The Fire that Devastated Fairbanks in 1906:
Article submitted by Retired Fairbanks Fire Department Captain, Jack Hillman.
Note: Some words are misspelled because that is the way they were printed the news paper.
The fire of 1906 according to an article in the Fairbanks Times newspaper started at 3 PM and burnt an area, "bounded by Turney (Turner St), Lacey, Front, now first, and Third avenues.
With the exception of the Fairbanks Banking Company's building and the warehouse in the rear nothing is left standing in the four great blocks which comprised the commercial heart of Fairbanks."
"The fire started on the 2nd floor of the Washington Alaska Bldg in one of the rooms rented by Dr. Moore, a dentist. Mrs. Moore said she was coming into one of the offices and caught sight of smoke rolling down the walls of the building between the two front windows. It burst into flame before she could make an exclamation at the startling discovery, the smoke gave way to flame, and its first roar spelled ruin to Fairbanks." As was written in the Times. Dr. Moore’s office was on the east side of Cushman.
What actually started the fire is not actually known, but in an article in the News Miner in 1952 it was stated that a candle had started the fire and in another article in 1948 it said a Bunsen burner caused the fire. In the second version it was stated that a gust of wind caused a curtain to billow out over the hot Bunsen burner and the curtain caught on fire.
Fairbanks being a small town in 1906, meant the fire fighters were close to most fires they responded to. But the horses that pulled the chemical wagon, the departments only fire apparatus, was outfitted with locally made harness. This harness was much slower to put on the fire horses than especially designed harness used by most other departments. So the fire had a chance to get larger before they arrived.
The Northern Commercial Co. had installed a water system in a small part of downtown Fairbanks with fire hydrants. Three weeks before the 1906 fire the NC had installed a fire pump for the water system. The fire hose at that time was kept in small structures next to the fire hydrants as the fire department didn’t have a hose wagon.
From the Times, "So rapidly did the flames spread that Chief Buckley took his men, after trying to save the west side of Cushman street, to the buildings on Turner street facing the N.N. Company and thus save the food supply of the camp, which was threatened if the flames had reached the plant of the big company." Meaning the Northern Commercial Company on Front Ave between Turner and Barnett
A great number of the Citizens of Fairbanks helped man fire hoses and remove merchandise from stores and personal belongings from residences to safer areas.
From the Times. " The fire was stopped at Lacy street, but not without the use of a half dozen streams and aided by the fact that the buildings on the east side of turner street were but one story."
On the west side of Cushman Street, wool blankets were hung on the front of the Fairbanks Banking Co. and kept wet with hose lines laid out in that area. This probably kept keep the radiant heat from across the street from catching that building on fire. Wool blankets were also attached to the east side of the NC power plant. Streams of water were pumped from NC paddle wheel boats, at dock on the Chena River onto these blankets to help with the control of radiant heat.
With the vast size of the fire and the large number of hose lines that were in use, water pressure at the nozzles began to run low and runners went to the NC power plant, to ask for more pressure.
According to the book “Flag over the North” by Lois Kitchener, Volney Richmond, the NC store manager is said to have been in charge of keeping the boilers for the steam driven fire pump up to pressure, but with the large number of hose lines working the fire, the nozzle pressure on all the nozzles had dropped and more pressure was needed to get a descent water stream to help fight the fire..
The runners told Mr. Richmond of the low nozzle pressure and the fact that people fighting the fire were losing ground. Mr. Richmond made a decision that helped provide better nozzle pressure. He decided to use the slab bacon in the warehouse. This would make a hotter fire and help increase the heat in the boilers, therefore helping increase the water pressure. Two thousand pounds of slab bacon were burnt before the fire was brought under control.
Also a South wind had come up about a half hour after the fire started and started driving the heat of the fire north, back, toward the river. .
Over 70 buildings were destroyed in the fire. From the Times, "It was 7 o'clock when the fire on the south side of Fourth avenue was under control, and businessmen looked out onto the vast field of burning embers, there was talk of rebuilding." In fact " Bert Epler, of the Senate Saloon, engaged workmen at 6:30 o'clock last night to begin clearing his lot early this morning."
The fire also prompted the widening of 2nd Ave. to 70 ft. with 10 ft. sidewalks on both sides.
1500 ft. of fire hose was lost in the blaze and Fire Chief Jack Buckley ordered 3000 feet of hose to replace the ruined hose and have enough to last through the winter. He also ordered 1000 lbs. of sulphuric acid and a ton of soda base for the chemical wagon. Remember that supplies had to come up river.
Fire fighters worked 6- 24 hour shifts in a row in those days. They had 1 hour off in the morning to take care of personal business and 1 hour in the afternoon.
As to how many men were on duty at the time is a matter of speculation. In an article in the Daily News Miner in 1952 it said “Chief Woodcox stated that there were 10 firefighters.” But I doubt that, as there were only 6 firefighters in all, in the 1919 fire. With volunteer fire fighters there may have been 10.
The first Fire Department quarters for the newly formed professional fire department was on the south side of third Avenue at Turner St. and remained so until 1935 when City Hall, the fire Dept. and the police department moved into a new building at 5th and Cushman. They had moved into the city hall. The city hall had been a building on 1st Ave and after buying it, moved it to 3rd and Turner
After the 1906 fire several changes were made in fire protection.
The city council raised fire fighters wages from $100 to $150 dollars a month. The fire fighters had been seeking a raise and this fire seems to have made the city council see the light and provide better wages.
The NC said they would add more fire hydrants to the water system they had put in at no charge to the city. But they charged the city $600 a month for the use of the fire hydrants. They were protecting the NC store. In November two hose hoses were built over the hydrants at Lacey St, and 1st Ave. And 2nd and Barnette. In each house was a sled with 800 ft. of hose with which the hose could be pulled to any fire. The hose was also pre-connected to the hydrant.
According to an article in the Times after the fire, new harness for the horses that pulled the chemical wagon was on order and it was designed for rapid application by the fire fighters. The article also said, if the city council gave approval to a horse drawn hose wagon the old harness would be used on the horses pulling it.
An article in the Nov. 24, 1906 of The Northern Lights stated that a reporter for the paper had witnessed, “the horses jump into the harness and the prompt manner in which they jerked the hose cart into the street, one is inclined to be less critical. The act was accomplished Thursday in 18 seconds. This is an average time.” So apparently the council had given its approval for a hose wagon and had also bought new harness for the horses pulling the hose wagon.
Article by Jack Hillman
AYP member and retired Fairbanks Fire Dept. Captain