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Two area cities in late 1800s fought major fires together

By W. T. Block

First published in Beaumont Enterprise on Saturday October 9, 1999.

If some part of Beaumont or Orange is still fire-prone today, each community was a tinderbox of hazards in 1880, only awaiting a spark and a strong wind to destroy it. As a result, each city came to depend on the other for help to fight the worst fires.

Hence each town’s switch engine and a flat car were kept in readiness to carry the fire engine and fire fighters to the other’s assistance. The worst fire hazards in each town were the huge piles of slabs, waste wood, shavings, and sawdust that were piled on every vacant lot.

The worst fires in Beaumont prior to 1880 were the Ross and Alexander sawmill fire in 1857 and the Pipkin and Haltom sawmill in 1873. Orange’s fire record after 1870 was much worse. Alexander Gilmer lost 5 large sawmills at Orange to fire in 30 years’ time, and David Wingate lost 3 large mills between 1880 and 1901.

Because sawmills were so fire-prone, no company could afford to insure for more than 25% of value. Hence the larger mills usually installed expensive sprinkler systems throughout their plants.

Although Beaumont had been incorporated twice before the Civil War, the first permanent incorporation did not occur until Aug., 1881, when John C. Craig was elected mayor. In Sept., 1884, the first fire engine house was built, and Galveston Daily News of Sept. 15, 1884, reported that:

“...The cornerstone of the new engine house was laid yesterday by the fire department... The Wiess Hook and Ladder Co. and the Beamont Fire Co... paraded the principal streets... The parade by the firemen, fully equipped, was the first of its kind ever seen in Beaumont...”

Two bad fires of October 1883, probably accounted for the building of the new engine house and purchase of the first fire engine. On Oct. 4, 1883, fire destroyed the Star and Crescent Saloon, the Kennedy House, and some neighboring apartments. The Orange fire fighters arrived within 40 minutes after receiving a telegram.

A week later on Oct. 10th, a big slab pile caught fire, threatening to engulf the entire Beaumont Lumber Co. sawmill property. The News of Oct. 11, 1883 added that:

“...Our sister city, Orange, was again appealed to for help, and they responded with remarkable alacrity, thus cementing between the two cities a bond of union, and virtually making out of them one fire department...”

In June, 1884, the Beaumont Iron Works was totally destroyed by fire at night, and the fire companies could only water down adjacent buildings, pumping all water out of Neches River. On July 30, 1889, Chief Ogden and the fire department were on the ground in 15 minutes after Beaumont Lumber Co. dry kiln caught fire. The conflagration became such a cauldron of heat that 4 Beaumont firemen were badly prostrated by heat and smoke.

Between 1881 and 1901 the Beaumont fire fighters responded to 3 Wingate sawmill and 2 Gilmer sawmill fires in Orange, and in essence returned the favors that had been bestowed on Beaumont by the Orange fire fighters. The record time to Orange for the Beaumont fire companies was 38 minutes.

The writer believes that Beaumont’s worst downtown fire occurred on Apr. 17, 1897, when 14 business houses were totally destroyed. Several others, including Mothner Brothers, S. Sternberg, and E. Deutser’s dry goods firms on Crockett Street, were badly damaged, and the loss, if measured in today’s currency, would probably equal $3,000,000.

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