Fire last weekend threatens historic Nicodemus community, closes 1-70


A fire burned near the small town of Nicodemus last Sunday, threatening residents and the national historic site located there. Graham County Sheriff Cole Presley said the fire was started accidentally by a man burning his garbage. The fire was first reported at 7:13 p.m. Upon arrival, law enforcement realized the scale of the fire, calling for additional assistance. 

Residents of Nicodemus were evacuated from their homes, but no property damage was reported. Some 17 firetrucks and 34 firemen were dispatched to the scene.

“What made this fire particularly dangerous was the abnormally dry conditions and the strong wind,” Presely said. 

Winds were sustained at 50 miles per hour and consistently gusted upwards of 70 miles per hour. These same conditions caused two separate car pileups in Ellis County, resulting in portions of I-70 being closed. According to the Kansas Highway Patrol, it was reported that visibility had been reduced to 20-30 feet, and they encouraged drivers to find an exit and get off the interstate.

The fire continued to burn, almost reaching the town of Nicodemus, one of the most historically significant and culturally important towns west of the Mississippi. 

Nicodemus is the oldest and only remaining town founded by African Americans during the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War. Founded in 1877, Nicodemus grew to several hundred residents by the late 1800s, but population decreased throughout the 20th Century to its present 20 residents. The town also boasted one of the few fully integrated schools in the country during the late 19th Century.

 Prominent community member, Angela Bates, said the town “Represents what African Americans did with their freedom” after the Civil War. Bates said the town was an “icon of the African American experience,” giving those newly-freed slaves an “opportunity to be land owners and experience true freedom.” 

The fire threatened the five historic buildings in the town, which include the Township Hall, the Old First Baptist Church, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The fire was contained by Graham County responders, with assistance from neighboring counties. Because no damage was done to the town, residents were able to return to their homes later that evening.

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