Progress didn't arrive quite soon enough.
Or the fires, beat it to town.
By Rob Carrigan, firstname.lastname@example.org
Within an eight-week span, in early 1907, the Northern Colorado town of Ault suffered devastating fires that left three-quarters of the growing community's business district a smoldering heap. The king-sized fires in the still-small town destroyed at least 13 businesses in three separate, but successive fires.
"How fire number one started is still a mystery, as matter of fact, so are the second and third fires," wrote historian Dean Krakel in a 1961 paper for the Denver Westerners' Roundup. "All were discovered after midnight. Shots and terrifying shouts for help brought half-dressed, B.V.D. wearing citizens with water pails in hand."
But it wasn't necessarily a surprise.
"After the turn of the century, Ault grew like Topsy. Flimsy buildings flanked by creaking windmills were scattered along 'Main Street,'" asserts Krakel.
"The town had a social problem too, since a group of unshaven outcasts from Missouri took over, finding its law slightly unnerved. Honky-tonks, bootleg whiskey, and poker games were in high style, until the decent element banded together in a charter of incorporation. After the election of May of 1904, things were never quite the same," Krakel wrote.
One of the first items on the town board's agenda was the re-organization of the hose company and laying plans to bolster the water works.
"As months whizzed by, various improvements were made to entice newcomers. Business places even boasted small-watted electric light bulbs — the latest thing in conveniences."
But 1906 came and went, and still no pressure in the water pipes.
"Next year," recorded the board clerk in the town's minutes. "We'll have regular fire hydrants with new water lines to hook up."
Shortly after New Years Day in 1907, taxpayers in town voted to bond the community and expand the water system. But not soon enough.
"None was more concerned with the increasing incendiary hazards than Night Watchman William Fry. He warned merchants that workers on spud sorting crews needed watching because of their careless 'Saturday Night' habits. "Another thing' he pointed out was the constant threat of freight trains posed. 'Sometimes,' he cautioned. 'Engines on sidetracks puff sparks clean across town.'"
And there were other reasons for the work. The Ault Advertiser editorial called attention to the problems as early as September 17, 1904, noting that “First of all, we want a water system for our town. Several methods are now being investigated and discussed. We want water and must have it, as our business houses are suffering for lack of a proper supply.”
September 30, 1904, an article says: “The irrigating ditch crossing Main Street has washed the side of the ditch beyond its plank covering and causing a hole to cave in the surface of the street.” Water was already a significant issue for this plains town.
But progress didn't arrive quite soon enough. Or the fires, beat it to town.
"Pence's Hotel was the initial loss. It went up like a tinder box in the wee hours of January 23. It was small consolation to R. Lincoln Pence that the adjacent structures were saved. However, the next time the alarm was given, things were different," wrote Krakel. "While men worked frantically thaw out pumps, a bitter February wind fanned spreading flames white hot and within an hour, five buildings in the heart of downtown became a blazing inferno. Windows cracked and exploded from the intense heat like it was the Fourth of July, and nearby structures smouldered tottering on the brink of ignition.
In two more hours, Gilchrest Lumber Company was engulfed lock, stock and barrel and more building added to the conflagration.
"Flames skyrocketed hundreds of feet in the air, and in Greeley, twelve miles away, crowds gazed from vantage points thinking Eaton, four mile closer, was for sure in a bad fix," says Krakel.
"Citizens form cordons near the end of streets and at openings between buildings to prevent foolishness. Merchants entering buildings from the rear worked feverishly to salvage what they could, while each home and outbuilding had its own roof-top spark stompper."
When the wind stopped, the firefighters finally made headway, and by morning, the town's people were sorting through the ashes.
Then, the third and last fire broke out.
By this time, the community had as seasoned a crew of fire fighters as existed anywhere in the region.
Only one building and part of another was destroyed. As the town's sage reportedly put it, however. "Hell, there ain't nothin' left to burn."
Tales circulated on the cause of the fires for years.
Like ... the phantom night rider, or the laughing hobo. Yet, Night Watchman Fry is said to have maintained to his dying day, that things might have been different, "if only them fellers in the Town Hall had listened to his plan and acted sooner."
Finally in 1907, a well was dug, two 17,000 gallon storage tanks put into place and pumping equipment purchased. The brickyard was adjacent to the site chosen for the waterworks, so the source of building material was native brick. The Ault Pump House was then erected to cover the well, tanks and equipment, as well as the Fire Department’s equipment. This included two hose carts with 600 feet of 2½ inch cotton hose each and 600 feet of hose at the pumping station, all new. The church bell or the night watchman firing his revolver served as the fire alarm. When a new municipal building was constructed in 1909, the Fire Department moved into the space set aside for them after occupying the Pump House from 1907 to 1909. The building continued in its use as the municipal water storage and supply facility. The Sanborn Map of 1908 shows that Ault, population 900, established a functional water system, according to the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties application for the Ault Pumphouse.
Listed on the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties since 2007, the historic brick pump house sits atop what was once the town’s first well. Through this History Colorado State Historical Fund grant from 2014, community members construct plans to transform the historic pump house into the site of the Ault Area History Museum through window, masonry and roof rehabilitation.
Additional information about the Ault Pump House:
"Ault lies in the path of the once traveled Trappers Trail being located north of Forts St. Vrain, Lupton and Vasquez and south of Fort Laramie. During this era horses and wagons, traders and trappers, explorers, travelers and miners used the Trail. The grasslands brought cattlemen and the rich soil attracted farmers. The Water Supply and Storage Company was incorporated to supply water via a ditch system for these newly arrived farmers raising potatoes and sugar beets.The Union Pacific Railroad arrived in Colorado in 1869, and on November 11, 1869, the tracks reached the present location of Ault," says grant applications for nearly $137,000 of work provide by History Colorado.
During the 1880s, ranchers had to drive their cattle to Eaton for shipment. Difficulties arose with fences and farmers; the solution brought a railroad spur to Ault. During the Panic of 1893, Alexander M. Ault, a grain buyer, installed platform scales and agreed to buy and ship wheat and cattle. The community was first called McCallister and then Burgdorf, but the citizens voted to name the town Ault. Mail reached the town by train in 1898, though the first depot wasn’t built until 1903. The community grew out of the existence of the Union Pacific Railroad, making it a crossroads for rural farms and ranches. Ault became a hub to market agricultural products at the turn of the twentieth century.
"The exact pathways of distribution to the bustling businesses and residences defines the existence of a healthy, economically sound community. On September 27, 1909, 5,000 people attended the Third Annual Ault Harvest Carnival, Potato Roast and Free Barbecue. There were barrels of water with cups attached," according to the Grant application to History Colorado.
Over the years, the Pump House site is remembered as a place where Boy Scouts camped and the town allowed travelers to use the rest stop and camp. Groups of gypsies were also welcome. Children used the Pump House as a place to “hang out” and parents used the “give you to the gypsies” threat as child behavior control. The initial water system sufficed for several decades but the supply could not meet the ever-increasing demands. In 1937-38, the well could not be made deeper because of shale. Two new wells were dug and water tunneled to the original well at the Pump House. The town again upgraded the water system in 1952 with new water mains and sewer lines.
Residents wanted softer, better quality water, so in February 1965, Ault started buying water from the North Weld Water District. A 500,000 gallon storage tank was ordered and erected in 1976 at the rear of the Pump House property. At the same time, a concrete block equipment building was added at the northeastern portion of the Pump House.
During recent years, progress in transportation and communication has caused much of the business to shift to urban areas and Ault has become a bedroom community. "In agreement with the town trustees, the Ault Area Historical Museum has been organized to create a museum and preserve this building as a place of local pride. The goal is to eventually light the well and provide a transparent cover so it can be viewed as an attraction. This is the appropriate building for a community museum and a permanent marker of the area’s early development."
1. Ault, in August of 1906, prior to the fires.
2. Ault, after the second fire of 1907.