Historical fires are noted throughout time because they impact lives and property. The materials used for building were for convenience and ease of construction. Not for fire prevention. Thus after a fire of historical dimensions, rebuilding techniques didn't change.
Living conditions contributed to fire starting. Primitive lighting and heating, cramped housing, carelessness with incendiary items, etc. Plus uncontrollable circumstances such as weather: lightning, dry conditions, wind, etc.
In the Old West, some historical fires have become quite memorable. For instance:
Fires were a dangerous occurrence in Tombstone's history. Especially in the 1800s. New arrivals used easily available materials for construction: wood-frame and canvas.
In the springtime, predominate winds come in, blowing up to 40 MPH. They're generated from weather systems coming through from West to East, North of Arizona. Humidity then decreases even further. When a fire occurs, these winds spread the flames.
Usually very little, if any rain in the Arizona Spring season. Summer rains usually don't begin until early July. In Springtime, when we hear the fire engines start down the highway - it always make us a little nervous! Or when you look out the window and see smoke curling up from mountains in the distance.
Imagine what a scare we get when our cell phones get that alarm message! It's happened!! Emergency Alert! Thank goodness it wasn't as bad as it seemed, and we really didn't need to evacuate. Phew!
But two major historical fires in Tombstone had severe downtown effects. One resulted in vast devastation. We'll review the fires that affected the city of Tombstone.
Tombstone Arizona is high desert - the Chihuahuan Desert. Hardwoods as building material weren't readily available here. Nearby mountains had timber, but access to it wasn't very easy. The rainfall totals and climate also affect the type of mountain trees that grew. Click for Those Types of Trees>
And water wasn't abundant. As a new miner, entering Tombstone in 1879, you'd have a few concerns:
A few natural spring sources were near. But some exploitative men ruled over the best one, charging outrageous prices for water. Although officially named Watervale, Miners nicknamed the place "Gouge-Eye."6 Two other nearby wells had water. But they were unreliable at the driest time of year.
Tombstone First Settled6
The first settled area of Tombstone, in 1879, called Gird Camp, was often called Upper Town. (Today locals still call town: "Uptown.") Folks coming in first pitched a tent or built a rustic lean-to. Only some built adobe houses.
The first merchant, John Allen, opened a wood-framed/tent-like store and boarding-house. Then restaurants and saloons quickly opened. The earliest were constructed of canvas with wood framing:
Tombstone's historical fires ranged from limited to some that damaged the entire town!
With so many canvas and wood framed structures - seems amazing there weren't more devastating historical fires! But consider other contributing fire danger factors :
These details contributed to fire-starting possibilities on any given day. Add in a few more circumstances = trouble:
In the early days of Tombstone, three fires sprung up before the water company and Fire Departments were well equipped:
Looking Northwest from Corner of 5th & Allen
Golden Eagle Rubble Center Bottom
Each time Tombstone rebuilt. The towns-people invested great energy into this town!
An empty lot remains today, where the Cosmopolitan Hotel had been! A new building replaced the Grand Hotel, with sections for tenants. Outside wall arches are parts that remain. View them today on the front walls of three businesses along the South side of Allen Street.
The Sycamore Water Company started delivering water to Tombstone in April 1880. By autumn they had water mains and fire hydrants at intersections.6
The Tombstone Water, Mill and Lumber Company formed on June 15, 1881, to supply water. Sycamore Water balked about the competition. They stopped placing hydrants and giving free water for the town's needs.6
The Huachuca Water Company formed in late 1880, completing water projects in summer of 1882. Their test fire hydrant was ready on Allen and 6th. The Fire Company connected a fire-hose.6 It passed: "water pressure met expectations."7
They installed more water mains - completing all Tombstone streets. On June 26, 1882 city fire hydrants were successfully tested. City water was here! But a month too late for May's devastating fire.6
On September 1, 1880 volunteer firefighters organized Tombstone Engine Company No.1. They elected officers. Well-known names of the first election were Wyatt Earp as Secretary, James Vogan as Treasurer, and Milton Joyce as Assistant Foreman.6
With the June 22nd fire they went into action. Water wagons were filled from hydrants. Engine Company No. 1's bucket brigades fought fiercely. Lack of fire equipment exposed the Engine Company's weakness.6 They couldn't contain the burn.
Motivation surged to form the Rescue Hook and Ladder Company on June 26, 1881. They bought a used horse-drawn fire engine from San Francisco for $300.6
Meanwhile, Engine Company No. 1 built their firehouse. Completed August 1881 - this historic building is still there, on Toughnut St., between 5th & 6th Streets. By Thanksgiving 1881, they had an engine, plus two fire-hose carts.6
Both volunteer fire companies had uniforms. Most important - with two water companies in town, they had high pressure water systems to effectively fight fires!
Most people were in bed on July 20th when the fire whistle sounded! Fire was blasting through the New Orleans Restaurant on the Southeast corner of Toughnut & 4th.
Next door was a truck-house for the new Hook & Ladder Company building. That was going up in flames! People ran out into the street in panic.
But now with the fire company's access to quick water with great pressure - the fire was out in 20 minutes. One man suffered serious burns. Billy Fee was his name.
But over-all everyone gave a sigh of relief!
Many of the local historical mines suffered fire break-outs in production equipment:11
More Historical Fires Through The Years11
In 1914 Arizona prohibition ended all local saloon businesses. The town was suffering financially. Owners in default on property taxes tore off building roofs, which exempted them from taxes! Some places burnt down.6
For Tombstone's 50-year anniversary, the council decided on the festival "Helldorado" - for October 1929. About 6,400 attendees came over!6 Most were joyful and hopeful...
Until the news later...
It was Thursday, October 24, 1929 - Black Thursday
The Day the American Stock Market Crashed
Then by 1932's summer 150 miners were at work. A few mines reopened, and in 1939 the government supported silver again. The price was set about 71 cents an ounce for two years, with possible renewal. Town stability at hand. But then two fires at two different Tombstone mine claims made further set-back.6
World War II began. A few Tombstone buildings of significant historical note burned down. Lead was needed by the war effort. Locally mined in 3 areas:6
At war's end, the Federal Government had a program for mining exploration and ore purchase for five years. But six more fires plagued mine claims during those years.6
Fires are a terrible thing. They destroy works that people have created and put labor into. Often they bring financial crunches and even ruin. But Tombstone has recovered again and again, from some devastating fires. This is just one of the reasons it has that well-known nickname - The Town Too Tough to Die!
1 Rayfield, J.A. (1997). Tragedy in the Chicago fire and triumph in the architectural response. Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library. Retrieved from lib.niu.edu/1997/iht419734.html
2 Tobriner, S. (April 18th, 2006) What really happened in San Francisco in the earthquake of 1906. Conference. Retrieved from www.1906eqconf.org/plenarySessions.htm
3 Parsons, George W. (1996). A tenderfoot in Tombstone. The private journal of George Whitwell Parsons: The turbulent years, 1880-82. p 72, Westernlore Press, Tucson AZ.
4 Scawthorn, C., Eidinger, J., & Schiff, A., eds. (2005). Fire following earthquake. Reston, Virginia: ASCE, NFPA. ISBN 9780784407394. Archived from the original on September 28, 2013 & July 10, 2019.
5 City of St. Louis (2011-2019). The great fire of 1849. Fire Department History. Retrieved from stlouis-mo.gov/government/departments/public-safety/fire/fire-department-history.cfm
6 Bailey, L.R. (2004). Tombstone, Arizona: "Too tough to die" The rise, fall, and resurrection of a silver camp; 1878 to 1990. Westernlore Press, Tucson, Arizona. A prime general resource.
7 Daily Epitaph, June 28, 1882.
8 SFMuseum (n.d.) Early history of the San Francisco Fire Department. Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco. Retrieved from sfmuseum.net/hist1/fire.html
9 Roper, E. (1857-1891). By track and trail: A journey through Canada: With numerous original sketches by the author. London & Calcutta: W.H. Allen & Co. 1891.
10 Maynard, J. (1997). Bakersfield: A centennial portrait. Encino, California: Cherbo Publishing Group. ISBN 1-882933-19-2.
11 Newspaper clippings thanks to our subscription at: Search at https://www.newspapers.com/