The Spokesman-Review, Sunday, August 19, 1984
Memories of big fire still burnBy DAVE BOND Staff Correspondent
WALLACE - Seventy-four years ago this month,
North Idaho burned and flung the ashes of its agony halfway around the world.
It was known in 1910 as "The Big Blow-Up," "The Big Burn," "The Great Idaho Fire." It made headlines in London.
It was the year the mountains roared.
The fire claimed 85 lives, 72 of them on the fire lines that stretched north from the Salmon River to the Canadian border and east from Newport, Wash. to Libby, Mont.
Cities and towns disappeared, consumed in a firestorm of 100-mile-an-hour winds the likes of which would not be seen again until the Allied bombing of Dresden, Germany, in the Second World War.
Nine billion board feet of fine old-growth stands of cedar, fir, pine and tamarack burned - enough lumber to fill a freight train 2,400 miles long.
Five million acres of velvet green land were blackened in the Bitterroot Mountain Range that divides Idaho and Montana.
The "five dark days," as Aug. 20 to 25, 1910, were called, turned day into night in Montreal. Street lamps were kept lit all day long in Watertown, N.Y.
The British ship H.M.S. Dumferline, 500 miles west out of San Francisco, cou1d take no navigation sightings for 10 days because of the smoke.
The year opened with a nasty winter that set loose killer avalanches in the Cascade Mountains. Snow-packs were deeper than usual. But even before spring set in, the skies dried up and temperatures climbed.
April's customary showers failed to fall on the Idaho Panhandle. The hillsides barely greened. Crops failed in the intense heat and winds of June. By July 10, the Northern Pacific Railway had laid off nearly 4,000 workers for lack of farm produce to haul.
By mid-July, a thousand small fires burned in Montana and North Idaho. Spokane and Missoula were rid of their derelicts, who flocked to join a crew of 3,000 firefighters lured to Idaho and western Montana for wages of 25 cents an hour.
Rangers of the fledgling U.S. Forest
Service's Coeur d'Alene, Lolo and Flathead stations eyed the August skies and
prayed for rain.
It did not come.
The heat abated but the winds continued to blow - fitfully at times, with gale force at others.
Still, the Forest Service firefighters - each man guarding on the average a quarter-million acres held their own.
On Aug. 8, President Taft authorized the use of U.S. Army troops to help battle the blazes.
Delayed by bureaucratic snafus, two companies of black troops from the 25th Infantry at Spokane's Fort George Wright finally detrained in Wallace Aug.15. They were quickly put to work.
Edward C. Pulaski, the Wallace Forest District's Assistant Ranger and a descendant of Polish Count Casimir Pulaski of Revolutionary War fame, had his hands full.
The fire was poised along the St. Joe Divide six miles south of Wallace, threatening the prosperous mining town's 6,000 residents. Pulaski's crew of firefighters, exhausted and undersupplied, held the northern front at bay.
Smoke and cinders fell steadily on the town, as did firebrands carried in by southwest winds. Wallace lay directly in the fire's path. Burning pieces of bark landing in town started at least three small fires, which were quickly extinguished.
Fire insurance companies did a land office business downtown, with all available clerks called in to write the new policies.
Several big dynamite charges were set off downtown, in the superstitious hope that man-made thunder would bring on the rains.
Ranger Pulaski returned to Wallace on horseback Aug. 19 for fresh supplies for his crew. He paid a quick visit to his wife, Emma, and daughter, Elsie, at their home up Burke Canyon just north of town.
"Wallace will surely burn" he told his wife, describing the conditions along the fireline as "nightmarish - unbelievable."
He told her that should his prediction come true, she was to leave the house with Elsie for the safety of a mine tailings pond further up Burke Canyon.
"But what about you?" she asked.
"Oh, I can always take care of myself," Pulaski said.
"That is," he added, "unless the whole shebang blows up and there's no place to go."
The swamped insurance agencies finally closed their doors.
Nervous residents of King Street, which winds south out of the west end of town along Placer Creek, loaded their silverware and grand pianos aboard horse-drawn carts and hauled them to the east end of town for storage at the new Oregon Railway and Navigation Company depot and neighboring warehouses. The prevailing wisdom was that, if fire struck Wallace, it would sweep down Placer Creek, destroying the posh neighborhood there but sparing the east end of town.
Saturday, Aug. 20, dawned hot, muggy and sooty. Burning hunks of wood rained down upon the city. Townspeople awoke choking and coughing.
By 3 p.m. the sun had disappeared completely behind the smoke, and all over Wallace street lamps were lit.
Nurses, physicians and nuns staffing the Providence, Hope and Wallace hospitals packed emergency supplies and made ready to move their patients out of town.
Trains assembled at the Northern Pacific and the OR&N company depots, ready to evacuate the town.
Mayor Walter Hanson walked the streets nervously, conferring with the fire chief and the Forest Service supervisor, wondering when to give the evacuation order.
At 4 p.m. a foreboding hush descended over
the afternoon Wallace twilight. For the first time in weeks, not a leaf stirred.
To 8-year-old Henry Lawrence Day and his neighborhood pals at the west end of Wallace along Cedar Street, the advancing fire was more fun than fear.
"The forest fire was known to be progressing northerly along Placer Creek, but no one seriously thought it would get to our end of town," recalled Day in a recent interview.
That murky afternoon he and the other boys in the neighborhood were playing outside.
"We raced around, and chased and gathered the burning debris from the forest fire and built a big bonfire in the alley. To us it was great fun, kind of a game, I guess you'd say.
"Along about 6 p.m., a change in the winds occurred, and the fire was reported heading directly down Placer Creek toward our end of town.
Day's father, Harry Loren Day, a partner with brothers Eugene and Jerome in the fabulous Hercules Mine, had conscripted 100 miners from the Hercules and was busy with them building a fire line behind the Wallace Hospital.
With his mother, aunt and-uncle, "and another relative or two," Day recalled, "we packed a few things and headed on foot toward. Markwell's Ranch (now the town of Silverton). It was thought this open area of land would be secure."
By then, he said," l knew it was serious. We were told we might have to stay away a couple of days.
"When I left home, 1 never expected to see it again. I had to leave my toys behind.
"I was particularly upset that I had a chamois-sack full of marbles my mother made me leave behind.
"I may have shed a tear for those marbles," he said.
A man driving a heavily loaded 1908 chain-driven Maxwell touring car pulled up alongside the Days about halfway to their destination and offered the women and children a ride, Day recalls.
"I considered myself an adult at that age, and told them I would continue on foot," he said.
Arriving at Markwell's, young Day saw cots spread out, under trees in the orchard, waiting to receive patients being evacuated from the Wallace Hospital.
A short time later, the gates of hell opened up.
Fireballs leapt firelines, canyons and creeks behind the city. One forest service crew figured 1 the fires advancing speed in excess of 70 mph.
Pulaski, supervising his men in the Striped Peak area atop the St Joe Divide, sensed the wind shift and knew the whole shebang was about to blow.
On horseback, he rounded up as many men as he could- 42 in all - and headed for the relative safety of Wallace seven miles away. away.
They never made it.
Trapped between two advancing fires, with hurricane winds whooshing about them and flaming trees crashing down around them, Pulaski and his men fled to an old mine tunnel on the west fork of Placer Creek.
Pulaski had spotted the tunnel years earlier during his survey of the area.
A 60-year-old member of Pulaski's crew, S.W. Stockman, stumbled and fell, exhausted. The ranger dismounted his horse, helped the old man up onto the saddle, and led the retreat the rest of the way on foot.
Another man fell, and quickly burned to death. Later his corpse was mistaken for a burnt log.
Here, in Pulaski's words, dictated to his wife some years later, is an account of what followed:
"We reached the tunnel just in time. I ordered the men to lie face down upon the ground of the tunnel and not dare to sit up, unless they wanted to suffocate, for the tunnel was filling with fire, gas and smoke.
"Two horses were in the tunnel with us. The horse I was riding I had given to an old man who couldn't keep up with us in the race to the tunnel. I often wonder what happened to the bear that came down that fiery trail with us and insisted on getting in our way, but at the time I gave not a thought to the bear or horses. Outside the tunnel, the canyon was a raging furnace.
"The mine timbers, at the mouth of the tunnel, caught fire so I stood at the entrance and hung wet blankets over the opening, trying to keep the flames back by filling my hat with water which fortunately was in the mine and throwing it on the burning timbers."
There was panic. One crewman, fearing of being trapped in the tunnel, tried to bolt. Pulaski kept order with his revolver.
One by one, coughing, gasping, Pulaski and his men fell unconscious.
Back in Wallace, the fire roared down Placer Creek. Residents fled to the east end of town. Mayor Hanson declared martial law, and ordered every able-bodied man to help fight the spot fires that had started around town, and to prepare for the big one.
Army troops were pressed into service to drag men off the evacuation trains to make room for women and children.
The fire broke full force into town at 9:15 p.m.
The trains pulled out, jammed with refugees, bound for the safety of Kellogg, Spokane and Missoula. Behind them the railway bridges burned and collapsed.
Suddenly the wind shifted again, this time out of the west. The fire neatly halted its advance on King Street, hopped over the south hill of town, and pounced upon Wallace's east end and the warehouses full of valuables.
Mayor Hanson was informed the town's drinking water, fed from Placer Creek, had slowed to a trickle.
Fearing the flume lines might be choked with dead animals, Hanson declared the town drinking water unsafe.
He promptly rescinded the city's Sunday bar-closing ordinance so that the townspeople would have an ample supply of whiskey and beer to drink in its stead.
The Wallace Times newspaper building near the east end of Bank Street was the first to burn. It was set afire by a pile of press-washing solvent-soaked rags ignited, in turn, by a firebrand lobbed from the fire on the south hill.
One of the next buildings to catch fire was the four-story Sunset Brewery. Two thousand barrels of beer exploded, and firefighters blocks away soon were dragging their hoses through knee deep beer suds.
The fire left the western two- thirds of the city untouched. But with phone lines and railway bridges severed in the blaze, it would be a week before the initial accounts of the city's obliteration, carried to Spokane by the trainloads of refugees, could be corrected.
The Montana railway towns of Taft, Saltese, Haugen and Deborgia were not so lucky.
Able-bodied men in Taft, informed of the fire's advance in their direction by the refugee Northern Pacific train from Wallace, were in little condition to deal with the fire when it arrived there Sunday morning.
Fearing the imminent threat to the town liquor supply posed by the fire, Taft's notorious citizenry worked round-the-clock - and nearly succeeded in their effort - to consume the booze before the fire got there.
Things were not much different in Saltese. One drunk there, checking on the condition of a badly burnt friend who had been loaded I into a boxcar for transportation east, struck a match in the darkness to get a better look and set the friend's bandages afire. This time, the man burned to death.
Washington State College football hero Joe Halm, who had joined the Forest Service a year earlier, was reported dead with his crew along the St. Joe River by The Spokesman Review and Spokane Chronicle for a week.
But Halm and his men had taken refuge on a sandbar at the mouth of Bean Creek. All of his crew survived.
Pulaski awoke in the mine tunnel hours after his collapse at 5 a.m. Sunday to the words, "Come outside, boys, the boss is dead."
Replied the boss: "Like hell he is."
Five men died in the tunnel, three from suffocation and two from drowning in a dammed-up pool of mine water formed by one of the horses. But 36 survived. Some of them, with Pulaski, walked over the still-smoldering forest bed to Wallace; others were rescued later that Sunday.
The fire burned itself out over the course of the, next week near Newport, Wash., falling victim to dying winds and merciful rain.
All three Wallace hospitals, including the Providence at the very east end of the city, had been spared. Their staffs were back to work Sunday morning, delivering babies and tending to the hundreds of wounded firefighters straggling in from their refuges miles to the north, south, east and west.
The fire claimed the lives of two Wallace citizens: an unidentified person at a rooming house and a man who returned to his burning south hill home to try to rescue his parrot.
Damage to the business district was estimated at $1 million. But 1910 was not Wallace's first trial by fire - an 1889 blaze had completely razed the city - and the townspeople set about quickly to rebuild.
Pulaski recovered from the temporary blindness he suffered during those dreadful hours in the tunnel. He was never recognized officially for his efforts on behalf of his men until a week ago, when I a monument in his honor was erected near the tunnel entrance by the U.S. Forest Service.
But he was a hero to the people of Wallace.
Pulaski was appointed Wallace District Ranger in 1913, serving until his retirement in 1930, at which time he moved to Coeur d'Alene and was killed in an accident there.
Outside the Wallace Forest Service district, he is remembered best for his invention of a combination axe and grub-hoe tool. The Pulaski is standard issue to Forest Service firefighters.
Young Henry Day returned with his family to Wallace on Sunday morning to find their house on Cedar Street exactly as they had left it.
He lives there still.
In the intervening 74 years, Day become chairman of Day Mines, a banker, a newspaper publisher and historic preservationist.
At 82, Day keeps office hours in the old Day Mines building on Cedar Street a few blocks from his home.
And, he recalled with a twinkle in his eye, "I think I may still have that chamois-bag, of marbles around here."