In keeping with the theme of fire from the last couple of weeks’ columns, today’s topic will focus on the way the local newspaper described the fire that swept through Deadwood in 1879. The Nov. 4, 1879, edition of the Black Hills Daily Times had the headline: “The fire fiend! Deadwood destroyed.” It describes the fire that occurred at the end of September, but like most disasters, it takes some time to uncover the facts in the midst of the resulting chaos. The article starts, “A few days over one month ago, the city of Deadwood was visited by fire and almost totally destroyed. Today the city, Phoenix-like, arises from her ashes in more than pristine glory, and is a stable monument to the grit and energy of our citizens.” Without the visual technology of today, the words must paint the picture, and I do love the imagery of the Phoenix, a mythical creature that regenerates itself through fire.
If you can imagine the progression of a mining camp that explodes into a small mecca within a short number of years, you have a good idea of what Deadwood might have looked like prior to the fire. Though building materials were starting to include brick and stone in 1879, the majority of buildings were wood-frame structures, as the Black Hills provided an abundance of timber for building material. As we know, wood burns. The article describes that “Unusual good luck from fire for a mining camp had so far attended the city, it seemingly to have been under the special protection of the Almighty, but it was the lull before the storm. On Thursday night, September 25, 1879 the citizens of Deadwood retired for the night unconscious of the fiery ordeal through which they were, in a few hours, to pass.” The day was described as having fine weather, and it was around 3:30 a.m. that the first fire alarm was sounded, when a coal oil lamp fell from a table in the Empire Bakery on Sherman Street. The pine walls of the bakery, lined with canvas, were splattered with oil and caught fire, and though the fire brigade arrived with the hose cart, the adjoining buildings quickly caught fire, spreading at “an alarming rate. Then it was that all knew the city was doomed, as no power on earth could have successfully opposed the progress of the devouring flames which devoured houses as though they were built of paper.” The fire crossed to the other side of the street and burned the Langrishe theatre, News and Pioneer, country recorders offices, and Overland hotel, eventually consuming the Jensen and Bliss hardware store. There, the first explosion took place, as there was gunpowder, and this scene stopped many people from attempting to enter their homes or businesses to save possessions, as they feared further explosions.
The fire continued on a path to Lee Street, and then Main Street, and the wind picked up, blowing from the southeast. The newspaper describes how there was nearly a mile’s length of flames through the city, and it moved from the businesses downtown to residential homes quickly. Not even the brick buildings were immune to the heat and destruction of the fire: another explosion toppled R.C. Lake’s three-story hardware store. Seeing the speed and destruction of the fire racing through the city, the citizens took great efforts to stop it, destroying other buildings in its path to create gaps that the fire would not cross. It finally burned out around 8 a.m., and “It took just three and a half hours to bring about the almost total destruction of a city.” It was estimated that $2 million (in 1879 valuation) worth of goods and property were destroyed, with 5 million pounds of goods destroyed in the businesses that burned. One death was reported from the fire; an Englishman known as Casino Jack, John King was deaf and already sleeping in Stone’s Hotel when the fire broke out. It is believed that because of his hearing deficit, he did not awaken to the alarms.
Many people in the city had moved their belongings during the fire, unsure if it would continue to burn into their neighborhoods, and they placed their possessions in the hills above Deadwood. In the confusion following the fire, while people searched for friends and family members from whom they had been separated, there was looting and some attempts at claim-jumping. County officials closed saloons, as “Men who had not tasted liquor for years imbibed freely to drown their sorrow, and the number of intoxicated men seen on the streets was appalling. Fights were of frequent and hourly occurrence, and disorder and discord was beginning to get possession of the town.”
But don’t worry — the chaos eventually stopped. It looks like I’m already out of room this week, but we’ll continue to examine some of the particulars from the great Deadwood fire next week. Stay tuned!