~ December 20, 1899 •

Daily Deadwood Pioneer-Times ~


The Gem Theatre and a Number of Adjoining Buildings Destroyed.

Indications Are That the Fire Was Set By Human Agencies.

The Gem theatre, after surviving any number of incipient fires, but is within its walls and in adjoining or neighboring buildings, was completely obliterated yesterday morning, between five and six o’clock. A Chinese laundry, a small building adjoining the Gem on the lower side, and the Second ward hose, separted from the laundry building by a few feet, below the Gem, and a second-hand store, belonging to DeMouth & Co., and the Club restaurant, run by Sing You, the Chinaman, above the Gem, were also completely destroyed. The fire department had difficulty in keeping the Gem from making further inroads in the direction of the Brick saloon, which occupied the corner above the Gem, and the two-story frame building in the lower story of which George Holzbauer conducts a saloon, was partially torn down. The fire got a start in the building, but was put out, after doing considerable damage. Plate glass and window lights were broken in several of the buildings on the opposite side of Main street, and fire starting in awnings on that side, altho it was promptly extinguished.

It was one of the most complete clean-ups ever made by a fire in Deadwood. The firemen realized that it was out of the question to save the Gem, and their efforts were directed towards keeping the fire from spreading. They succeeded in confining it in the buildings already afire, and then let it burn. The debris was blazing all day yesterday, and there is nothing left on the site of the building but stone, old iron and other non-combustible substance. Not a trace of the building remains except some of the foundation. The fire was discovered at about 5:15 yesterday morning. At that time the entire building was burning and the flames were reaching away above the cone. An alarm was turned in to the electric light plant, and the whistle began giving the warning for the Third, when it should have been for the Second ward. Someone stepped out in front of the Carr & Berry building and fired several shots with a six-shooter. The Deadwood Hose company was the first to get its cart to the fire, but the nozzle and hydrant wrenches were gone and it could not make any connections. The Homestake and South Deadwood companies were soon on the ground and the latter also missed its nozzle and wrenches. Before the Deadwood and South Deadwood companies could get water on the fire it was necessary to send to the outlying hose stations to replace the missing articles.

The absence of the nozzles and wrenches, the fact that the Gem seemed to take fire in several difference places simultaneously and other suspicious circumstances tended to confirm the belief that the fire was incendiary. Persons who had passed the Gem ten minutes before the alarm was sounded saw no evidences of fire. Before they had time to walk half a dozen blocks they saw the entire framework in a blaze. The Gem was to have been opened next Saturday night, and the announcement to that effect had just been made. Riley & Carr has leased the building and had during the past month spent over a thousand dollars in remodeling the interior of the building. Carpenters had put in a new front and completely rearranged the partitions inside. The new proprietors had engaged performers and had completed arrangements for the opening. Mr. Riley left the Gem yesterday morning about twenty minutes before the fire was noticed. He had been in the building attending to some work, and before going to his home, in the First ward, he went into the Green Front, of which he is one of the proprietors, to make up his cash account for the night. He was in the Green Front when the fire alarm was sounded.

Carr & Riley were, according to the terms of their lease on the building, to make the necessary repairs and the expense was to be allowed on six months’ rent.

The Gem theatre and the laundry building were owned by Joseph Swift of Wilmington, Delaware, and was valued at $2,500, with no insurance. Riley & Carr had $1,200 insurance upon their furniture. They estimate their loss at $3,000, less the insurance.

Mrs. Louisa D. Cook, widow of M. R. Cook, of New York, owned the building occupied as a second hand store. It was a one-story frame, and was insured for $500. Messrs. DeMouth and parties had a $2,000 stock of goods in the building, on which they carried one thousand dollars insurance. The stock consisted of second hand furniture and was all lost.

J. W. Higbie and W. H. McMaster owned the building in which the Club restaurant was located. It was a one-story frame, valued at a thousand dollars, and insured for $600. The Chinese proprietor lost his ranges and a large amount of his furniture. His restaurant had been moved into the building but a month or two before, having previously occupied a room opposite the Keystone hotel for a number of years.

The two-story building in which Holzbauer conducted his saloon was owned by the E. T. Childs estate. This building was badly torn to pieces ad damaged somewhat by fire and water, altho it can be made habitable by making repairs. The upper portion of the outer wall was torn away on the side next to the Gem and on the Main street end, completely exposing the interior. The saloon in the lower story was formerly conducted by Harry C. Smith, who disposed of it to Mr. Holzbauer last spring. The building was covered by $500 insurance.

The buildings burned like so much pitch pine and it is really surprising that the fire went no farther. It was only owing to the calmness of the atmosphere. The only breeze was the natural draft occasioned by the intense heat, producing an air current down the gulch. The flames and smoke went directly skyward, and there were hardly any sparks or flying fire brands. The upper stories of the buildings burned were occupied as lodging apartments, and there was a promiscuous migration of tenants, carrying their effects and baskets of clothing. In several instances clothing was lost. Two or three hundred people assembled in the street, and the windows along Williams street, Forest avenue and Centennial avenue all contained spectators. Many of the guests at the Bullock, hotel became alarmed, and a general exodus began. Several commercial men said they had been burned out in other fires, and express wagons were in demand to move trunks and sample cases.

The stone building occupied by the United States assay office, the building occupied by M. Arnold as a saloon, and the Chase and Baer buildings had windows and plate glass fronts broken.


The Gem Theater has been a famous landmark in Deadwood for more than twenty years. It has been associated with the town in the public mind ever since it was started as one of the characteristics of a typical mining camp. Few people have heard of Deadwood but have heard of the Gem in the same connection, and to “do” the Gem was considered a requisite to the fund of experience of the traveler who visited Deadwood in early days, to be thrown in with the stage ride, Indian scares, hold-ups by brigands and such other startling incidents that went to make the trip interesting.

E. A. Swearingen, who lives in Deadwood at the present time, put up the building and started the famous institution in 1876. He came to Deadwood with a bull team in May, and camped on the lot. He arrived on Monday and by the next Saturday he had a dance hall running. The gulch was heavily timbered at the time, and the dance hall was built of lumber sawed from the timber on the lot, and canvas. The hall was 70 feet deep. There were but three women available — Calamity Jane, Kitty Arnold and Mr. Swearingen’s wife. To complete the set a bo was dressed in feminine garb corseted and padded, with closely shingled hair which was the fashion here at that time. The deception was practiced so cleverly that the lad proved as much of a success at selling wine as any of the women. A prosperous business was conducted all that summer, and in the fall Martin Alber, the architect, who had arrived in June with the Jack Langrishe company, put up a frame building in place of the tent. In the fall of 1877 an addition was made to the dance hall for a theatre. The theatre was opened that winter by the Den Howe company, the first performance being given on Christmas eve. The Howe company consisted of Den Howe, Tommy Jefferson, an old-time comedian, who is now in California, Fannie Garrison, Flora Bell, “Monte Verde,” and “Jimmy” Martin who had come to Deadwood with Jack Langrishe. Martin was working on the Times and he conceived the name, “The Gem.” He was the manager of the place. The proceeds of the first night’s performance amounted to $1,512.50. The place would not hold the people, the money was paid back to scores who were not able to get inside. The admission was one dollar downstairs and two dollars upstairs. Beer was sold for two dollars a bottle, and wine for ten dollars. The currency at the time was gold dust, and two men were kept busy with scales weighing it out. The theatre continued to do a thriving business and was the popular resort of the town for years. The building was destroyed by the big fire in the fall of 1879, but before the ruins were thru smoldering Mr. Swearingen was letting the contract to rebuild it. Mart Alber designed and built the new Gem, patterning largely after the original, and a sawmill was chartered, to get out the lumber. Mr. Swearingen conducted the place until it passed into the possession of Joseph Swift, and even after that he was at different times connected with its management. It has not been running for the last two years, and the building was falling rapidly into decay at the time it was taken hold of by Riley & Carr. It was roughly constructed of pine lumber, which had become badly blackened by time and the smoke and soot of numerous fires.

It is not the province of a news writer to draw lessons in morality; that is left for preachers and editorial writers. The Gem theatre, however, has been the object at which every reformer who came into Deadwood has buried his shaft. For the last twenty years or more it has been held up as a den of infamy and a stumbling block to good morals. Harrowing tales of iniquity, shame and wretchedness; of lives wrecked and fortunes sacrificed; of vice unhindered and esteem forfeited, have been related of the place, and it is known of a verity that they have not all been groundless.

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