On the morning of Saturday, May 20, 1865, the Idaho World described the worst calamity a prosperous young mining town could suffer: Idaho City in Ashes! Idaho City has been visited by one of those great disasters which occasionally fall upon communities with crushing, deadening weight. A great fire on Thursday night laid nearly the entire town in ashes, sweeping away the fortunes of very many of its business men, and leaving innumerable families homeless and destitute.
Happily, no lives were lost.
The entire business portion of the town was completely destroyed. A narrow, scattered, remnant of buildings on the outskirts of town alone remains to mark the boundaries of Idaho City.
Boises Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman reported, The light of the fire was seen in this city during the evening, but there was considerable difference of opinion as to whether it was Idaho City or Placerville that was burning. Large volumes of smoke could be distinctly seen from this place, rising high in the air, while the northeastern sky for a large space was alight with the blaze. All doubt was dissipated at an early hour this morning by the arrival of a messenger to several business men from Idaho City who were in this city temporarily.
In 1865, the telegraph and the telephone were still years away, and news traveled fastest when carried by a man on horseback.
Boise City merchants were advised not to rush goods to Idaho City because much was stored in cellars and survived the fire
Among the few buildings that escaped the fire was the Catholic church. The Idaho World said it was saved by extraordinary effort, with 100 men on its roof at one time. They would have been there to extinguish or sweep away any burning material that landed on the building. To those brave men it must have seemed that the sky was raining fire. The flimsy town of 1865 was no match for a fire fueled by wooden buildings and driven by high winds. As the World put it, the fire, once started, ran through town like a pile of shavings, and was at the mercy of the conflagration.
Idaho City was a typical Western mining town of its day as revealed by the Worlds May 20 listing of businesses destroyed by the fire. No less than 16 of them were saloons, some with picturesque names like Washoe, Magnolia, Miners Exchange, Bank Exchange, Colorado, and Oneonta. Most would rebuild and reopen within a week.
On May 25 the Statesman observed, Persons who were present at the fire at Idaho City think that a class of men commonly called honest miners of that locality can out steal any set of men outside Botany Bay. (the notorious Australian penal colony). It is believed most of them came from Nevada. On May 27, the paper added, It is said that up to last Wednesday morning over ten thousand dollars worth of goods stolen at Idaho City had been recovered and identified by the owners. The prospect is that a still larger amount would yet be found, notwithstanding all attempts to resist the search.
By the end of the month, more looted merchandise had been found hidden in the woods, and several arrests had been made.
The Statesman wrote that the speed with which the town was being rebuilt was magical and remembered that the speedy rebuilding of California towns after fires had been thought remarkable.
But Idaho City bids fair to eclipse them all in the rapidity with which she can replace a city entirely swept away. A line of buildings is already seen along the whole length of Main Street, many of them being built in a more substantial manner than before.
The origin of the fire was unknown, but the World reported it had started in a dance hall on Montgomery Street, and that it was the work of arsonists. Several attempts were made during the week to fire various portions of the town, which failed. When first discovered, the flames were breaking through the roof with such violence as to excite the suspicion that some inflammable material was used to insure the certainty of a conflagration. Many suspicious parties have recently come into the county from districts in which they were too well known. ... The chance for plunder was incentive enough for any deed, however infamous. If discovered, the punishment due them cannot be made too great.
What did the people of Idaho City learn from this disaster? Well look into that subject next week.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.