121 Years Ago The Cripple Creek Fires

Linda_WommackJust four years after Bob Womack discovered gold in the Cripple Creek region, the 1894 Cripple Creek Business Directory listed nearly 800 businesses in the thriving mining town.

With such prosperity, city officials began making improvements to the growing city. Two reservoirs were completed, one near a hill, approximately 200 feet above the city’s main street, Bennett Avenue, and the corner of Second Street. The second reservoir was located north of town, at Third Street and Pikes Peak Avenue. Miles of underground pipe had been laid from this reservoir to the city’s main lines. This not only provided water for the town, it also would provide the needed water should there ever be a fire. Water hydrants were installed, and a 600-pound fire bell was purchased. A group of men formed as volunteer fire fighters. George Jordan was appointed as the first fire chief, over a volunteer force of nearly 175 men. The Cripple Creek fire department had acquired three hose carts, a hook and ladder wagon and a hand-drawn chemical engine.

Unfortunately, all the preparations put in place by the Cripple Creek fire department could not save the town from the worst fire disaster in its history. At noon on Saturday, April 25, 1896, fire broke out on Myers Avenue and moved, slowly at first, from building to building. Earlier that morning, a young couple, staying in an upper room of the Central Dance Hall, located on Myers Avenue, began to argue. As their argument became physical, the woman, Jennie LaRue, was knocked backward, turning over a gas stove. The spilled flammable liquid spread across the floor engulfing everything in its path. Within minutes, the wood-framed structure of the Central Dance Hall was ablaze. Very quickly, the fire then spread to the next building. pg-18-P-809

In a matter of minutes, firemen arrived on scene with their hook and ladder wagon, with the J. L. Lindsay Hose Company right behind them. The hose team were able to contain the fire to the south side of Myers Avenue, until one of the two hoses broke. By that time, the area was so thick with black billowing smoke, the firemen could barely see and were using wet sponges to breathe through. Because of this, the firemen quickly lost control of the fire. The fire spread to engulf every building on the south side of the street between Third and Fourth streets. As the winds from the south began to pick up, sparks from the burning buildings jumped to the buildings on the north side of Myers Avenue. In an effort to minimize the spread of the fire and create firebreaks where possible, Police Chief Marshall ordered several buildings along Myers and Bennett avenues, to be blown up. Using dynamite, buildings at the corner of Myers Third Street were leveled. To no avail, as the fire moved north to Bennett Avenue. Pandemonium soon broke out on the commercial street of Cripple Creek. Businessmen loaded what they could into wagons and fled the area.

By that time, the firemen and hose team were able to use the high masonry wall, which divided the upper and lower sides of Bennett Avenue between Third and Fourth streets, as a natural barrier for defense. The men used this barrier by placing the hoses on top and in front the wall, in an effort to stop the fire from crossing Bennett Avenue. Unfortunately, due to the intense heat and thick smoke, the firemen were forced to retreat. The fire rapidly jumped to the north side of the street. Every building quickly caught on fire. Police chief, James M. Marshall, realizing the fire would soon engulf the new City Hall building, ordered the release of the prisoners from the locked jail.

Within an hour after the fire began, the thick, black billowing smoke could be seen from as far away as Victor. Officials from that city sent their hook and ladder team, via a special Florence & Cripple Creek train. Meanwhile, Jim Marshall and his police force did their best to evacuate citizens, who by this time were in a panic. As the sun began to set on that frightening day, the winds began to subside, allowing the fire fighters to finally gain the upper hand. However, it was well after midnight before the firemen’s hoses doused the last of the glowing embers of fire. Early on Sunday morning, town officials, policemen and firemen were assessing the damage to the town. Amazingly, several business owners were already busy rebuilding their establishments. By Wednesday many businesses had reopened, including the First National Bank and the Cripple Creek Morning Times, which never missed and issue. A sense of normalcy seemed to return. That is, until approximately 1:30 p.m. when the sound of the fire bell rang out.

On April 29, 1896, fire broke out at the Portland Hotel, on the northeast corner of Second Street and Myers Avenue. A hotel waitress, Bessie Kelly, discovered the fire racing up the grease-soaked walls of the kitchen. After alerting her husband, C. H. Kelly, the hotel’s bartender, Bessie hurried up the stairs to retrieve what personal belongings she could from their room, C. H. took the cash from the register. All the while, flames were coming from the stovepipe hole causing the fire to spread. Bessie and the other waitresses were trapped upstairs by the growing fire. Fortunately, they made their way down the outside stairway, through the smoke-filled air, to safety.

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When the firemen arrived, the entire building was amass in flames. The firemen used their hoses, sending a steady stream of water on the burning hotel, as well as the alley, but to no avail. The fire jumped north, across Myers Avenue, toward Bennett Avenue. The flaming embers landed on the roof of the Wright Hardware store, where the ammunition stocked in the store exploded.

As the afternoon went on, the south winds grew stronger, carrying the flames in a northern direction. As the smoke and flames creep closer, panic set in, just as it had three days previous.

By late afternoon, the winds were so fierce that it only intensified the fire danger. Every building on Bennett Avenue west to the intersection with Third Street fell victim to fire’s intensity. The south winds had helped move the fire to the north end of town, the residential area. As the fire threatened homes on Carr and Eaton streets, residents were forced to evacuate.

By 4:30 p.m., the Cripple Creek firemen had the fire under control. The early sunrise the following morning was hazy due to smoldering debris all over the town. Only three days after the first fire, Cripple Creek was indeed crippled. Six people died in the fires, several more were injured. Over 5,000 citizens were homeless. The value of property lost in the fires was estimated at over $2 million.

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