The fire that leveled Idaho City in May 1865 taught its residents, and especially its merchants, an expensive lesson, but given the conditions of the time there was little they could have done to prevent it, or the one that followed two years later, especially if an arsonist was responsible. Among those who warned of the disaster that fire could bring to an all-wooden town, none did so more often than Henry C. Street, editor of the Idaho World.
On Oct. 29, 1864, months before that 1865 fire, Street advised his readers to Look at Your Chimneys Since the cold weather commenced we have observed that several stove pipes about the city are negligently put up, and are a nuisance to the citys safety. It would be well for everyone who reads these lines to look at his own pipe, and see that it is safe. If everyone will attend to it perhaps it may save Idaho City from a conflagration during the winter. Winter was the danger time, since stoves were kept burning all day, and their thin iron stovepipes, stuck through the roof with little insulation, could sometimes get red hot.
Less than a month after Streets editorial warning, the World reported, The cry of fire, fire, started several hundred people from their beds last Saturday night. Fortunately it was discovered in time to be extinguished without much damage. Had a strong wind been blowing it would have endangered the whole town. We observe several houses hereabouts whose owners would do well to take a look at their stovepipes while they have any to look at.
On the day before Christmas 1864, the World suggested that all citizens of this city, interested in the organization of a good and efficient Hook and Ladder Company (should) meet at the Gem Bowling Alley and Saloon of G. Gans & Bro. at the upper end of Main Street. By April 1, 1865, such a company had been formed, but heavy winter snows had damaged its building so much that its hook and ladder equipment was parked in a horse corral near the American Hotel. On April 8, 1865, only a few weeks before the fire that destroyed the town, a meeting was held in Magnolia Hall to organize a fire police, its purpose to give early warning to the town if a fire broke out. Editor Street observed, The movement is judicious. Without something of the kind the town will be in ashes before another winter. How right he was!
The Idaho World was able to publish a long and detailed account of the 1865 disaster immediately afterward because the Worlds building and printing presses escaped the fire. (One of these very hand-operated Washington presses can be seen at the Idaho Historical Museum in Julia Davis Park). Other important survivors were the Catholic church and the Jenny Lind Theatre. A Statesman correspondent with the pen name Tycoon reported the remarkable fact that despite the dislocations caused by the fire, the play Colleen Bawn was playing to packed houses at the Jenny Lind every night
However, Idaho City was not spared a sequel. In March 1867, there was no longer a hook and ladder company, and a special meeting was called to discuss the danger of another serious fire. The minutes of that meeting read, We recommend the immediate formation of a hook and ladder company and suggest that said company be composed of fifty men or more. The function of such companies was to use ladders carried on a light, hand-pulled wagon to rescue people trapped in upper story rooms, and to put out fire burning on roofs. The wagon also carried buckets for carrying water to a blaze. The hooks in such companies were used to pull down buildings in the path of fire before it could spread. On April 6, 1867, the World reported that Idaho Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 had been organized. On May 11, 1867, the paper noted that a new building for the company was nearly finished, with ample space for its trucks, ladders, hoses and buckets.
On May 18, 1867, just two years after the ferocious wind-blown fire of 1865 destroyed the town, the Worlds headline read, IDAHO CITY AGAIN IN ASHES. Nearly the entire city had burned, with a loss estimated at more than a million dollars. A week later, rebuilding was again well under way, but from that time onward most of the towns important buildings would be made of brick, many of them with iron fire doors imported from San Francisco. Visitors to this historic town can still find the San Francisco makers marks on the iron doors, and businesses still operating in brick buildings put up in the years immediately after the great fire of 1867. St. Josephs Catholic church, picturesquely sited on the hill above Main Street, was rebuilt soon after the fire. The landmark Masonic Hall, built after the 1865 fire, escaped the fire of 1867.
Idaho City is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district of state and local significance. It is well worth a visit.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email email@example.com.