Once Upon a Conflagration: “Helpless”

The cause was a “boys will be boys” moment; the effect was major changes in the way Fort Worth prepares for disaster.

Two boys experimenting with cigarettes and matches near the intersection of St. Louis and Peter Smith streets started the Great South Side Fire of April 3, 1909. First a nearby barn went up in flames. The fire quickly jumped to another building. And another. Within minutes the fire, fed by wood-framed, wood-shingled houses and winds gusting to forty miles per hour, was spreading to the north, toward downtown.

All of Fort Worth’s fire companies were dispatched to the fire, as were companies from Dallas, who arrived by train even as Dallas on that day battled its own major fire in Oak Cliff. Fire companies from Weatherford and North Fort Worth also helped Fort Worth.

The Fort Worth Panthers and Detroit Tigers even canceled their exhibition baseball game that day and helped fight the fire.

But the Fort Worth fire department, still using horse-drawn equipment, was not prepared for such a conflagration. “Helpless,” the Star-Telegram said in its first report. The fire melted the copper wires of the fire department’s alarm telegraph. The fire melted fire hoses. The streetcar lines lost electricity for about three hours.

After three hours, the fire simply ran out of fuel and burned itself out. Much of the South Side was reduced to a black forest of brick chimneys. The map shows the burn zone. The yellow circle is where the fire began. The blue circle in the upper right shows the location of . . .

the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (Katy) railroad freight terminal on Vickery Boulevard, built in 1908. It is said to have been one of the few structures left standing in the burn zone.

The early headlines show the scope of devastation. Among the buildings destroyed were fine homes, a sanitarium, and three churches (Broadway Baptist, Broadway Presbyterian, and Swedish Methodist Episcopal). The $2 million in estimated damage would be $44 million in today’s dollars.

The Broadway Presbyterian Church building (1901) was located just north of Broadway Baptist Church.

The burn zone was patrolled; by April 5 thirty-four people had been arrested. (The Fort Worth Fencibles and Bovinian Rangers were local militia units.)

While Fort Worth counted its losses, it could also count its blessings: The fire could have been even worse. The sprawling Texas and Pacific railroad reservation along today’s Vickery Boulevard acted as a fire break, keeping the fire from spreading farther north to downtown. But T&P was the biggest monetary loser of the fire. Some of its workshops, freight cars, its roundhouse, and thirty-five locomotives inside it were burned. Coal in the train yard burned, adding to the smoke filling the sky.

The fire spared Fort Worth High School, one block west of Broadway Baptist Church, but the school building would burn a year later.

Fort Worth began relief and reconstruction immediately.

This 1911 Sanborn map shows Texas and Pacific’s new roundhouse at Main and Railroad Avenue (Vickery Boulevard).

The wind that had spread the fire would prove true the “ill wind” proverb: Fort Worth made changes for the better.

The fire department had pumped so much water onto the fire that the city water supply had been compromised. In response, in 1913 the city would build Lake Worth as a reservoir to provide more water for such emergencies.

The fire department bought hoses that would not melt in intense heat. It bought motorized vehicles and built more neighborhood fire stations, such as the Bryan Street station (1911) just four blocks east of where the fire began. The city paved more streets and encouraged people to build brick “fireproof” homes in place of the wooden houses structures that had burned so easily.

Despite the scope of the fire, just as British-born Al Hayne had been the only fatality of the Texas Spring Palace fire of 1890, J. J. Newlon, a banker from Krum, was the only fatality of the Great South Side Fire of 1909. Newlon, who was visiting friends on West Daggett Street, died as he was helping save valuables from the fire.

This entry was posted in Downtown, All Around, Life in the Past Lane, Rails 'n' Roundhouses, South Side. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>