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Big, but not necessarily biggest since Great Fire: historian
Calling last Thursday's blaze the biggest fire Downtown since The Great Fire of 1898 is misleading says a local historian. In fact, it might not even be the biggest one on that corner.
The E.L. Lewis building, built at Columbia and McKenzie streets in 1904, burned to ground last Thursday morning. It was the third major fire in that intersection's history.
"There's a whole bunch of fires that are as big or bigger than this ," said Archie Miller of A Sense of History Research Services. "It would not be in my estimation the biggest since The Great Fire, not even close, but that's not putting down today's fire."
He pointed out Collister's Store, which was located across Columbia from Copp's, suffered an enormous fire in which someone died in 1959. Then in 1968, the Metropolitan store kitty corner to Copp's also went up in flames.
Miller said a fire also wiped out two buildings in the 1940s while another took out Reliable Furniture at Sixth and Carnarvon in the 1930s, Kresge's about 20 years ago and the Swan building near Elliott that housed CKNW in the 1960s.
McKenzie was just a narrow lane between Columbia and Front streets before The Great Fire, said local historian Archie Miller. The rebuild began in 1899 and included three buildings in the block between McKenzie and Sixth streets. The Lewis building went up in 1904 and became recognizable over the years for Copp's New West Shoes which opened in 1925 and did not close until Jan. 1 when Terry Brine, the store's owner and co-owner of the building, retired.
"It has been a prominent building on a prominent corner very early," said Miller, who added Copp's closure earlier this year will soften the sentimental blow for the community.
"If Copp's hadn't closed last fall, if this was a fire of Copp's Shoe Store burning down you'd have a much bigger attachment. It doesn't lessen [the fire's historical] importance.This is a store where people got shoes for years. It looked like the 1890s."
Miller recalls going into Copp's and putting his feet in the store's foot fitting X-ray machine.
"A lot of people went to Copp's like I did forever. It was one of my primary places," said Miller. "I remember telling Ralph Brine, Terry's father, 'I'm still wearing a pair of boots I bought 25 years ago, and he said, 'That's the problem! We sold boots that were too good!' ”
Miller said it will be interesting to see what emerges from the ashes.
"It really takes out a lot of power from that corner," said Miller. "It was a dramatic corner with two angular entrances with a look down the hill. It reeked of heritage, and we still have a few others down there. This unbalances this corner if it simply goes the way other buildings have been built down there.
"It's a sentimental loss on the shoe-store side, and it's a smaller sentimental loss in what it looked like. But in terms of the streetscape it puts a big hole in it, a really big hole."