Early Idaho buildings were far from ‘firewise’

With no fire protection, early Boise could have burned to the ground more than once.
With no fire protection, early Boise could have burned to the ground more than once. Provided by Arthur Hart

Most 19th century towns in the West were fire disasters waiting to happen, and several of them had at least one big one. Idaho City, briefly the largest town in the Pacific Northwest, had a series of major fires in the 1860s but rebuilt quickly after each one.

Most buildings of the time were of wooden construction, and instead of brick or stone chimneys had thin sheet-iron stove pipes running through wooden roofs or side walls. In winter, when temperatures could drop to zero or below, fires were kept burning around the clock, so stoves and pipes became red-hot. Wherever they came in contact with dry wood, fire was nearly inevitable. Even the smallest town had a blacksmith shop where forges heated iron until it was red-hot, and fires were common.

Houses, sadly, sometimes burned to the ground, usually while their owners were away. If someone was at home when fire broke out, there was a chance of saving the building, if buckets of water were readily available. But if the blaze had a few minutes’ head start, the building and all its contents were usually lost.

Almost from its beginning, Boise needed ordinances governing the use of fire and a properly equipped firefighting force, even though it would have to be made up entirely of volunteers. The need was obvious, but it took a full 10 years of agitation and apathy before the city succeeded in organizing and equipping one in 1876.

In August 1866, A.H. Robie’s sawmill was totally destroyed by fire. The loss was more than $40,000 (more than half a million of today’s dollars), and had not 200 volunteers worked diligently, much of the rest of the town would have burned as well. As it would for the next decade after every fire, the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman urged the immediate formation of a fire company. Plans for creating such a company were announced on March 12, 1867, after the town had another close call. A livery stable on 8th Street burned, with the loss of four of the owner’s horses, before citizens hurried to put it out. There was general recognition that all of Main Street could have gone up in smoke had the wind been blowing in the other direction.

Again, there was talk of starting a fire company, but nothing came of it. In June 1867, Statesman Editor James Reynolds wrote two editorials about Boise’s fire hazards but made no mention of a fire company, but in September he raised the subject again: “We have so many times talked to and reasoned with our citizens in reference to a fire department, and apparently to so little effect, that we have almost concluded that the people of Boise City have grown blind to their own interests.” A long editorial pointed out the folly of a town as flammable as Boise being totally without fire protection.

On Dec. 4, 1867, Boise’s first City Council, organized less than a month before, created the first fire-protection ordinance. It provided for the sheathing of all stovepipes in extra metal at the point where they passed through walls or roofs. R.L. Gillespie, an acting justice of the peace, was named magistrate to enforce the ordinance. There was still no fire company, however, and in June 1868 and February 1869, there were meetings to form one. Although “Idaho Fire Company Number One” was formed in March 1869, the Statesman soon complained that it had never had a drill and that every effort to create a fire department “soon dissolves in thin air.”

Meanwhile, Boise continued to have fires. On Aug. 3, 1870, a dozen more buildings burned with a loss estimated at over $70,000. The Statesman complained at the lack of a steam fire engine and pointed out that one could have been bought for one-third of the cost of recent losses.

Next week: Boise finally gets a fire engine and uniforms for the men who would run it.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.