Fires were the feared avenger of almost every western mining town from the 1860s through the turn of the century. Many mining camps of the era disappeared into heaps of ashes that covered the ground. Tombstone survived such devastation.
Silver Reef almost totally disappeared from the conflagration that raged down its mile-long main street on May 30, 1879. A fire was discovered under a restaurant and hundreds of residents threw buckets of water from nearby Leeds Creek on the flames, but the fire spread to the Harrison House Hotel and destroyed several other businesses before it was extinguished.
Shaunty, one of the first mining camps in the Star District of Beaver County, Utah burned to the ground one hot summer afternoon in 1875.
Frisco, Utah was proud of the fact that all its main buildings were made of lava rock including the “fire proof” Hotel Southern. But, my grandfather’s store could not be saved due to the lack of available water in that mining town.
Newhouse, situated in the Wah Wah Valley west of Frisco was designed so that the buildings were separated by plenty of vacant land. The Cactus Club, built especially for the miners and mill workers, sat by itself across the street from the city park – the only grass-covered land for fifty miles around – and the Opera House stood alone across the street. Houses for the worker’s families were scattered along the valley in individual lots. Newhouse, however, was not around long enough to fear any serious fires.
But the mining camps of northern Utah were consistent in their fear of fire. Eureka had its share as did Mercur and Ophir. But perhaps the most vulnerable of all the northern Utah mining camps was Park City. Here was a town built in a mountain canyon with ore mills on the hillsides and mine structures at the head of Main Street all made of wood.
A number of spectacular fires mark Park City’s history. Since lumber was abundant in the mountains around town in the form of ponderosas almost all the buildings in the town were built of pine.
The mining boom that began in 1872 brought hundreds of prospectors, miners and camp followers to the narrow canyon. They set up shacks and burrowed dugouts along the hillsides near the mines. Between 1870 and 1900 Park City’s population increased by 40%. Quickly the town included boarding houses, mills, stores, saloons, cribs, theaters, and mine buildings all made from the soft and fragrant pine lumber.
But, in June of 1898 the town experienced its worst disaster. An early morning fire, likely kindled from a blaze designed only to cook breakfast, spread from its original stove and, fanned by the ever-present morning winds, swept down through the town. Within seven hours three-quarters of the camp had burned to ashes causing over one million dollars in damage. The blaze was the greatest in Utah history. It left Main Street in ruins with only a few gaunt walls remaining of the 200 businesses, houses, and dwellings.
Nationally, front page newspaper headings of the blaze trumped the national stories of the Spanish-American War. And the smoke lingered for weeks from the devastation.
Park City was rebuilt, but few of the residence had learned the lesson of building with wood in the vulnerable canyon land. So, the new structures were also made of the abundant pine.
Still, the new structures would outlast the mines, only to be part of the rebirth of a great tourist attraction and world renowned skiing destination.