Story by Guy Coates | photos courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society
Truckee’s 19th century history could be described as a series of fires with calm periods in between. In showing photographs of old downtown Truckee, I am often asked, “What happened to that old building?” The answer: “It burned.” Much of old Truckee has been rebuilt several times. The fire on Front Street in October of 1882 was one of the costlier infernos.
The year before, in August 1881, Truckee’s downtown business district suffered a major fire that took many months to recover and rebuild from. Many businesses did not have insurance, so recovery was slow and costly. By the summer of 1882, the Front Street merchants had recouped their losses and were making money again. The Truckee Republican reported the details of the next incident.
On Oct. 27, 1882, at 4:30 p.m., smoke was seen coming from the rear of the St. Louis Brewery, located on the corner of Main and Spring streets, and in a few minutes, flames burst through the back windows. The alarm was raised, and in a few moments, the street was filled with men. The Truckee Lumber Company’s fire department responded promptly, and quickly had a stream of water on the flames.
The volunteer-staffed Washoe steam-powered engine rushed to the scene and after firing up the boiler and laying hose to a nearby water tank, was spraying two streams of water on the blaze. The Samson, Central Pacific’s fire suppression locomotive, was hooked up to its water supply cars and parked near the current Bridge Street crossing. In a short time, it added its stream of water to the fight.
The St. Louis Brewery was sandwiched in between two supposedly fire-proof brick structures; thus, it was expected that the fire would quickly be suppressed. In the back of the building, along the alley, were firewood piles, outbuildings, and outhouses, along with wood debris. But since there was no access to the rear, the flames spread to the two buildings next to it. Tinware merchant Frank Steven’s shop was the next to catch fire, and it looked as if the whole east end of the block would burn.
Men with water buckets and wet blankets prevented it from overwhelming the Pacific House, which is now the site of the Truckee Hotel. A few times the building did catch on fire but the flames were quickly put out. Also saved was the photo studio of H.K. Gage, located where Casa Baeza is now. Joe Gray’s stables at Bridge and Jibboom streets caught on fire, but the historic Gray’s cabin was spared once again, due to the open space of the horse corrals that surrounded it.
The flames were slowed to the east but continued to burn west into the heart of the Commercial Row businesses. The Sherritt House, Stewart McKay’s New American House, and Hamlet Davis’s grocery store all burned thoroughly.
As the flames were progressing west and came upon the brick Odd Fellows Hall, a terrific explosion occurred and the iron doors and windows blew open and the interior was soon in flames. Coal oil barrels that had been stored inside were the cause of the blast. Joe Marzen’s meat market, on the ground floor of the Odd Fellows, was spared the worst fire damage because a substantial, fireproof dirt floor had been installed between the bottom and second floors.
Several hours after it had started, the inferno was slowed down considerably, and firefighters began to train all their efforts on saving the landmark building known today as the Capitol Building.
By now, the railroad’s Donner Summit fire train had arrived, and that, combined with the Samson, the Washoe, and the Truckee Lumber Co. engines fought a valiant fight to save the brick building. It was feared that if it couldn’t be stopped, the rest of the block to the west, which was mostly wood structures, would also burn.
Fortune smiled on Truckee that day as the inferno was stopped at Hurd’s Saloon, on the bottom floor of the Capitol Building, with damage on all sides of the structure, but it was repaired and reopened for business quickly.
Other incidents during the fire
Many merchants and bar owners removed their goods only to have them fall into the hands of thieves. As liquor was taken from the burning buildings and left in the plaza, it was eagerly grabbed by the crowd of bystanders who were always on hand at a fire. Only those businesses who posted guards escaped the pillage and looting.
Despite the vigilance of the property owners over their goods, a great deal of merchandise was taken. Public blame was placed on the Chinese, the Indians, and hoodlum elements — as was common in the time. Liquor, cigars, groceries, bedding, furniture, trunks, and anything not guarded disappeared.
At one time during the night, considerable excitement was caused by an announcement that a man had been locked in the Odd Fellows Hall and had perished in the flames. Later, it was determined that no one had died in the fire.
Several injuries were reported. One man fell off the top of the Samson water cars while coupling a hose. He was knocked out for a time, but Dr. William Curless brought him around and treated his other injuries. Jerome Fountain, the railroad yardmaster, received a severe cut on his right foot. Another man sustained a deep cut in his scalp when a drunk threw a bottle at him.
The Chinese were compelled by force to operate the hand-powered fire pumps when the first crews began to give out. Even elderly Chinese merchants were mandated to help under the watchful eyes of the exhausted firemen.
There were many heroes as well as villains. Men such as Roddy McClellan, James Lowden, George Lewison, and Tom Rogers bravely continued to pour water from the Washoe on Hurd’s Hall all night despite being exhausted.
Rumors as to the exact cause were abundant, but nothing definitive was ever proven. Paul Menk, owner of the brewery, stated that there was no fire in the woodstove, nor had there been any lamps or candles burning.
Losses and recovery
Due to the number of destructive fires that had occurred, carrying fire insurance was common. Of the estimated $150,000 worth of damage ($4.357 million in today’s dollars), only about $60,000 was fully insured. Major losses were suffered by the Masonic Temple of over $2,000, Paul Menk $8,000, Frank Stevens $4,500, Joe Gray $1,500, Odd Fellows Hall $7,000, James Sherritt $30,000, Joe Marzen & Son $3,000, George Harrison $6,500, W.C. Durno $6,000, William Hurd $3,000, Hamlet Davis $1,200, and the greatest loss was suffered as Stewart McKay, who owned the American House — now the Truckee Hotel, lost over $35,000 in the fire.
Even while the fire was burning their businesses, men such as McKay, Sherritt, Stevens, Hurd, Harrison, and others took the time to order lumber to be delivered the next morning, for rebuilding. As dawn broke, hammers clanged as temporary shacks were built to house the businessmen. Those who waited to start temporary buildings or reconstruction were dismayed when several feet of snow fell on Truckee the following week.
By Nov. 15, the work of rebuilding and getting ready was in full swing despite the onset of the early snowstorms. Several merchants did not bother to rebuild but sold their properties or gave up their leases. James Sherritt bought up two ruins that gave him the east end of Front Street but did not rebuild until the following spring. Stewart McKay bought out John Moody’s Truckee Hotel, located across the railroad tracks on what is now West River Street; Joe Marzen built a comfortable shop in front of the Odd Fellows Hall until the repairs were done there. William Hurd completed repairs on his building by mid-November.
As a community, Truckee survived the fire of 1882, though it took maybe a year or more for people to recover financially from the inferno. Meetings were held and plans created to add more water supplies and fire equipment, but very little was actually done. The town would be safe from another major fire for about a decade, but the memory lived on for a lot longer.
~ Guy Coates was a long-term member and writer for the Truckee-Donner Historical Society. TDHS’s MISSION is to discover, procure, and preserve whatever may relate to the aboriginal, natural, civil, literary, and ecclesiastical history of Truckee and surrounding area. Come be a part of the fun and join us. We have research; exploring; writing; the sharing of our local history with visitors, kids and residents; and many other opportunities to help you be part of the Truckee community. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.