Today marks 125 years since great Virginia City fire
It’s not often the day’s newspaper gets printed on drug-store wrapping paper, but so it was 125 years ago today in Virginia City. The second of two devastating fires swept the Comstock taking with it the offices of the Territorial Enterprise and “the fairest portion of town.”
Damage to the 33 city blocks was estimated at $20 million.
“It was such a fire as those which swept Chicago and Boston – a fire a fierce and uncontrollable as though belched up from the bottomless pits of the lower regions,” wrote Dan De Quille.
The fire started at about 5:15 a.m. in an A Street boarding house kept by a woman named Kate Shay, who was “well, but not favorably known as ‘Crazy Kate,'” De Quille said. De Quille’s quip was reprinted in 1984 by Steven Frady in his book “Red Shirts and Leather Helmets” which chronicles the history of the volunteer and paid fire departments on the Comstock.
In the space of six hours, nearly all of the city’s neighborhoods and its business district north of Taylor Street lay in a confused heap of smoldering rubble.
The Gold Hill News reported: “The fight against the fire was as vigorous as could be made, no effort being spared to stay its progress. The aid of power was called in and buildings blown up at different points toward the north and east of the city, but the flames leaped over the obstacles, and places which one minute were hundreds of feet from the fire were the next a sheet of flames.”
The News, which printed the Enterprise the day of the fire on wrapping paper, was the only champion of the Virginia Fire Department. The Enterprise and the Virginia Evening Chronicle instead took up deriding Chief Engineer Frank McNair’s performance.
Devastated both morally and structurally by the fire, the city’s 15 all-volunteer departments soon disbanded and by 1877 only three companies were available for service.
From the ashes sprang the first of Nevada’s paid fire departments. The 1877 Legislature called for a squad of no more than 16 paid firemen, one chief and two assistants, said Frady.
“The fire pretty well devastated the Virginia Fire Department,” he said. “After the fire they formed the paid department. But even the paid department relied heavily on volunteer companies on the Divide and Gold Hill for assistance on big fires. When they had a fire everybody turned out. It was a big event, something that required an immediate and full response in order to protect the community from being destroyed.”
Frady’s book, published in 1984 by the University of Nevada Press, is no longer in print, but that hasn’t stopped Frady from researching the history of fire and fire departments on the Comstock. Frady is now seeking a new publisher to continue his work.
Research began when Frady started looking at the history of the hose carts restored by the Liberty Engine Company No. 1 for its Comstock Firemen’s Museum. The museum is at 51 S. C St. and is filled with fire memorabilia including a hand engine used by the Knickerbocker Fire Company to douse the 1875 fire when it reached the Ophir Mine shaft.
Frady caught the fire bug in the mid 1970s and has spent a career as a volunteer firefighter having served time as Virginia City’s volunteer chief and with the Nevada Division of Forestry.
Current volunteer chief Joe Curtis, owns one of the C Street buildings on the southern fringe of the 1875 fire. The Pinschower Building, built in 1862, was spared through the efforts of hardware store owner Joseph Fredericks who, Curtis said, stood atop the roof with buckets of water and sand dousing cinders as they fell.
After the fire, the Pinschower Building, Frederick’s hardware store, once at 40, 42, 44 S. C St. , moved to 109 and 111 S. C St.
“Before the fire everything on the east side of C street had an even address,” Curtis said. “After the fire they were odd.”
Other changes over time include the size of the volunteer companies, systems used to notify firefighters and the equipment they use to battle the “fire fiend.” The threat of fire on the Comstock, a national historic monument to the state’s mining past, is as great now as it was to the industrial center Virginia City was in 1875. The winds and the shared walls and attics are still a menace.
The membership roll of the Virginia City Volunteer Fire Department, the volunteers of today, stands at 18. In 1875, the rolls of the 15 companies peaked at 500, but so has the city’s population. Once reaching nearly 17,000 in 1880, the city now boasts a population of about 1,000.
“The concept of volunteer firefighting is now waning nationally,” Curtis said. “Membership in volunteer fire organizations is down 25 percent of what it would have been in the 1870s for a given fire company.”
Curtis said he believes numbers are dropping because of the hundreds of hours of training needed to become a volunteer today.
“It’s virtually the exact same training for paid and volunteer firefighters. It’s hard to do in today’s society where both members of a family work full time. It demands an awful lot from the volunteer.”
Digital pagers have replaced steam whistles and firehouse bells, motorized fire engines have taken over for hand pumpers.
“The volume of water than can be administered is astronomically larger,” Curtis said. “Today we are notified through a digital pager system. We have the siren on the courthouse that we sometimes use as a general alarm, but we don’t use it at night because it wakes everybody up.”
As if irony had no better place to find a home, according to De Quille, one of the problems of the initial attack was the early morning hour of the 1875 fire.
“When the first fire bells rang, few person heeded even though they heard them. Soon, however, the mournful and long-drawn wail of one steam whistle after another, in quick succession, was heard to join in sounding the alarm till the fierce clangor of the bells was almost drowned. The bells, loudly as the rang, only said: ‘There is a fire, and a great and dangerous one!'”
Time fire started: about 5:15 a.m.
Origin: Upsetting of a lamp in the basement of a small one-story lodging house at No. 19 S. A St. owned by “Crazy” Kate Shay.
Area destroyed: 33 city blocks
Lost: more than 1,000 homes, 300 businesses
Deaths: 3 from falling walls
Losses: $20 million, $12 million in business assets
Fire department losses: $16,500
Active firefighters at time of 1875 fire: 500
Active firefighters after 1875 fire: 250
Volunteer firefighters today: 18
1870 population: 11,359, 1880 16,115*
2000 population: 745
First Great Fire: Aug. 29, 1863
Sources: “Red Shirts and Leather Helmets” and the U.S. Census
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