Hot Springs’ epic battle with an incipient fire left the destruction behind
The recent loss of homes in Colorado to wildfire reminded me of a 1913 fire that nearly destroyed Hot Springs – the worst in Arkansas history. The city lost 50 square blocks in a windswept hell.
When the fire was brought under control around midnight, the city faced homelessness, the loss of a municipal power plant, impassable streets and a gutted courthouse.
Devastating fires are common throughout American history, the most famous being the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Many cities in Arkansas, such as Newport in Jackson County, have suffered fire at least once. major. Little Rock has been hit by many fires, most notably in 1911 when a fire broke out after hours at the Hollenberg Music Store and spread several city blocks.
The Hot Springs fire, however, was very different in its scale of destruction.
In 1913, Hot Springs, with a population of about 15,000, was still recovering from a 1905 fire. That fire killed two people and destroyed 400 buildings, leaving about 500 residents homeless. In 1878, a fire razed 150 buildings, with an estimated loss of $300,000.
The 1913 fire started on September 5. Sources at the time attributed it to a black-owned laundry room on Church Street, where a coal stove used to heat irons started a small fire which was reported to the Hot Springs Fire Department around 2 p.m. Fire engines arrived on the scene to find the fire already out of control after freak winds blew the flames west.
Before long, commercial structures along Malvern Avenue were on fire. The Iron Mountain Railroad Depot was lost, as were the Ozark Sanitarium, Hot Springs High School, and Central Methodist Church. The Cooper livery stable, the largest in town, was reduced to ashes. The fire was described as a block wide as it tore through the Iron Mountain depot and yard.
The late Hot Springs historian and librarian Mary D. Hudgins wrote that the Rock Island station was saved “some say by Mountain Valley water ready to ship…”
At 4 p.m., the Little Rock Fire Department sent Engine No. 2 by rail to Hot Springs, where five firefighters were able to deliver 750 gallons of water per minute from three hoses.
However, with municipal electricity and utilities destroyed early in the battle, the town lacked sufficient water pressure to take full advantage of the “105 horsepower device”. Christopher Thrasher, author of the entry on the fire in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, wrote that “Little Rock fire hoses did not match Hot Springs fire hydrants”.
At least one building was blown up with dynamite in a frantic and unsuccessful effort to stop the flames.
Holding a “determined position” on Central and Ouachita Avenues, the combined firefighters – with substantial help from a sudden wind shift in the late afternoon – managed to keep the flames from moving up Central Avenue, thus saving the famous public baths of the city. . This had the advantage of keeping the fire away from downtown, but it was bad news for businesses along Ouachita.
The magnificent Central Methodist Church has remained a mere shell, resembling scenes from Dresden, Germany, after the bombings of World War II. The fire left the stately Garland County Courthouse in ruins, with county records almost completely lost.
Around midnight, Governor George Washington Hays boarded a special train to Hot Springs to assess the situation. He advised four militia companies to prepare for immediate deployment to Hot Springs for security patrols, although not all of them were actually needed.
The Governor has arrived to find a shocking scene. Reports in state newspapers speak of survivors wandering the streets, their faces blackened with soot, their rescued possessions stacked in wheelbarrows.
The city responded quickly, including calling public meetings to ensure the public was kept informed. Without electricity, local newspapers could not publish for several days after the fire. Electric trams were adapted to be pulled by horses and mules. A newspaper reported that Hot Springs, “a city of hotels and rooming houses, found no difficulty in caring for its homeless.”
The ashes were still hot when tourists started arriving. Without permission, some visitors began sifting through the ashes, looking for gold and silver jewelry. City officials urged the public to stay away and the railroads were told to clean up their scheduled excursion trains to the city.
Statistics on the fire vary widely, but it has been agreed that property losses amounted to $10 million, a huge amount in 1913. The largest loss was the magnificent Park Hotel at $500,000, and about Another 150 businesses were destroyed. At least 700 houses were destroyed, leaving more than 2,500 residents homeless. The Great Chicago Fire, by comparison, left more than 100,000 people homeless.
Photo postcards of the fire, which have been sold by the thousands and can still be occasionally purchased on the internet, depict an almost biblical scene of destruction. Pathe News sent a representative to Hot Springs who, according to Mary Hudgins, “made reel after reel of footage of the ongoing fire.”
These newsreels are lost to history, although the Garland County Historical Society has searched everywhere. Recent news that Pathe has digitized his videos may offer new hope to Hot Springs historians.
In 2013, on the centennial of the fire, a plaque was placed at the location of the house where the fire started, now a parking lot on the southeast side of the Hot Springs Convention Center.
Tom Dillard is a retired historian and archivist living in rural Hot Spring County, where his farm is protected by trained members of the Glen Rose Volunteer Fire Department. Email him at [email protected]