Monday, December 19, 2016

Tombstone's Baptism Of Fire, 1881 & 1882

Tombstone, AZ, 1882
By Terry McGahey
Associate Writer/ Old West Historian

Tombstone, Arizona, is well known for it's history as a wild notorious boom town with its bawdy houses, saloons, gunfights on Allen Street, and of course the thirty second gunfight which took place in an empty lot near the O.K. Corral. Tombstone was vaulted into history mainly because of the book written by Stuart Lake and the many exaggerated movies on the subject produced by Hollywood.

In reality, the overall population who lived there during Tombstone's heyday was more afraid of the possibility of fire ravaging the town than the lawlessness, which raised its ugly head from time to time.

In June of 1881 Tombstone suffered its first baptism of fire at noon, just outside of the Arcade Saloon on Allen Street which was four buildings East of Fifth Street on the North side of Allen.

The fire was started by a condemned barrel of whiskey which was being readied for shipment. They rolled it out front of the saloon then knocked the bung out to measure the quantity still in the barrel. When a fellow by the name of Alexander put the gauge rod into the opening, it slipped from his fingers.

The bartender retrieved a wire in order to try and fish out the gauge, when he returned, with either a lit cigar in his mouth or he had lit a match, which is unclear. The fumes coming from the bunghole ignited, causing an explosion scattering the flaming contents in all directions.

In less than three minutes the flames had begun to consume the adjoining buildings and had begun to spread like a prairie fire in a gale according to the Tombstone Epitaph. With the lack of equipment for extinguishing the fire it spread rapidly through other adjoining buildings and the fireman, along with the citizens, were almost powerless in stopping the fire onslaught.

The first thing was to save the books, money, and other valuables from the buildings, which caught fire, but this was only partially done due to the heat and flames.

Milt Joyce, owner of the Oriental Saloon, rushed to his safe making an effort to retrieve his cash box but to no avail, he had to flee for his life with the flames sweeping through the building with a fury. Mr. Joyce was unable to save anything leaving over $1,200.00 in paper money to be consumed by the flames. The fire raged on until 6 p.m. until nothing remained of the burned district except the charred remains.

The Tombstone Epitaph gave a list of sixty-six stores, saloons, restaurants, and other businesses, which reached a total of $175,000.00 in damages of which only $25,000.00 was covered by insurance. With timber from the mountains and adobe bricks being made on the spot, and other building materials being brought in from Tucson, Tombstone's burned district was rebuilt in a period of approximately three months.

As bad as the fire was in 1881, it paled in compression to the fire which took place one year later in May of 1882.

The fire began on the south side of Allen Street between 4th and 5th streets in a water closet within the Tivoli Saloon near the Grand Hotel. The fire soon spread from the closet to the framework of the garden in the rear of the saloon. The flames soon reached the up scale apartments of the Tombstone Club in the Grand Hotel building then on to the Grand Hotel itself catching the wooden staircase on the back of the building.

From the staircase the fire spread to the window frames and on into the interior consuming carpets, furniture, and all else within the building. In less than fifteen minutes the entire area between 4th and 5th streets, as well as Allen and Toughnut streets, were nothing but a blaze of ruin. The firemen, realizing they could do nothing, turned their attention to the North side of Allen Street in order to save the buildings there but it became impossible.

Soon the Occidental Saloon was engulfed with the Alhambra quickly following. The flames then spread on each side to the Cosmopolitan Hotel and on the west to the Eagle Brewery, later the Crystal Palace, and to the east at 5th Street.

Hafford's Saloon was next followed by Brown's Hotel and within minutes the fire had engulfed the 4th Street gun store which had a large quantity of powder stored in the cellar. Cartridges as well as other explosive material were in the store and before long, the loud bursting of those cartridges and powder mixed in along with the screaming and shouting of the citizens was deafening.

The flames then reached Fremont Street and rapidly engulfed everything between 4th and 5th Streets. At the corner of 5th Street and Allen the firemen was able to stop the onslaught of flame from crossing over to the Oriental Saloon saving Milt Joyce's establishment this time which only incurred minor damage.

The flames jumped 4th Street and on that corner the clothing house of Levinthall became engulfed and the Nugget Newspaper office was next.

According to the Epitaph, "the Nugget was quickly swept from the face of the earth."

The other buildings on the same block were also swept away by the inferno. The fire then jumped to the north side of Fremont Street but the firemen, police, and citizens were able to stop the blaze at that point.

According to the Epitaph, the damage to the town was figured to be near $500,000.00 which only half would be covered by insurance.

Only one recorded death had taken place during the destruction, His name was unknown and he was found in the rear of the Cosmopolitan Hotel once the flames had subsided. Several others were injured and some severely by falling timbers, walls, or from being scorched.

Unlike today the citizenry took care of their own situation. After being sent $180.00 from others within the territory to help provide medicines to the firemen, the chief of the department refused it and it was sent back with a polite note. The note read, "Being not in need of pecuniary assistance and believing as firemen, it was our duty to accept the consequences of the fire, however serious."

The Epitaph also ran an editorial on June 3rd. It read, "While the people of Tombstone sincerely thank those citizens of the territory who have proffered assistance, they wish it to be understood that they are in no need of aid. No one is suffering on account of the fire, and if there was, our citizens are both able and willing to take care of them."

Once again, within only a few months the business people and citizens had rebuilt the town of Tombstone.

In the end, it was not the murderers, highwaymen, gunmen, cattle rustlers, or lawmen which gave Tombstone its well-known slogan. It was the business people and the hardy citizens of Tombstone who rebuilt and moved on with their lives. They were the reason Tombstone became known as: "The town to tough to die."

About the author:

Terry McGahey is a writer and Old West historian.

This once-working cowboy is best known for his fight against the City of Tombstone and their historic City Ordinance Number 9, America's most famous gun-control law. He was instrumental in finally getting Tombstone City Ordinance Number 9 repealed and having Tombstone fall in line with the state of Arizona.

If you care to read how he fought Tombstone's City Hall and won, please click: The Last Gun Fight -- The Death of Ordinance Number 9 (Chapter One)

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