February 20, 1981: Fire destroys Ensign Elementary

On this day in Duluth in 1981, fire destroyed the historic J. D. Ensign Elementary School in Piedmont Heights. Built in 1908 at 1013 Piedmont Avenue, the three-story building was named in honor of Duluth Judge Josiah Ensign. The thirteen-room school closed in 1979 after which it became a target of vandals. By the time firefighters arrived at 8:30 p.m., the building engulfed in flames. According to the Duluth News Tribune, “the fire exploded  through the roof of the building almost before hoses…could be hooked up to hydrants.” The explosion, it was surmised, was caused by backdraft. Nearby resident Theresa Cooper told reporters that “The whole building just expanded and shook. My place shook, too…. I didn’t know if it was safer to stay in or go out.” The fire ended controversial plans of converting the school into an apartment building. Earlier that week the city council voted on the measure and deadlocked with a 4–4 tie as one councilor who favored the plan could not attend the meeting. The school board wanted to demolish the building before the idea of its conversion was raised. Residents wanted the space for a playground and feared a conversion to apartments would add to more traffic congestion in Piedmont Heights. It appears that neither an apartment building nor a playground was built on the site. Read more about Duluth’s lost school buildings here.

Ensign Elementary. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Subscribe to This Day in Duluth!