A report from The Galesburg Register Mail, recalling the big fire of 1958 started by an exhaust fan in the attic of the Galesburg Public Library. Family documents and letters from Abraham Lincoln were among items lost in the classic Carnegie library fire 50 years ago.
“The whole history of the city has gone up in smoke,” lamented C. Russell Carlson, a library director, in the May 10, 1958, edition of The Register-Mail.
While early estimates were that the library had lost everything, about 40,000 books were salvaged, although many were water damaged. Some of the rarest books in the library’s collection were spared because they had been kept in a vault.
But what did go up in smoke, according to Galesburg Public Library archivist Patty Mosher, was around 200,000 books worth about $500,000 at the time, the only existing copies of Galesburg newspapers dating to the mid-1800s, 60 oak chairs and 28 oak tables, 600 stereo optic view cards and 30 to 40 percent of the library’s archival material, including several letters signed by Abraham Lincoln.
It’s not known how many photographs, papers, letters, local family histories and artifacts were lost — but to Mosher, those were the most valuable items destroyed by the fire because those documents told the story of Galesburg’s founding.