Sunday, January 26, 2020

Two fires nearly wiped out the Gold Camp

“News is something somebody doesn't want printed; all else is advertising.”
William Randolph Hearst 

Fires documented before and after by H.S. Poley

 By Rob Carrigan,

 Two catastrophic fires in late April of 1896 nearly wiped out the fast-growing Colorado gold camp city of Cripple Creek — near the height of its ascendance. Reporting on event, and its consequences, took up much of next decade in the local, national, and literary and historical analysis.

In one of the more fascinating studies of before and after the fires, Colorado Springs photographer Horace Swartley Poley documented what the town had been and how it struggled to regain its position in the scheme of things. 

He previously documented other events in the Gold Camp such as his  famous and exhaustive set of photos of the bull fights in Gillett in 1895. He completed fabulous work in his decades of documenting Southwestern archeology and Native American culture. His train and railroad photography rivals giants of the period, such as William Henry Jackson, Robert Richardson, and Otto Perry.

Poley, of course was famous for his work in the Pikes Peak region and throughout the West.
"Horace Swartley Poley created a major collection of photographic images of Native Americans in the southwestern United States. Born in Norristown, Pennsylvania in 1864, Poley moved to Colorado in the 1880s and was a resident of Colorado Springs for sixty-two years. Poley started a commercial photo studio in 1892 and remained an active photographer until 1935. In addition to his photographic work, Poley served as head of the U.S. Postal registry department in Colorado Springs. During summer vacations, Poley served as photographer with archaeological expeditions in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and southwest Colorado. He recorded landscapes, cityscapes, and events in the Pikes Peak region of Colorado. Poley was noted for his travelogue lectures employing his images in "magic lantern" shows," from
The Denver Public Library obtained the Poley collection in 1937.

The morning of April 25, 1896, before the first fire started, Cripple Creek Times quoted the city's then Mayor George Pierce.

"Our splendid system of waterworks and well-disciplined firemen makes is possible to control and extinguish the most serious conflagrations; henceforth, our citizens can be free of this terror."

Wire services and train dispatches relayed the difficult news of Cripple Creeks fire troubles in the spring of 1896. The following example appeared in The Daily Northwestern in Oshkosh Wisconsin on April 30, 1896, just one day after the second fire. The headlines screamed the news:

Cripple Creek, Col., April 30. -- The fire which started here yesterday afternoon proved a disastrous event for Cripple Creek. The entire business portion of the city was left in ashes and last night 1,000 people were left homeless, with a biting raw wind and the thermometer crowding the zero mark. No description can exaggerate the condition of affairs. Two million dollars worth of property went up in smoke this afternoon, with probably one-tenth of that covered by insurance. The loss of life is great, owing to the reckless use of dynamite in throwing down buildings that stood in the path of the fire, with the hope of erecting a barrier of debris what would stop further progress of the flames.
The fire started in the Portland hotel, where it broke out in half a dozen places at the same time, giving color to the report that the first fire of last week was designed by incendiaries that they might make a raid on the First National Bank which carried over $100,000 cash in its vaults to meet the payrolls of the district that mature tomorrow. The fire spread with a rapidity that can be compared only to the progress of the fire on Saturday. It could not be checked, and from the first alarm preparations were made to repel the destroyer. Special trains were run from Victor and Gillette to bring in miners with sticks of dynamite ready to use wherever there was any call for it. It was more common than water at a city fire, and the lavish use was productive of many fatalities. The Palace hotel, containing 300 rooms was one of the first places attacked with dynamite, and from the results it would appear that no warning was given of the impending explosion. As the walls tottered in response to the tremendous charges of giant powder the air was filled with shrieks of dying men, who had been caught in their rooms and dragged down in the wreck. Before the wreckers could offer any aid they were driven back by the flames that were rolling over the site of the hotel.
Thousands of homeless people shivered about camp fires or wandered among the ruins of this once prosperous city throughout the night. The cold was severe and toward morning snow began to fall. During the night, for a distance of a mile to the right and left, the burning embers presented a sight almost incomparable. Standing on the hill beyond the burned district and to the west, the picture was one of a huge bowl, with the steam rising above. Everywhere along the thoroughfares can be seen the work of dynamite, a great mass of kindling wood. A company of the Colorado National Guard is on duty in the unburned district. Numerous arrests have been made in the outside district, resort to which has been made by the vagrant element, which lately has infested Cripple Creek. All night fires were starting up occasionally on the placer. Where possible the residents pulled the houses down and if that failed, blew them up. They had no water in that portion of the city.
A rumor is in circulation that a man was seen in the act of setting fire to a dwelling on Capitol Hill and was shot by a resident, just as the fire bug was shot and killed by LLOYD THOMSON yesterday. Mayor DOYLE or Victor has employed two fire wardens for every block in the city, as it has been rumored that fire bugs are after that town as well as Cripple Creek. A man was caught late in the afternoon in the very act of firing the rear of the NEWELL company's store. He is in jail. The total loss by yesterday's fire is now estimated at $1,500,000. The insurance will probably foot up between $400,000 and $500,000.
Many other individual losses run as high as $20,000. All the local newspapers, banks and express offices, the telegraph and telephone offices and nearly all stores, restaurants and lodging houses are wiped out.
Two men were caught building a fire under a saloon in Poverty gulch. An officer fired four shots at them and they were captured. On their person was a bunch of skeleton keys reported The Daily Northwestern Oshkosh Wisconsin on April 30, 1896.

Studio bust portrait of the Poley family, about 1893. Margret Ferguson Poley has short bangs and wears a pince nez, a blouse and jacket with puffed sleeves and ruffled lace collar with a flower or heart charm. Frank Ferguson Poley has short hair and wears a shirt with probably a wide starched collar, Horace Swartley Poley has a mustache and wears a bow tie and jacket over a shirt with a straight, starched collar. Elizabeth Poley Schrader has short bangs and wears a dress with puffed sleeves and wide laced collar.
Margret Ferguson Poley, Frank Ferguson Poley, Horace Swartley Poley, Eliszabeth Schader and "about 1893" inked on verso.  

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