Friday, January 4, 2019

Major Fire Devastates the Silver Mining Town of Wardner [otd 1/4]

On January 4, 1890, a major fire broke out in a laundry behind a popular restaurant in the village of Wardner, Idaho, about a mile south of Kellogg. The small fire department and “hundreds” of volunteers responded quickly, but for some reason they did not have enough water available to check the flames. This being the dead of winter, firefighters heaved snow as fast as they could. Unfortunately, that failed to stop the fire, which continued for four hours.
Mining Town Fire damage, 1893. National Archives.

The town owed its existence to the discovery of rich lead-silver lodes in the fall of 1885. The site was originally called “Kentuck,” but the Postal Service disallowed that name for a local post office. So about six months after the founding, it was renamed for railroad executive James F. Wardner. Over the next two or three years, it experienced “phenomenal growth,” especially after developers ran a rail line into the mining area.

In the summer of 1886, new telephone lines connected Wardner to the outside world, encouraging further growth. For a time, it seemed like the only limit was how fast nearby mills could deliver lumber to eager builders.

Witnesses said the fire moved rather slowly along the block after the laundry and restaurant became fully involved. (Later, this invoked bitter complaints that even a moderate improvement in the water supply would have allowed the volunteers to stop the fire’s spread.) After consuming several business structures, the flames ate through the telephone office and then a connected block of four buildings.

Citizens battled the fire for hours, then the flames began to threaten the main business district. Desperate, firefighters used “giant powder” to blast a substantial hotel and several nearby structures, but even that failed. They backed off again and totally demolished another large mercantile store, which finally provided a large enough gap to halt the flames.

The fire and counter-measures destroyed four large buildings, including the three-story Grand Central Hotel. Eighteen smaller office buildings and stores – including a jewelry, cigar emporium, barber shop, and tailor’s suite – were also lost. In addition to the telephone facility, the post office went up in smoke (officials did manage to save the mail itself, apparently).

Last but not least, the town lost two restaurants and four drinking establishments. Later, the Owyhee Avalanche in Silver City, Idaho reported (January 18, 1890) on the “very disastrous fire” and said that “Twenty-five of the business houses were destroyed, entailing a loss of $100,000.”
Wardner, 1904. Kellogg in the distance. U.S. Geological Survey.

With regional mines booming, locals quickly replaced the losses. The 1890 U.S. Census enumerated about 860 people in Wardner, out of a total Shoshone County population of 5,882. In April 1891, county commissioners approved articles of incorporation for the town. Wardner continued to grow through the following decade, despite on-going labor-management disputes and violence [blog, Apr 29], and dips in metal prices.

Published in 1903, the Illustrated History of North Idaho proclaimed, “At this writing, conditions in the Coeur d'Alene country are quite favorable. All the mines are at work in full blast; the relations between the employers of labor and their employees are, perhaps, as pleasant as they have ever been in the district; … and the rate of output is greater than ever before.”

Of course, that did not last. Today, Wardner does not exist as a town. It is simply a residential adjunct to Kellogg, and tourism largely drives the rather weak local economy.
References: [Hawley], [Illust-North]

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