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City commemorates fire that changed Hot SpringsOriginally Published September 8, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated September 6, 2013 at 2:14 p.m.
One hundred years ago this week, it is believed that Miss Matlock, who lived in the Pine Bluff House, a boarding house on Church Street in Hot Springs, was ironing in a room on the second floor.
“It was a day much like today,” said Mike Blythe, a board member of the Garland County Historical Society at a meeting on Wednesday afternoon. “It was hot and even drier than today.”
On Wednesday, the city of Hot Springs declared a burn notice because of the dry conditions; and as the story goes, it is for a good reason.
“Perhaps Miss Matlock was trying to catch a breeze from an open window on that hot day, Sept. 5, 1913, when either the hot iron, or its heat source, touched a curtain at the window.
“The fire went from there to the wallpaper, and then the wall caught fire and spread up to the roof within a few moments,” Blythe said. “As the wooden roof caught fire, the blaze spread.”
By the next morning, a large segment of Arkansas’ tourist city was in ashen ruins.
Fed by hot winds and the effects of a dry summer, the boarding-house fire became what is still the largest urban fire in Arkansas history. The blaze destroyed 60 city blocks, or about half the Spa City, including 700 homes, 155 businesses, two hotels, several churches, a theater, the Iron Mountain Railroad station, the county courthouse and the 5-year old Hot Springs High School. The fire left more than 2,500 homeless. Damage was estimated at 10 million in 1913 dollars.
On Wednesday afternoon, under a bright, hot sun, the city commemorated the 1913 conflagration with a plaque set at the site of the Pine Bluff House behind the Hot Springs Convention Center.
The fire was more than destruction, Hot Springs Fire Department Chief Ed Davis said.
“Catastrophe and the ensuing chaos are often the primary factors that evoke change,” he said. “Such was the case with this fire. The modern Hot Springs and its fire department were birthed by this disaster.”
Davis said the city began to look at fire protection differently. Housing codes were created and enforced: There were more brick-clad structures, and infrastructure was improved and relocated outside the city’s center. In addition, the Fire Department was brought up to modern standards.
“I found something from 1908,” Davis said, “that said the Fire Department had 18 firemen and 13 horses. After the fire, additional firetrucks were purchased and more firefighters were hired, and the horses were retired from service. More pull stations, where someone could pull the fire alarm, were located around the city.”
Blythe, along with Clyde Covington, also a board member of the historical society, ran through the chronology of the fire during a gathering of almost 100 people at the convention center, after the dedication of the plaque. The two men “know more about the fire than anyone in the universe,” said Liz Robbins, executive director of the society.
Perhaps a telephone operator at the Gaines Building, the city’s first three-story building, saw the fire and called in the alarm, or it might have been any of the people who saw the fire roaring, just more than a block from the Hot Springs City Hall, Blythe said. A one-sentence entry in the Fire Department’s log book said the firefighters learned about the “big fire” from a phone call.
“It is worth noting that the telephone operators never left their posts during the fire,” Covington said. “They kept the lines of communication open as the fire spread.”
So close to the central fire station, located at City Hall, the department responded quickly to the 2:15 p.m. call, but burning debris soon flew across Cottage Street to the home of the town’s only African-American doctor, Claude Wade, and soon that house was gone.
“There was a hot wind blowing from the east when the fire started,” Blythe said in a conversation with Chief
Davis. “But soon, the fire made its own weather as the heat went up from the flames and sucked air in toward the fire, generating more heat.”
“It was a firestorm,” Blythe responded to a question about the intensity of the fire.
The fire moved from house to house, business by business, aided by the winds.
“In those days, almost all the homes were wood-framed with wood shingles,” Blythe said. “The backyards had wooden chicken houses and cow barns. It was a virtual tinderbox.”
Burning cinders soon set fire to the roof of Mayor J.W. McClendon’s house near what is now Convention Boulevard and Civic Street. There is a photo taken of the house with the upper floor in flames. A man with a white fireman’s hat is seen standing watching helplessly as the home burns. Blythe said he thinks the man is Fire Chief Henry Higgins.
There is an extensive photo record of the fire. Photographer Claude Stonecipher, who ran Deluxe Photography Studios, took dramatic pictures of the fire as it moved through the city. Some of those photos illustrated Wednesday’s talk about the fire.
Winds changed, and City Hall and Central Avenue were saved, but the Methodist Church on Church Street burned. A bathhouse, the Crystal, which stood where the Austin Hotel now has a parking deck, was destroyed by the fire.
Desperate firefighters dynamited a business, trying to keep the fire away from Citizen’s Electric, the city’s power plant. But aided by the wind, the fire soon spread to the building, and the city’s electrical power went down.
“It was a total blackout,” Blythe said. “Elevators stopped between floors, and streetcars stopped. By this time, flames were 100 feet in the air.”
Soon there was a problem with the water pressure that hampered firefighting.
“Pipes burst in burning buildings,” Blythe said. “At one point, canvas fire hoses, fully charged with water, burned, draining their water.”
The flames jumped Hot Springs Creek and burned the rail yard, the roundhouse and repair shops.
“It was a major loss for the railroad,” Blythe said. “The Ozark Sanitarium was burned, including its wooden water tower.
“The new high school was built in 1908, and it was state of the art,” Blythe said. “But fire got into the roof, and by 5:30 fire entered the building.”
Shifting winds would save one area and condemn another as the fire moved on.
“It stopped at Central and Market, Covington said. “That was as far as the fire got.”
He said the fire burned through the night but did not expand.
“It wasn’t until 11 a.m. that a cloudburst hit and put out the burning cinders,” Covington said.
As soon as the fire was over, the devastated area joined the bathhouses and the alligator farm as a tourist attraction. Visitors came to the area to see the ruins of the city.
“We were looking at pictures of those tourists, and there is one of some enterprising local citizens selling popcorn out of a rolling stand in front of the ruins of the Moody Hotel. I was clucking about how terrible it was that people wanted to see such ruin in Hot Springs,” Covington said as he switched to another old photograph on the video display.
“Then I saw this picture.” he said. “The little boy in the front seat of the car is my father, and there are two generations of my family sightseeing though the streets. ‘Well,’ I thought. ‘This is history.’”
Hot Springs Mayor Ruth Carney and Blythe unveiled the plaque at the site where the fire began. Robbins thanked Steve Arrison of Visit Hot Springs, the city’s visitor bureau, for providing the plaque, and the Fire Department for contributing to the historical research on the fire.
“This marks a moment in history when all the people of Hot Springs came together to rebuild,” Robbins said.
Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or firstname.lastname@example.org.