The following account of the 1908 Bisbee fire was written by Henry Bethea for The Copper Chronicles, a joint project of the Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum & Bisbee’s KBRP Radio Station. He holds the copyright and this article is reproduced here with permission.
1908 Bisbee Fire
In 1908 Bisbee had been around nearly 30 years and no longer looked like a rough mining camp. It was a small city with a growing population, businesses, schools, churches and society–a bright spot in the Arizona territory about to become a state. Theodore Roosevelt was finishing up his second presidential term; Titanic was just a blueprint of the largest ocean liner ever imagined. Life in the high desert could be hard and though the town was well established, disaster was always a threat. Read More
The early town was built mostly out of adobe and wood with buildings or dwellings stuck on hillsides or perched in canyons wherever there was an open spot. As the years passed some businesses along Main Street and on Brewery Gulch were enlarged and improved made more permanent with concrete, brick and stone. But Bisbee was still a tender box and by 1908, the town had lived through several major fires, the worst in 1885, 1887 and just a year earlier in 1907. That conflagration started when a gas stove exploded in the Colorado Boarding House on Brewery Gulch destroying 76 houses and damaging 30 others mostly up Chihuahua Hill and resulting in more than $100,000 in losses. The volunteer fire department barely brought the blaze under control finally dynamiting structures to create firebreaks. As a result, the city council in April 1908 established an official fire department with paid firefighters, a horse drawn engine and a proper firehouse on Naco Road. It also cracked down on the construction and repair of wood frame buildings in the fire district, the area that is today’s historic district. These improvements were instituted in the hope that another major fire could be prevented and life made safer for Bisbee residents.
In spite of these efforts, the town burned once again. On October 14, 1908 at 6:10 pm a fire broke out in a closet at the Grand Hotel located then at the corner of Main and Subway streets. Had a fire hose been handy, it might have been easily put out. But there was none and the blaze took over spreading quickly throughout the hotel. It would soon spread up, down and around Main Street and Clawson Hill.
Flames jumped Subway Street engulfing everything down to the Woolworth Building. That structure’s brick walls fortunately acted as a firebreak halting the spread down the street on that side. But greedy flames jumped across to the south side destroying the Angius Building later the site of J.C. Penney’s and today the Atatlanta Book Store.
Once again, that building’s brick wall stopped the fire from progressing farther down the street. So it turned back and proceeded to devour most of upper Main Street on both sides including the Johnson and Ball-Bledsoe buildings. The brand new Elks Lodge briefly checked the spread with its strong brick and concrete construction, but the fire would not be denied and it quickly added that structure to its toll.
It turned north and climbed up Clawson Hill engulfing every house or structure there except the Clawson and Henkel houses. As flames spread, people with houses in its path witnessed the destruction and, no doubt recalling the loss of so many homes just a year earlier on Chihuahua Hill, frantically emptied their dwellings of household effects in an effort to save what they could. Later reports mentioned that the hills were lined with piles of worldly goods. The massive fire lit the night sky and a special report to the Bisbee Daily Review from Globe, Arizona 100 miles north of Tucson claimed that the light was visible from Pinal Peak near that town.
The new fire department with its state of the art horse drawn engine worked hard but a lack of water and pressure hampered the men’s ability to stop the flames from spreading even with help from miners who came out of the mines. Eventually, after several fiery hours, dynamite was used on buildings near Castle Rock to block the fire and finally it was brought under control. It had exacted a fearful price.
Damage to business and residential areas totaled $750,000 and 100 structures, 60 of them homes, were lost. Nearly 500 people were homeless. Their friends and neighbors stepped up to help. The YMCA, today’s Gym Club Suites, Central School and the Philadelphia Hotel on O.K. Street became shelters for those put out of their houses. The Sisters of Loretto took in single women at their convent on Opera Drive and E.A. Tovrea, the packing house mogul provided free meat for an entire week to the victims. Bisbee police exercised rigid control over the disaster scene and all of downtown. Saloons were closed.
There were stories of heroism and tragedy. One man became trapped on the third floor of the Grand Hotel just as the fire got going and leaned out a window shrieking for help. Bisbeeite Al Stumpf ran into another nearby hotel and grabbed a blanket. He and other bystanders barely had time to get in position to catch the man as he jumped. They all rolled down a stairwell and the man was unhurt except for a sprained back. Incredibly, there were no deaths as a direct result of the fire but the following day a man named Ramon Juarez was passing by an adobe wall left standing. A gust of wind toppled the wall crushing him. His was the only fatality. Committees were formed to raise funds for the many victims. So much money was collected that donations from outside were declined. The hearty spirit that made Bisbee what it was asserted itself again.
Rebuilding started immediately. The City Council amended the fire code banning the use of gasoline stoves in the fire district. New buildings were constructed almost entirely of brick assuring that there would be no more multiple structure fires downtown. By 1917 the fire department had its first motorized truck and two more were added by 1919. One of those old American La France trucks though long retired, was used for years to drive Santa Claus through town at Christmas. Two distinctive sloped-nosed Ford fire engines joined the fleet a few years later. They were specially designed on a wedge frame smaller in front that made navigating Bisbee’s narrow winding streets possible. One of those, a 1941 model is still maintained in working condition.
It has been more than a century since the memorable fire of 1908 and while there have been many blazes in town, none ever again brought the widespread destruction that came on that October night. The last burning of a large structure was in 1938 when the Phelps Dodge Mercantile Building—the forerunner of the present day Bisbee Coffee Company–burned to the ground threatening nearby downtown buildings. But by then, the fire department was well trained, had the best equipment, lots of hoses and good water pressure. They weren’t about to let Bisbee burn down again.
© Charles Henry Bethea 2013
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