boiler room in the basement of the office building was suspected as the cause. 

The fire started after midnight. Ray Bishop, who worked at the airport for the Federal Aviation Administration, was driving home from his shift at the airport and saw the fire. Since it was long before the era of cellphones, he must have either startled a nearby homeowner with a midnight visit or he had a “police band” radio in his car. As a federal airport employee, he very well may have such a radio.

At any rate, everybody in Miles City knew about the fire because the Miles City Laundry had a steam whistle. Those of us of a certain age can recall the sound of the whistle as our evening curfew. It also blew during the day as shifts started and ended. It wasn’t supposed to blow a long and loud sustained blast at 12:40 a.m. unless there was a major disaster. As the article said:“ The steam whistle alerted vacationing and off-duty firemen.”

And probably everyone in town who wasn’t deaf as a post.

Because the fire seemed to have started in the basement of the building, firemen had hope, according to the article. But at 2:14 a.m., the flames broke through the roof on the north side of the structure. “Once the inferno broke through,” wrote Larson, “there was no controlling the now wind-fanned fire.”

“As winds of 18 to 24 miles an hour caught the fire it roared to the highest portions of the structure which was well out of range of local fire hoses. The blaze raced uncontrolled until dawn when the building burned down to a level where firemen could bring it under control with water,” the article went on to explain.

The Peavey District Manager Dwight Gamrath wasn’t willing that morning to estimate the damage but he did say it would exceed the cost of the fire in 1961. He estimated there were about 40,000 bushels of grain in the nearly-full elevator.

At the time, Peavey had another elevator in town, the old Snell Brothers elevator by the underpass, as well as a mobile unit they could bring to town, so they could continue operating. For the curious, the Snell Brothers elevator never burned, which was probably a good thing since it was very near the high school. It was demolished in the 1970s.

“An eerie note was added to the fire scene at 3:40 when the heat finally melted a natural gas meter allowing the gas to flow at full velocity. The escaping gas hit other pieces of metal in the building letting off a high-pitched sound resembling the screams of an injured person. The sound continued for several hours until utility crews could turn it off,” Larson’s story goes on to add.

To make the fire even more dangerous, the winds picked up pieces of metal siding heated by the flames and blew them “as high as 100 feet from the blazing building.”

“All 13 firemen, including vacationers and off-duty persons were on hand through the night to battle the inferno,” the newspaper noted.

A least 20 men from the rural volunteer department also turned out to help.

L. P. Anderson, the local businessman who stared down the Northern Pacific earlier in the fall when they cut off access to the new Spotted Eagle Recreation Area, was given special credit by Fire Chief Don Addington for manning hoses “like a veteran.”

By mid-morning, the worst of the fire was over, although it wouldn’t be completely out until evening. A smoldering shell was left in the morning. The office portion, where the fire was believed to have started, was completely leveled but some walls of the elevator still stood. A fireman was left on-site overnight, just in case it rekindled.

The fire and its aftermath was front page news for several days. Two days later, there were photos of trucks salvaging what was left of the grain that didn’t burn. It was sold as hog feed.

It wasn’t just the grain elevator that suffered. The 500-gallon tank “on the city’s best fire truck” ruptured under the strain and would have be replaced. An old Seagrave truck had been pulled into service and the timing chain gave out after 36 hours of operation.

The elevator was eventually rebuilt and there is still a grain elevator at the North Seventh Street location, now owned by Gavilon.