A tailing tale

The Central City Fire on May 21, 1874

By Maggie Magoffin

The ever-present danger lurked in the fact that for more than a dozen summers, the dry Colorado sun beat steadily down on the city built of wooden structures along narrow streets, creating combustible timber, and the citizens of Central City took that threat seriously. It was the main topic of discussion at public meetings. The town council invested in beautifully painted fire buckets, shipped in from the East. They formed a fire company that drilled with regularity. They setup a fire-bell that resonated throughout the hills to call people together, and they felt confident the gulches would furnish the needed water.

That morning, the sun shone bright and warm in a clear blue sky above the prosperous little town, bustling with its many businesses. The city settled into its usual routine. Fathers and brothers toiled away in the mines. The children sat in the gray stone schoolhouse on the hillside, and the merchants sold goods in their shops. Except for the occasional passage of the quartz-wagons on their way to the mills, nothing disturbed the tranquility of the day.

Then a cry rang out, and smoke rose into the air at the foot of Spring Gulch. Just as the metropolis of Chicago went up in smoke from the kick of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, a burnt wooden offering of several Chinese laundrymen sacrificed the homes and businesses of Central City. The men ran into the street, hysterically jabbering and pointing toward their building. A crowd formed.  Someone took charge, and immediately the fire-bell rang out. Fire-buckets were distributed, and a line of willing hands formed to the gulch. However, the one key element the people overlooked in their preparation for such an event was their unreliable water supply. The gulch was dry!

By half-past nine, the flames that burst through the roof of the Chinese laundry, guided by prevailing breezes, leapt and licked up the roofs of several adjoining buildings. Shouts and grumblings of, “No water!” resonated throughout the town. The crowd, drawn together with one purpose, grabbed axes and destroyed several buildings ahead of the fire in order to create a gap. However, the firefighters barely had time to jump for their lives before the intense flames leapt over the space, attacking the last row of buildings standing between them and the town’s main thoroughfare.

Soon, piles of goods filled the entire length of the street, where willing hands carried them off to brick buildings for safekeeping. However, the devouring flames gathered strength and melted even those structures to the ground.

With one wild leap, the fiery monster leapt across Main Street, turned right, and charged on in two parallel lines toward the town’s center. Fifty yards ahead, facing each other on opposite sides of the street stood the town’s two largest buildings, the Teller House and the Masonic Temple. In a frantic search to find water, the firefighters uncovered some old wells and found a water reserve beneath the hotel. As they organized an effort with hoses, ladders and other paraphernalia, a backward glance up Main Street revealed flames leaping in forked tongues across the roadway from one rooftop to another. However, firefighters stood their ground at the Teller House and after a battle lasting several hours their efforts proved successful.

Down Lawrence Street, however, the monstrous inferno imposed its will on the wooden structures on either side of the thoroughfare. Much of the same scenes as witnessed on Main Street reoccurred until the monster met its demise at the brick corner of Lawrence Street where it turned back on itself and died.

Central City was a small town where everyone should have known their neighbor, but even a small town has its uptown folks, its back doors, and its dirty secrets. There were those who lived in small, dingy upstairs rooms or gloomy attic corners in the top of business buildings. Some faces were familiar, but many more rarely appeared on the street in the light of day. Those forgotten citizens hurried into the street, blinking and bewildered in the bright sunlight. Then, without a leader, but by some natural instinct, the diverse crowd congregated and made their way out of town and up the mountainside where they setup camps. The women and children, with what remained of their household goods, gathered in small groups, while the male hermits lit their pipes and sullenly watched the scene below.

As the day progressed, the numbers on the hillsides increased with stricken merchants, their arms laden with what they could salvage from their shelves or from the street piles. By nightfall, without regard to class or character, a thousand homeless people formed terrace-like lines, one above the other on the face of the mountain that overlooked Central on the west. That night, campfires glowed out in the terraced rows, marking reunited families and motley groups drawn together in a haphazard way. Members of the groups offered what they had to share with their fellow citizens – a sack of flour or a side of bacon hastily pulled from their burning homes, or some absurdly useless item stolen from the salvage of one of the stores.

Below, in the triangular canyon where that morning stood scores of homes and businesses, rising out of a wide, inclined plain, stood blackened walls marked by living embers of cherry red. An occasional breeze burst the embers into flames, where they burned for a short time and then died. During those intervals, men were seen gathering around a bank or other vault with an exposed safe, marking the spot a business occupied. On the streets, men stood in silhouette surveying what remained of their property or lending a hand to smother some new bit of blaze. On the hill to the north, where the better class of residences sat, lights glowed from inside every house, and kind hands prepared food or gathered clothing for those camped on the western hill.

A local relief committee formed to assist with money, provisions and clothing for those in need. Offers of assistance poured in from the towns of the mountain and the valley, but the people of Central courteously refused. They would take care of their own.

Soon, people recovered, and before the ground cooled, the work on reconstruction began. Before snow fell again, a new town of stone and brick rose from the ashes, and what seemed a deathblow proved a blessing in disguise.

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