Back in February of 1868, Gadsden suffered its most disastrous fire up at that time when what was called the Masonic Lodge block was entirely destroyed, along with some of the main stores of the little town. The Masonic Lodge Block was on Broad Street between Third and Fifth streets.
The blaze was discovered at 12 midnight and had gained such headway that practically nothing was saved, there being nothing that could have been done except by water drawn in buckets from nearby wells.It seemed that everybody, black and white, turned out and worked with great zeal but there was little left to do but carry a small amount or merchandise to the middle of the street or standby and watch a block being consumed by fire.
Prior to 1882, fire protection for the City of Gadsden consisted of a loosely organized bucket brigade, which generally consisted of whoever happened to be around at the time of a fire and felt inclined to help. There were wells spaced along Broad Street at the intersections of Third, Fourth, Fifth and Court streets for the brigade’s use.
According to all the evidence, the fire undoubtedly was the work of an incendiary. The sheriff and his deputy immediately set out to catch the guilty culprit, with no results.
R.H. Hart, who had worked hard after the Civil War and had reached comfortable circumstances, lost $4,500 without any insurance. His entire stock of merchandise went up in smoke
D.C, Turrentine, U.S. re-venue collector and justice of the peace, lost $2,000, mostly in valuable notes and papers.
R.O. Randall, jeweler and watchmaker, lost $800. It would have been much larger if he had not put most of his valuables in his iron safe when he closed in the afternoon.
The safe crashed through the second floor to the ground. The door was slightly cracked open enough to admit smoke that turned between $7,000 and, $8,000 in greenbacks to a yellow hue, but all of the money was saved.
Hollingsworth and Moragne lost $4,000, but $2,000 worth of goods were saved. They occupied a two-story building, the second floor being rented to the Masons and to Mr. Randall. It was the first and only two-story business in town.
Dr. Joseph Bevans lost $2,000, mostly in drugs, surgical instruments and valuable papers.
Pope and Jenkins lost $2,500, which included a valuable law library that included every Alabama report that had ever been printed and which could not be replaced.
J.T. Barret, who owned a general merchandise store, estimated his loss at $4,560. His insurance policy had just expired. Nothing was saved except two fine showcases located near the front door.
The Masons lost $2,000, with $1,350 worth of insurance.
Isaac P. Moragne lost $2,000, with $1,100 worth of insurance. Dr John P. Ralls, Sr., lost $350 in stored cotton. Mr. Bentley lost $200 the same way.
Mr. Bennet’s safe had $2,000 in greenbacks in it and the money was saved.
While the fire was in progress and after it had been checked, many citizens gathered at the scene were led to believe that attorney Benjamin F. Pope had perished in the blaze.
After the fire lasted from 1 to 4 a.m. in the morning, the deepest gloom settled over the entire town, owing to a rumor which spread and became an almost certainty that Benjamin F. Pope, Esq., had suffocated and perished in the flames. Parties present thought they had seen him appear at a window of his office after the flames had developed the house. A large party turned out in a search for him on the roads leading from his residence to town, but could find no-thing of him.
Despair took possession of the seekers. To the great joy of everyone, however, Pope made his appearance. He had started to the scene of the fire through the woods not far away. Becoming exhausted, Pope fainted, where he remained several hours.
The Pope residence was located on what is now Ninth Street between Walnut and Chestnut streets. But in those days there was nothing but farms and woodlands in that section. Pope probably got lost in the woods by trying to take a shortcut on the way.
In 1878, the town citizens requested a fire department. The Gadsden City Council said, “Your committee to which was referred the subject of a fire company beg leave to report that it is impractical to organize one at the present time.”
The question of replacing the bucket brigade for a more organized and dependable volunteer fire department came up once again, for which a committee reported to the council that such an organization was not feasible.
In July 1881 there was a popular demonstration in favor of an organized fire department. A mass meeting of a large percentage of the city’s 4,000 citizens attended. Following the meeting, Colonel R.B. Kyle, a prominent local businessman, appeared before the city council to request a fire department.
In August, the city council authorized a fire committee to adopt such means as necessary to protect the city.
Perhaps the citizens felt that the city government was not moving fast enough to provide protection for the city. After nearly a year passed without action, another mass meeting forced the mayor to support a fire department with “all the moral and necessary aid in their power.”
J.M. Elliott was elected first chief with 40 volunteers. Other delays hampered the fire department, and the citizens’ worries proved to be prophetic.
On June 17, 1882 at 12:30 a.m. a blaze was discovered among a group of one-story wooden houses and stores on the south side of Broad Street between Fifth and Sixth streets. There was a successful stand made at the First Methodist Church and its parsonage on the corner of Chestnut and Fifth streets and the First Baptist Church at Fifth and Broad streets.
The fire had destroyed 21 houses and several businesses. Both churches were damaged and some buildings on the north side of Broad Street were damaged as well. Among the losers was R.B. Kyle, who lost six houses.
Two days after the most disastrous fire in the city’s history to that date, the Gadsden City Council met to set fire limits and encourage the organization of a fire company.
In August of 1882, a committee was named to inspect a new hook and ladder truck. The committee refused to accept the vehicle, saying that it didn’t come up to specifications. The improvements took more time. Not until December of 1882 was the new hand pumper and hose carriage purchased for $1,000 and put into service.
The newly organized fire department, bearing the name of Etowah Fire Company No. 1, consisted of a gallant group of volunteer firefighters who used leather hoses and a woo-den hand-pumped fire engine, which was pulled to fires by the firemen.
Instead of moving to another town, merchants were inspired to rebuild a better place to live. Many regarded Gadsden’s earlier disastrous fire as a blessing in disguise.
The new buildings were better constructed with many built-in fire safety features. The fire department that saved enough of Gadsden for the future almost didn’t come into existence.
Nobody knew it at the time, but the most serious challenge to the new bustling town was growing near. Gadsden planned a big July Fourth celebration. The event was to include a firemen‘s parade, horse-swapping and watermelon-cutting.
The July 4, 1883 celebration in Gadsden threatened to wipe the young town off the map. With their new equipment, the firefighters were able to save over half of the business district.
Over 1,000 visitors were in town when the fire started just alter one o’clock, reportedly by one of the town’s drunks. Flames were roaring through the roof of one house at Broad and Third streets when firemen arrived. Winds swept the blaze across Third and Fourth streets, destroying entire blocks of wooden structures.
The exhausted firemen finally made a stand at the brick firewall at the opera house of R.B. Kyle, the spokesman for the group that originally demanded a fire company.
Firefighters were hampered in many ways throughout the battle. They fought the fire as best they could, damaging most of their new leather hose in the process. Storeowners carried their goods out into the middle of the streets while drunks hampered the firefighters at every turn.
The situation was so bad at one point that police with draw pistols stood guard around the fire engine to prevent interference.
The engine wasn’t the only thing that had to be guarded, as the goods piled in the street were a tempting sight. Looting became a problem with more and more storeowners carrying their goods out of the threatened buildings. The local militia and the Etowah Rifles were finally posted to guard the goods and were posted the rest of the night and into the following day.
The fire was a serious blow to the town, but Gadsden immediately began planning for the future.
The fire of 1882 provoked the creation of an organized fire department in Gadsden, but the fire of 1883 brought more changes when it was concluded a city water works would be feasible.
Two years later, Mayor Brooks would say, “The former wooden town is wearing now the appearance of a city. Phoenix-like it has risen from the ashes, much improved and beautified.”