Tom Dillard: Hot Springs’ epic battle with burgeoning blaze left destruction behind

The recent loss of homes in Colorado to a wildfire reminded me of a 1913 fire which practically gutted Hot Springs -- the worst in Arkansas history. The city lost 50 square blocks in a wind-whipped inferno.

When the fire was contained around midnight, the city had to deal with homeless residents, the loss of a municipal electrical power plant, impassable streets and a gutted courthouse.

Devastating fires are common throughout American history, the most famous being the great Chicago fire of 1871. Many Arkansas cities, such as Newport in Jackson County, have suffered a major fire at least once. Little Rock has been struck by numerous conflagrations, including in 1911 when a fire began after hours at Hollenberg music store and spread for several blocks.

The Hot Springs fire, however, was vastly different in its scale of destruction.

In 1913, Hot Springs, with a population of about 15,000, was still recovering from a 1905 fire. That conflagration killed two people and destroyed 400 buildings, leaving an estimated 500 residents homeless. In 1878, a fire leveled 150 buildings, with an estimated loss of $300,000.

The 1913 fire began on Sept. 5. Sources at the time attributed it to a Black-owned home laundry on Church Street, where a charcoal stove used to heat irons caused a small fire that was reported to the Hot Springs Fire Department about 2 p.m. Fire engines arrived on the scene to find the fire already out of control after a freakish wind pushed the flames westward.

Before long, business structures along Malvern Avenue were ablaze. The Iron Mountain Railroad depot was lost, as was the Ozark Sanitarium, Hot Springs High School, and Central Methodist Church. Cooper livery stable, the city's largest, was turned to ash. The fire was described as a block in width when it tore across the Iron Mountain depot and yard.

The late Hot Springs historian and librarian Mary D. Hudgins has written that the Rock Island station was saved "some say by Mountain Valley water ready for shipment ..."

At 4 p.m., the Little Rock Fire Department dispatched Motor Engine No. 2 via railroad to Hot Springs, where five firefighters were able to deliver 750 gallons of water per minute from three hoses.

However, with municipal power and utilities destroyed early in the battle, the city lacked water pressure sufficient to fully capitalize on the "105 horsepower apparatus." Christopher Thrasher, author of the entry on the fire in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, wrote that "the fire hoses from Little Rock did not fit the Hot Springs fire hydrants."

At least one building was destroyed by dynamite in a frantic and unsuccessful effort to halt the flames.

Putting up "a determined stand" at Central and Ouachita avenues, the combined fire departments -- with the substantial assistance of a sudden wind shift late in the afternoon -- managed to keep the flames from going up Central Avenue, saving the city's famous bathhouses. This had the advantage of taking the fire away from downtown, but it was bad news for businesses along Ouachita.

The magnificent Central Methodist Church was left a mere shell, resembling scenes from Dresden, Germany, after World War II's bombing. The fire left the stately Garland County Courthouse a gutted ruin, with the county's archives almost totally lost.

About midnight, Gov. George Washington Hays boarded a special train to Hot Springs to evaluate the situation. He notified four militia companies to prepare for immediate deployment to Hot Springs for security patrolling, although not all were actually needed.

The governor arrived to find a shocking scene. Reports in the state papers tell of survivors wandering the streets, their faces blackened with soot, their saved possessions piled high in wheelbarrows.

The city responded quickly, including calling public meetings to make sure the public was kept informed. Without electricity, local newspapers could not publish for several days after the fire. Electric streetcars were adapted to be pulled by horses and mules. One newspaper reported that Hot Springs, "a city of hotels and rooming houses, found no difficulty in caring for its homeless."

The ashes were still hot when sightseers began arriving. Without permission, some visitors began sifting through ashes, looking for gold and silver jewelry. City officials urged the public to stay away, and railroads were told to scrub their planned excursion trains to the city.

Statistics on the fire vary considerably, but it was agreed that property losses amounted to $10 million, a huge amount in 1913. The single largest loss was the magnificent Park Hotel at $500,000, and about 150 other businesses were destroyed. At least 700 homes were lost, leaving more than 2,500 residents homeless. The great Chicago fire, by comparison, resulted in more than 100,000 people without homes.

Photo postcards of the fire, which were sold in the thousands and can still be purchased occasionally on the internet, portray a scene of almost biblical destruction. Pathe News sent a representative to Hot Springs who, according to Mary Hudgins, "made reel after reel of movies of the fire in progress."

Those newsreels are lost to history, though the Garland County Historical Society has searched far and wide. Recent news that Pathe has digitized its videos might offer new hope for Hot Springs historians.

In 2013, on the centennial anniversary of the fire, a plaque was placed at the location of the home where the fire began, today a parking lot on the southeast side of the Hot Springs Convention Center.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in rural Hot Spring County, where his homestead is protected by the skilled members of the Glen Rose Volunteer Fire Department. Email him at [email protected].

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