|Lead-silver mill at Wallace. H. T. French photo.|
The first cabins had been built in Wallace just six years earlier, after prospectors discovered placer gold in the area. Major finds of lode silver followed and the town mushroomed. Within a few years, rail lines connected Wallace to the outside world [blog, Dec 9]. As usual, almost everything in the town was built with locally-cut lumber – weathered and dry, or fresh and full of pitch.
In late July 1890, a fire began in the Central Hotel, on Sixth Street south of the railroad depot. Strong, hot winds fanned the flames, driving them south and east up the canyon. The fire department tried to contain the damage, but they ran out of water in about ten minutes. Blowing out fire breaks with “Giant powder” (an early form of dynamite) failed to stop the conflagration.
Except for one structure, the blaze consumed everything in the blocks between Fifth Street (to the west) and Sixth. Most of the buildings to the east and southeast of Sixth also went up in flames. The fires stopped only when they reached the ridges to the south and east.
Wallace considered itself fortunate to have only one fatality: A drunk who had passed out in one of the saloons was burned to death. Thirteen saloons, three restaurants, and a liquor wholesaler went up in flames. The fires also destroyed six hotels, a bank, a theater, and four vacant buildings (one of them new).
Other losses included nearly thirty stores and shops (four barbers, two butchers, several dry goods firms, a druggist, a blacksmith, and more), eighteen office structures (many doctors and lawyers, and the newspaper), three livery stables, several warehouses, an ice house, and a saw mill. A meeting hall, the telephone exchange, and the post office were also burned out.
So much aid poured in from the nearby towns that officials turned down, with thanks, an offer of help from Spokane. The Murray Sun reported (July 30, 1890) that town leaders soon passed ordinances requiring that new construction use non-flammable materials in certain key areas. The item also asserted that, "The work of rebuilding will be on a larger scale than before."
Wallace suffered another serious fire in November, 1898, when flames totally destroyed a hotel and the saloon next to it, and badly damaged a second hotel. Still, efforts of the revamped fire brigade at least prevented further damage, aided by the fact that many owners had replaced wood frame structures with brick.
|Wallace after the 1910 fire. Library of Congress.|
Continuing production from the rich silver mines allowed the city to rebuild.
The real decline of Wallace came with the depletion of the mines. Today, the town has less than a third of the population it had at the time of the Big Burn. Many of the “new” 1890 brick structures form the heart of the town’s current tourist district.
|References: [French], [Illust-North]|
|John Galvin, “The Big Burn: Idaho and Montana, August 1910,” Popular Mechanics (July 31, 2007).|
|History of Wallace, Wallace Chamber of Commerce.|