Fires were always a menacing threat to frontier towns. The boomtowns of Prescott, Bisbee, Jerome, and Tombstone all burned to the ground several times during their heyday. With all those coal oil lamps and candles it took only one careless mistake and it was katy-bar-the-door.
The first generation of buildings and houses in those western towns were usually made of wood and by the time the business district had burned down two or three times the folks learned their lesson and began to re-build with bricks and mortar.
Mining towns built on hillsides like Bisbee and Jerome were the most vulnerable. When a fire started on the lower part of town it might be the kiss of death for the homes and buildings higher up on the slope.
Old timers claimed you could spit tobacco juice off your front porch, and it would splatter on your neighbor’s roof. When mothers let their children play outside, they had to be tethered to the house by a rope lest they fall off the yard.
The town lived through several major fires, the worst being in 1885 and 1887. It was still dry as a tender box in 1907 when a gas stove exploded in a local boarding house in Brewery Gulch destroying seventy-six homes and damaging others. The volunteer firemen brought it under control by dynamiting other structures to create a fire break. The following year the city established a fire department.
Several months later, on October 14th a fire broke out in a closet at the Grand Hotel and flames quickly engulfed the whole building. Even though many of the buildings were brick the fire quickly spread through the business district. A newspaper in Globe reported the flames could be seen almost 200 miles away from Pinal Peak above the town.
The firefighters were thwarted by low water pressure as flames continued to consume the town. They finally managed to contain the fire by dynamiting some buildings but not before it had done $750,000 in damage to homes and businesses, leaving five hundred people homeless.
Jerome, perched on the side of Cleopatra Hill, had five major fires during the 1890s. Three of those occurred between 1897 and 1899. They burned with such regularity that some religious zealots proclaimed after each big fire the Almighty was punishing Arizona’s Sodom and Gomorrah for its sinful ways. A Mrs. Thomas of Phoenix, who represented the Salvation Army and claimed the gift of prophecy, declared after each fire that, “God held the torch that started each of the fire (sic) and He isn’t done with Jerome yet. Until Jerome repents and washed away its sins, Divine anger will not be dissipated, and more fires would sear the slopes of Cleopatra Hill.”
During one fire a madam named Jennie Bauters, who operated a business on the “Tenderloin” rushed down to the fire station promising lifetime free passes if they could rush up the hill and save her house. It’s said the firefighters rose to superhuman effort as they charged up to save Jennie’s place.
During its heyday in the early 1880sTombstone had three major fires. The first one occurred on June 22nd, 1881, after a bartender decided to check the contents, peeped into the bung of a whiskey barrel with a lighted cigar in his mouth. The barrel exploded destroying the town’s business district and did a quarter million dollars damage. The second happened on May 25, 1882. Within a month the businesses were up and running again.
There was a third fire in the summer of 1882 that didn’t wipe out the town. The new Huachuca Water Works had a storage capacity of 1.1 million gallons. Pressure could shoot water 150 feet.
It was a warm, sultry evening in Prescott that 14th day of July in the year 1900. The saloons and gambling casinos along Whiskey Row were gearing up for a big Saturday night shindig. Gamblers were dealing cards; the bar girls were hustling drinks. The inciting sounds of piano music emanated from each raucous saloon. Boisterous, devil-may-care cowboys, railroaders and miners were bellying up to the bar for a night of revelry.
Yavapai’s County’s colorful sheriff, George Ruffner was heard to comment, “To jail all the drunks tonight, you’d have to put a roof over the whole town.”
Over at the Scopel Hotel on the corner of Goodwin and Montezuma Streets, a miner came in from his shift, jammed his pick candle into the wall and began sprucing up for a night on the town. Anxious to get down to the saloons he forgot to blow out the candle. Sometime around 10:30 the candle set fire to the wooden structure and soon the entire hotel was engulfed in flames.
The fire quickly spread through the business district. Volunteer firemen, pulling hose carts rushed out to fight the flames, which had by now engulfed notorious Whiskey Row. Folks grabbed what they could and rescued it from the raging flames. A barber hoisted his chair and his barber tools from the burning destruction and moved his business to the plaza’s bandstand.
Down at the famous Palace Bar, loyal customers gallantly picked up the back bar and all its precious contents and carried them across Montezuma Street where the County Court House sits today. Others picked up the piano and carried it to the safe environs of the plaza.
Prescottonians weren’t going to let something like a fire spoil their Saturday evening. So, while Prescott burned through the night, business resumed outdoors; the barber continued to cut hair, the bartender continued to pour drinks and the piano player kept playing.
The most requested tune that evening was, “There’ll Be A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight.”