Fire put Wallace on the map, nearly destroyed it
For three days in August 1910, the mining town of Wallace, Idaho, was at the epicenter of national news.
Over their morning coffee, New Yorkers read newspaper accounts of the fire that threatened to destroy the city of 3,000. Even British papers carried stories of the fires in the American West.
“Forest Flames Wreak Havoc; $1,000,000 is loss at Wallace…25 dead,” shrieked headlines in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
“Wallace is scorched by forest fire…Hundreds flee for lives,” The Spokesman-Review reported.
In extra editions, stories of firefighters’ bravery vied for space with accounts of people defending their homes with wet gunnysacks. A man who knocked over a pregnant woman trying to get a spot on one of Wallace’s evacuation trains was beaten by the crowd at the depot.
By 1910, the telegraph and telephone had given newspapers the ability to report on distant events.
“You could take a localized event and give it national attention,” said Jim McReynolds, executive director of the Wallace District Mining Museum. “We all love a good disaster… They make great stories, and we live vicariously through them.”
The story of 7-year-old Willie Graftenberger, who got separated from his parents during the fire, was part of the news. He rode a train into Spokane, where he asked for a hotel room. The boy told the hotel clerk that Wallace had become “too hot” for him.
Wallace had been hot all summer. Residents’ eyes smarted from the smoke generated by fires burning in the surrounding mountains. In the swanky Samuel’s Hotel, patrons left sooty footprints on the lobby’s tile floors.
On Aug. 13, firebrands rained down on the city, igniting an awning. Two days later, the 25th Infantry was sent from Spokane to help defend Wallace.
Local residents thought the fire would follow the prevailing wind patterns from the south, flaming over the mountains and bursting out of the Placer Creek canyon toward town. People planned accordingly.
One merchant loaded up valuables from his home near the creek and took them to his cigar company for safekeeping. Another family paid to have their grand piano hauled to an abandoned mine shaft.
The Placer Creek fires were burning so hot that soldiers couldn’t get close enough to fight them. As the soldiers retreated, the flames advanced. By the afternoon of Aug, 20, a premature darkness settled over Wallace.
“A heavy pall of smoke hung over the city,” one resident told The Spokesman-Review. “There was not a trace of the sun. At 2:30 in the afternoon the electric lights were turned on.”
Insurance companies did a brisk business, writing fire policies into the afternoon. By 4 p.m. the winds died down and an eerie calm settled on the city. An hour later, the winds picked up again. Soon, they were gusting at 60 mph.
By 6 p.m., Mayor Walter Hanson ordered every able-bodied man to report for firefighting, threatening to jail those who refused. Hanson hoped to save the town by setting backfires.
At 9 p.m., an ember landed in a trash pile near the Wallace Times, igniting solvent-soaked rags and newsprint. The newspaper building went up in flames, which spread to the law office next door.
At the telephone office, seven women worked the lines, taking frantic calls as one building after another caught fire. The streets seethed with people trying to get out of town.
Trains lined up to evacuate women and children to Kellogg, Wardner and Spokane. In one crowded boxcar, a mother clutched her toddler, ill with scarlet fever. At the mayor’s orders, the soldiers threw men off of the trains.
Wallace’s beleaguered, one-wagon fire department chose a string of brick buildings on Seventh Street to serve as a fire break. The new Shoshone County Courthouse was part of the defense.
When the Sunset Brewery succumbed to flames, 2,000 barrels of beer burst. Firefighters waded through foam to their knees on the adjacent street. It was a sad sight for the thirsty men. Mayor Hanson ordered the remaining bars to stay open all night to serve beer and whisky to the dehydrated firefighters. The town’s water supply was no longer drinkable.
At midnight, Hanson declared martial law. Soldiers patrolled the streets to prevent looting.
By then, the fire had isolated Providence Hospital on the north side of town. The Northern Pacific Railroad, which had a line up Burke Canyon, was the sole hope for the patients, Catholic sisters and other hospital staff.
The conductor, George “Kid” Brown, had only an engine, coal tender and caboose to work with. Patients, including some on stretchers, and the hospital’s staff crowded into the caboose. With tracks to the west blocked by burning box cars, Brown headed east – the same direction the fire was moving.
Sister Joseph Antioch, a 21-year-old novitiate, missed the train when she went to find three patients in the hospital’s basement. A doctor and nurse also stayed behind to wet down the hospital’s roof.
Sister Anthony, the hospital’s supervisor, was visiting Missoula during the fire. Apprised of the situation by phone, she sank to her knees in prayer, promising to erect a statue of Christ if the hospital, its patients and staff were spared.
The hospital’s deliverance is one of McReynolds’s favorite stories.
“The Mother Superior in Missoula makes a deal with God,” he said. “By the time she finishes the prayers, the wind shifts. Whatever your beliefs are, that’s a miraculous story.”
The hospital evacuees on the train were safe, too. With coal supplies running low, Conductor Brown considered stopping to refuel, but the fire was too close. He gunned the train over the “S” bridge, a wooden trestle between Mullan and Lookout Pass that was catching fire as the train passed over it, and coasted downhill. At St. Regis, the patients caught a passenger train to Missoula.
The next morning, Wallace residents took stock. The east end of their town was leveled. Businesses razed by the fire included the cigar company where the merchant had stashed his valuables. Fifty homes were gone, but the Seventh Street fire line had helped save other residences.
Two lives were lost. James Boyd died of smoke inhalation when he returned to his house to retrieve a pet parrot. An unidentified man died in a boarding house.
Spokane nurses traveled to Wallace to help care for injured firefighters and others refugees streaming out of the mountains. The city of Boise wired $2,000 to Mayor Hanson to help provide food and shelter.
Wallace’s remaining hotels soon were full, and “every eating place is rushed to death,” The Spokesman-Review reported.
Two days after the fire, the mines were back in operation. Insurance adjusters were expected in town the next day.
The liberal writing of insurance policies through the afternoon of Aug. 20 helped Wallace rise up from the ashes. About $1 million worth of damage was reported, but most of the buildings were insured. By 1912, photos showed new construction replacing empty lots.
Sister Anthony, meanwhile, kept her side of the pact with God.
A life-sized statue of Jesus of the Sacred Heart was erected on the grounds of Providence Hospital.
Sources for this story include: “Northwest Disaster,” by Ruby Holt; “The Big Blowup,” by Betty Goodwin; “Year of the Fires,” by Stephen Pyne; and “The Big Burn,” by Timothy Egan.