The 1936 fire at the Bundaberg Rum Distillery
At 6.15pm on November 21, 1936, a bolt of lightning caused an alcohol-fuelled fire (pictured) that burned for hours and could be seen for miles at the Bundaberg Distillery, on the banks of the Burnett River, 365km north of Brisbane; as the Bundaberg News and Mail poetically described it, "a raging inferno the like of which even Dante never dreamed".
Initially, the lightning strike caused a fire in the top corner of the distillery's bond stores, which contained 63 vats, each carrying on average 10,000 gallons (45,000 litres) of spirits. It spread quickly and by the time two fire engines arrived they confronted a conflagration of astonishing proportions. The glow could be seen up to 50km away in Gin Gin and Childers. The fire brigade struggled in vain to control the blaze, with some firefighters working shifts as long as 11 hours. Police had to deal with traffic and crowd control as thousands of residents came to watch.
And it was an impressive sight. As spirits escaped from the vats and ignited, it looked like streams of flame running down the river bank and into the water, setting alight nearby jetties. The News and Mail observed: " ... thousands of gallons of spirit flowed with the waters of the Burnett, which was a seething mass of blue flame". The alcoholic runoff into the river killed thousands of fish, which began floating in the water. Enterprising locals took their boats out to haul in the bigger fish, such as barramundi, some weighing up to 27kg.
Luckily, no-one was killed or seriously injured (though one fireman sprained his ankle). After a three-year absence, the Bundaberg Distilling Company was back online in 1939.
Fortunately for posterity, this infamous historical event was captured on film and forms part of the State Library of Queensland’s wonderful collection of photographs.
The State Library of Queensland also holds some of the original correspondence and financial records for the Bundaberg Distilling Co. Ltd relating to the 1936 fire.
Myles Sinnamon - Project Coordinator, State Library of Queensland
(Updated and revised, November 24, 2016)