By Danny Crownover
The Vagabond often is asked about the big fire Gadsden experienced on July 4, 1883. This question always leads to a discussion of the many curious things seen on that memorable day.
Gadsden had advertised a great holiday celebration and offered numerous attractions, which drew a very large crowd. Col. W.H. Denson had just finished a patriotic oration at the courthouse when the church bells began ringing a fire alarm.
Broad Street was jammed with farm wagons, most of them covered, and the sidewalks were full of people. Smoke was boiling out of Charlie Hawkins’ junk house located at the southwest corner of Third and Broad streets where the American National Bank once stood.
There were more drunken men roaming on Broad Street than ever before or since, and the old hand-pump fire engine had a difficult time getting through. Its volunteer crew had difficulty in lowering the suction pipe into one of the cisterns planted in the middle of the street and then in connecting the hose.
By the time the crew did shower water in a thin and ineffective stream, the blaze had crossed Third Street and was pushing towards Fourth Street. The bucket brigade tried to stem the conflagration with water from the wells in the street, but in a short time the brick building of Major Herman Herzberg on Fourth Street had caught fire. Soon there was no hope of saving any part of the city’s business section. The fire ate its way to the Kyle Opera House, which stood where Hicks Shoe Store was located.
The opera house was a three-story brick, however, and its east wall had no windows or doors. It was a perfect fire wall, and it stopped the fire after 21 stores and several residences had gone up in smoke.
The hand-operated fire engine moved to the cistern at Fifth and Broad streets. So many drunks interfered that town marshall John Hughes drew his pistol and scattered the mob. There was very little water in that cistern, however, and Gadsden’s first fire engine proved to be a complete failure.
Merchants on both sides of Broad Street piled their stocks in the middle of the street; groceries, hardware and dry goods all in one pile.
Some effort was being made to have the goods hauled away, but excitement was so high that nobody kept watch, and several loaded wagons disappeared and were never again heard from.
S.W. Riddle impressed a farmer and his wagon into service. The wagon was loaded and the driver was seen to turn onto Fifth Street, headed south.
Riddle soon became uneasy, as the wagon had not stopped on Chestnut Street per his instructions. Riddle found a sack of smoking tobacco on Fifth Street that he was certain came from his stock.
A little farther south, he found an ax handle that he identified as his own. From that point on, the wagon was traced to a frame house several miles out by smoking tobacco and ax handles that fell out onto the highway.
Many people were caught looting following the fire, and the Etowah Rifles were called out for guard duty just before nightfall. The Etowah Rifles had just been mustered into the state’s national guard when the fire alarm sounded.
J.H. Disque was the captain. Just as he dismissed the company, se-veral of its members started running uptown from the drill field located on Fourth Street immediately south of Bay Street.
The Etowah Rifles fought the blaze while still wearing their uniforms. Before the fire was entirely extinguished, the company was ordered out by the governor to protect Gadsden. This probably was the first time that a state military company was called out for riot duty only a few hours after it had been mustered into service.