Part 3 - The Galveston Fire Department

Baptism by Fire: The Great Conflagration of 1885

By Kimber Fountain
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 The magnitude of destruction and suffering caused by the worst fire in Galveston’s history was undoubtedly catastrophic in measure, but the potency of its memory is further amplified by the eerie collection of circumstances surrounding it. Firemen were (and are still) deeply superstitious about the number 13 and the thirteenth day of the month - in the 19th century it was called “hoodoo day” (a form of voodoo).

  The fire broke out in the early morning, mere half an hour after the clock struck November 13, 1885. It was also a Friday. The fire originated at a foundry called Vulcan Iron Works, named after the Roman god of metalworking.

  Vulcan is also the god of fire, and his descent upon the island happened to come on a quintessential island autumn day - when sustained 30 mile-per-hour winds were gusting up to 40. As for the men tasked with subduing this ferocity, Galveston’s paid fire department was not yet two months old. A mere infant but nevertheless, old enough to be baptized.

   A patrolman on the east side of the city was canvassing his beat, a route that eventually led him past Strand and 16th Streets around 12:30am, when and where he noticed flames coming from the metallurgy shop on the northwest corner. The tales of what followed this discovery vary.

  The one constant is that the newly established Galveston Fire Department was efficient and timely in their response to the alarm. However, some claim that the alarm was sounded promptly while others decry that notion and insist that it was somehow delayed, perhaps intentionally.

   Placeholder imageRegardless, the voracious winds made minutes irrelevant. Within twenty minutes of the first alarm, forty-two blocks of the city’s east end had been ignited as sparks and blazing fragments of wood were carried far from their place of origin. The fire was then fueled by a veritable feast of wooden shingles and structures in its path as the brutal north wind pushed it southward and to the west.

  Once the fire overtook Market Street, two blocks south of its origin, the Galveston community’s trademark resilience was on full display. By that point, everyone had forgotten entirely about calling the fire department. They were too busy fighting the fire right beside them.

  The quickness of a conflagration, however, is conversely proportionate to the amount of time needed to extinguish it. The GFD and its honorary civilian members battled for twenty-four hours, their efforts badly impeded by a vastly insufficient waterworks system.

  After Market Street, the fire had pushed on to Postoffice Street, destroying everything between 16th and 20th Streets except fittingly, the Post Office itself. The brick building had been built as fireproof as was possible at the time; only the rear wall was badly burned with no interior losses. 

  The next to ignite was Church Street, and then the fire continued its southerly route towards the residential areas and municipal buildings. It threatened the county jail, and the prisoners were readied for evacuation although the brick structure and slate roofing ultimately resisted the blaze.

   The courthouse was badly damaged, although not nearly the total loss of its neighbor, the massive Exchange Hotel which was consumed in a matter of seconds. The fire ripped through some of Galveston’s finest homes as it continued toward Broadway Avenue where it decimated the $25,000 Leon Blum estate ($720,000 today).

  Homes, schools, office and apartment buildings, and sheds crumbled into ash. Telephone, telegraph, and fire alarm wires snaked through the streets as their support poles toppled to the ground. The fire was so hot that even the toe planks between the rails of the city streetcar were burned, along with nearly one thousand feet of firehose as sparks rained down on the firemen and their apparatus.

  Placeholder image People poured into the streets, carrying anything they could grab on their way out. The Daily News reported that it would have almost been a comical scene - people scurrying about in their nightclothes with lamps and bedside tables - had it not been for the gravitas of the situation.

  Astonishingly, only one life was lost. An elderly man identified only as “Old John” suffered from consumption and was laying in hospice at a house at 19th and Postoffice. By the time neighbors remembered his condition and whereabouts and sent someone to retrieve him, he had passed away, presumably from shock or smoke inhalation since his body had not been burned. He was carried out of the house in a coffin against a ghostly backdrop of a charred street and a sky that glowed crimson from the flames and embers.

   Around 7pm, the fire was finally contained at Avenue O, but the inflamed structures continue to burn for many more hours. Weak and weary firemen battled on, “grilled with the heat and stifled with smoke, drenched with cold water and steamed with hot, soaked to the very pith and marrow of the bone, until by efforts almost superhuman they had brought under control the greatest fire in the city’s history.”

 Placeholder image After the last flame was extinguished, the Great Fire of 1885 had swallowed nearly one hundred acres of a densely populated residential and commercial area. From the north side of the Strand to Avenue O, ranging in width from two to four city blocks between 16th and 20th Streets, forty-two city blocks and 568 homes were destroyed. An estimated 500 families, or more than two-thousand people, were rendered homeless.

  Every available vehicle - carriages, drays, carts, wagons - were employed in the service of moving furniture and other household goods that could be salvaged. They creaked slowly and solemnly down streets lined with smoldering heaps of ash with only the chimneys left to indicate that here once stood a house. Hundreds of houses along the fire’s perimeter sustained damage as well.

  The streets that bordered the burned areas were lined with burning mattresses and wooden shingles that had been ignited by sparks flying onto houses and into windows. They were thrown into the street to save the house.

  One of the largest non-structural losses was that of a book collection belonging to a former mayor, J.C. Fisher. He was lauded as having the largest collection of literary and scientific volumes in the city, one that had taken decades to amass.

 Unfortunately, the fire spared not one work. The collection was not insured and was a total loss. All told, the city and residents’ losses totaled $1.5 million, more than $43 million today. 

  Placeholder imageUnsurprisingly, Galveston responded with its usual tenacity and resilience. Houses were still burning when signs began to appear on vacant buildings, “The poor and suffering can find shelter here for themselves and their goods.” Colonel W.H. Sinclair, owner of the Beach Hotel, opened his establishment as temporary lodging for displaced residents. Donations were made by sister cities, and even Chicago donated money to Galveston, knowing full well the ravages of fire.

  A community relief fund was established with Colonel W.L. Moody serving as treasurer. A traveling troupe of actors, The Mikado Opera Company, performed a benefit performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, sponsored and hosted by Henry Greenwald, the lessee of the opera house. One hundred percent of the proceeds were donated to the relief fund.

  The Galveston City Council earmarked $15,000 for the abatement of suffering among the victims and most importantly, proceeded with improving the waterworks system, upgrading fire department equipment, and enacting resolutions for preventative measures against future fire.

  In addition to mandating that all construction use slate roofing to prevent fires from spreading, city officials approved $450,000 for the installation of 13 brackish wells along Winnie Street at 800-foot intervals. The intricate system was comprised of 17,000 feet of water mains, a pump house, and a standpipe system.

  Despite the scope of the calamity, or perhaps because of it, Galveston learned from its mistakes and rebounded valiantly, just as it had done after the Civil War and as it would do many more times in the future.