The Independence Downtown QR Code Tour is a self-guided walking tour that takes you throughout the downtown district. Look for the QR codes like the one pictured on the windows of various building. Each QR code will take you to an audio file that tells you about who owned the original building and direct you to architectural features. A "Learn More" button then takes you to information about the businesses that resided in each building between 1870 and 1920.
View of the ruins of the 1874 fire from the Mill
The entire block south of 1st St. E. was destroyed.
Two major fires in the history of downtown Independence impacted the modern day look of the district. On November 28, 1873, a fire started in a woodshed behind what is now Hartig Drug on the northeast corner of 1st Street E. and 2nd Avenue N.E. It spread to the east along the north side of the street, destroying all buildings from the corner to what is currently the NAPA Auto Parts store.
Six months later, on May 25, 1874, a second even more destructive fire swept through the business district. This one began in the middle of the west side of 2nd Avenue N.E. about where L'Santos is today and moved both north and south, devouring all the properties between 1st and 2nd Streets. Once it reached 1st St. E., it quickly consumed the wooden buildings going west to the river. High winds came up, whipping the flames across to the south side of the street and all of the buildings from the river east to Walnut Street and south to 2nd Street S.E. were reduced to rubble and ashes. It became known as the Great Fire of 1874.
Losses from the two fires were estimated at nearly $600,000. The equivalent amount in today's currency would be about $13,800,000, an exorbitant sum for a town of 3,000 people. The prospect of rebuilding after such disasters must have overwhelming and yet, within ten days of the second fire, several of the property owners were clearing the way for new structures. With the destruction came opportunity. What had been a mismatched assortment of brick and frame buildings could now be recreated with continuity and beauty. Builders chose the Italianate style of architecture that was popular at that time. It featured ornate cornices and brackets at the roof line, elongated arched windows, and façade decorations such as window moldings, columns, and rosettes. Many of these decorations were done in cast iron ensuring their longevity. By October of 1874, thirteen merchants were back in business on 1st Street E. while two building blocks housing six storefronts had been erected the west side of 2nd Avenue N.E. Remaining gaps were gradually filled in over the next six years, all embracing the Italianate style.
Another building boom took place in the early 1890s at the height of the Rush Park harness racing era. Charles W. Williams, owner of the champion harness racing horses Allerton and Axtel, invested heavily in the community. In addition to building the Rush Park race track - thought to be the fastest course in the nation - he launched the American Trotter magazine, built the elegant Gedney Hotel, and installed electric railway service from the Illinois Central Depot all the way to the Iowa Hospital for the Insane (now the Mental Health Institute). The town was at its height of economic prosperity. Those downtown property owners who had not upgraded their buildings after the fires, began renovating or rebuilding. By the end of 1892, the entire downtown had been refurbished into an elegant business district.