By Richard Gorby
On Saturday night, July 14, 1900, fire swept through downtown Prescott with an uncontrollable fury, almost totally destroying the business district of the small mining town.
Starting in the O.K. Lodging House, next door to the south of the newly built Scopel Hotel on South Montezuma at Goodwin, possibly when a miner left a lighted candle stuck in the wall of his room, the fire quickly spread to the Scopel. At this point the fire could have been easily stopped with a few buckets of water...but Prescott had no water!
The water supply at that time was from a well on Aubrey Street, about a block south, but the pumping plant was being overhauled and repaired, with the engine disconnected from the pump.
Prescott had always had a fire problem. In May of 1879 the Arizona Miner wrote:
"At least four deep wells should be made on our public plaza...which might be the means of saving our town should a fire break out in the wooden buildings on Montezuma Street. We can't afford a fire just yet."
Nothing was done, however, and on July 4, 1883, fire destroyed most of Montezuma Street, and wells were finally dug on the four corners of the plaza, solely for fire purposes. (One of these wells is still visible on the southeast corner of the Plaza.) By Saturday night on July 14, 1900, however, they had been completely emptied for use on new summer gardens.
Prescott may have had no water, but one thing the mining town had a lot of was blasting powder, which, if used in the Scopel Hotel at this point could possibly have stopped the fire. But "authorities" refused to allow it and the beautiful new brick hotel became a roaring furnace.
Across Goodwin Street, at J.L.Fisher's Mercantile and the Sam Lee Restaurant (now the Galloping Goose), the owners felt that there was no possibility the fire could cross the fifty feet of Goodwin and hit them, but it did. It quickly swept up "Whiskey Row", destroying the new, spacious, Sam Hill Hardware Store, (you can see the name today imprinted in the sidewalk), Cob Web Hall, and the Palace Saloon, finally reaching the newly built Burke Hotel (on the site of and similar to the present St. Michael's Hotel).
Here there was hope that the fire could end. Built where the famous Diana Hotel was destroyed in the fire of 1883, the Burke advertised itself as "the only fire-proof hotel in Arizona." But the Burke rapidly went down in flames that then moved across the street to burn and destroy all of Gurley Street before moving to Cortez Street.
Most of North Cortez went down, and the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot fully expected to be hit. All of its records and valuable papers were removed and loaded aboard boxcars, ready to be taken away at a moment's notice. But the wind had gone down and the slowing flames were finally put out. The depot and today's Murphy's Restaurant were saved.
Back on Montezuma, even before the flames had died down, a lively business had started across the street on the Plaza. "Whiskey Row" had eleven saloons or liquor dispensers, and if nothing else was saved, as much liquor as possible was moved across the street. There was hardly a minute, even during the fire, when the Plaza was not flooded with drinks of all kinds, except soft drinks! Four saloons on the Plaza were now doing a large business. By the next night a dozen were in full blast, with musical and gaming attachments. At least three saloons had managed to remove their pianos.
The next day the Board of Supervisors met and granted to the establishments official space on the Plaza, each across from its former burned one, and tents and pine shacks were doing a brisk business.
The amount of fire loss was only an estimate...possibly one and a half million dollars. Very little insurance was carried by property owners. Prescott had had too many fires and consequently the insurance rates were almost prohibitive.
Rebuilding started almost immediately, all with brick or stone...no more wood! Many were beautifully rebuilt, such as the Palace Saloon, called, after its completion in 1901, "the most beautiful saloon in all of Arizona", as many feel it still is today.
Despite its four-hour rampage of destruction, the "Great Fire of 1900" can almost be considered a 'friendly' fire. No one died or was badly burned, and Prescott emerged a more beautiful city.
Richard Gorby is a long time volunteer at the Sharlot Hall Museum Library and Archives and a frequent contributor to Days Past.
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (f2110pa). Reuse only by permission.
Montezuma Street from atop the old courthouse. After the July 14, 1900, fire, merchants moved their businesses across the street onto the Courthouse Plaza until they could move back.