Arsonists Brought End to Long Time High School
Several generations of students had attended the building that served under three names: Council Bluffs High School, Abraham Lincoln High, and Kirn Junior High.
On October 3, 1976 about a thousand Council Bluffs junior high students found themselves without a school following a blaze that destroyed the original Kirn Junior High building at 511 Bluff Street.
Two ninth grade students at the school and a 17-year-old high school dropout were arrested the following day for the incident. News accounts at the time reported one of the 15-year-olds said he set the fire to a teacher's desk drawer to burn up some papers. In a different version of the story one of the youths claimed in a 1996 interview they had been playing video games a few blocks away at Zeplan's Palace (now Duncan's Cafe) and ran out of quarters. They broke into the school to see if they could find any stereo equipment or other valuables that could be sold for cash, and the fire was completely unintentional. To avoid detection the trio didn't turn on any lights, instead using matches to see. One match accidentally dropped into a teacher's desk drawer and set a small fire; they closed the drawer hoping to smother the fire and left the building hastily. The fire started in an art room on the third floor. The first alarm was received at 1:50 a.m. Sunday; fifty firefighters and twelve trucks were needed to bring the blaze under control.
Kirn students were accommodated at Woodrow Wilson Junior High in a split shift arrangement in which Wilson students started classes at 6:25 a.m. When the Wilson students were dismissed those from Kirn took their places for classes that lasted until 5:15 p.m.
The 76-year-old building started as Council Bluffs High School, replacing a short long-lived but visually impressive structure atop the high hill between High School Avenue and Fifth Avenue. It also provided office space for the school board and superintendent. As the town grew and a high school diploma began to replace an eighth grade education as the standard an addition was built on the back making the building square.
After the town got a second high school the old building was rechristened Abraham Lincoln, a name opportunistically chosen because of a piece of art work-- the statue of the 16th president which had been donated to Council Bluffs High School by the class of 1919 (not the same statue located at Abraham Lincoln High today). As enrollment continued to grow a new building was constructed on the eastern edge of town along Bennett Avenue. The new facility was built in three phases-- classrooms first, followed by the science wing and finally gymnasium/auditorium, the segmental construction allowing each section to be used as Eastside Junior High as it was completed.
In the fall of 1967 the new building became Abraham Lincoln High School and the 1900 building on Bluff Street turned into Kirn Junior High, named for the man who served as principal in that building for twenty-seven years.
The fire put an end to a controversy that was dividing the Council Bluffs school board. The building was 76 years old and was developing structural concerns, but nothing that couldn't be repaired. The majority of the board members wanted to abandon the old building in favor of a new structure; a minority but vocal faction wanted to save and restore the old building. A school board election in September changed the composition of the board, shifting the balance toward restoration. That summer the fire marshal ordered the roof over the old auditorium, then the library, to be replaced. This was accomplished and the first school board meeting with the new members was scheduled to be held in the library, under the new roof, which was then presumed the first step in restoration of the building. The meeting was scheduled for October 4; October 3 the building was destroyed by fire. Voters had rejected three consecutive bond issues for school system improvements but by a narrow two percent approved a new school in February, 1977. The new Kirn Junior High held its first classes September 16, 1979, almost three years after the fire.
Charges against the 17-year-old were eventually dropped, as were arson charges against the 15-year-olds. The two younger boys did plead guilty to breaking and entering were sent to the State Training School for Boys at Eldora.
(Photos courtesy of the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County. Story by Richard Warner with contributions from Mike Winchester).