Great Reno Fire of 1879

The fires in northern California were the worst in California history. More than 6,000 homes were destroyed and more than 40 people lost their lives. Last winter’s record precipitation led to a bumper crop of vegetation that dried to a crisp during this past summer’s excessive heat. A strong wind event and a spark was all it took for fast-moving flames to destroy whole neighborhoods. Because wild fires raged over the West this year, it’s a good time to look back at how fire has shaped local history.

Fire was always enemy No. 1 and a constant danger to many early western communities. Wooden buildings made tinder dry by sun and heat, wind-prone locations and sparks from crude potbelly stoves frequently combined to generate catastrophic fires. Truckee looks the way it does today because fire has swept through its downtown district on several occasions, each time destroying buildings from an earlier era and forcing new construction. Major fires swept through Truckee’s residential and commercials districts in 1868, 1871, 1875, 1881 and again in 1883 — each time changing the face and architecture of this pioneer mountain community. Brick buildings replaced wood and fire equipment was upgraded.

Pushed by the powerful wind, the wall of fire raced across the city. Firemen on the scene brought their hoses so close to the flames that their hair was burned, but the Washoe Zephyr winds blew the water into an ineffective spray.

Truckee has had catastrophic fires, but compared to the Great Reno Fire of 1879, the town might consider itself fortunate. Similar to Truckee, Reno, Nev., is located in a wind-prone area. The phrase “Washoe Zephyr” that Mark Twain made famous in his book “Roughing It” was coined for the strong local wind that blows down the east canyons of the Sierra Nevada. Not only did the Washoe Zephyr wreak havoc with miners’ tents and cabins on the Comstock, as soon as the first Catholic Church was built in Virginia City, Nev., it was torn from its foundation and smashed to kindling by this devilish wind.

Early on Sunday morning, March 2, 1879, the Zephyr was blowing so hard in Reno that pedestrians found it difficult to walk. At 5:55 a.m. the city’s fire alarms erupted in warning. Immediately, a dread came over the community. It was everyone’s worst nightmare to fight a fire in such a wind. Sparks from a poorly constructed stovepipe had set aflame some stacked wood behind the Railroad Hotel near Sierra Street and Commercial Row. Mrs. Ann Hogan was the first to see the fire. She ran to her back yard where a barrel of wash water stood near the burning wood, but either through excitement or weakness the elderly woman was unable to lift it. She yelled until her sons arrived, but they quickly realized they couldn’t stop the rapidly spreading flames. Her sons ran to the firehouse and rang the emergency bell as a call to action.

Minutes later hundreds of bleary-eyed citizens were rushing to the scene, but by then the wind had fueled the small blaze into an inferno. Soon another hotel on Commercial Row had flames licking at the roof. Women, as well as children, helped with bucket brigades and even the ostracized Chinese and American Indians manned the hand-pumped engines. Unfortunately, before even one bucket of water was thrown on the blaze, the Reno Lumber Yard on the other side of town was catching fire from wind-blown sparks. Pushed by the powerful wind, the wall of fire raced across the city. Firemen on the scene brought their hoses so close to the flames that their hair was burned, but the Zephyr blew the water into an ineffective spray before it reached the building. Reno’s fire chief was knocked unconscious by a falling board, but his men needed no order to fight this blaze. It was a battle of desperation.

The howling wind fed the flames and scattered burning cinders throughout the city. It soon became clear that the town was doomed, so residents ran to save what few personal things they could grab from their homes and businesses. Firemen remained at their posts and could only pray that their own houses might be saved. Blowing out of the southwest, the fierce gale spread destruction to the northeast of Reno. Burning embers were blown out to ranches nearly 3 miles away. Haystacks, outbuildings and barns caught fire; it was all ranch hands could do to keep the main residences from burning down. During the peak of the firestorm, burning shingles and other fragments were blown onto the sides of buildings. The sheer force of the wind held the glowing embers there until a hole was burned through the side of a structure and it was set on fire.

Passengers arriving on Central Pacific Railroad’s morning express stared out the windows at the huge clouds of smoke and flames from miles away. As the trains got closer to Reno, the fire’s roar and loud shouting among the fleeing citizens brought to mind scenes from Dante’s “Inferno.” The firestorm burned through wood, brick and iron at will. So-called fireproof buildings withered under the fiery assault. The thick walls and iron doors absorbed so much heat that the merchandise inside burst into flames. Most businesses were a total loss. Banks, pharmacies, law offices, saloons and hotels were gutted. The flames spread so quickly many homeowners escaped with only the clothes on their backs.

Heroic exertions by firefighters managed to save a few of the city’s landmarks. The Baptist Church, Masonic Temple and the Odd Fellows building were only slightly damaged.

It wasn’t long before help arrived from Reno’s neighbors. Men and equipment from Truckee, Boca, Virginia City and Carson City came by train, wagon or horseback to join in the epic battle, but it was too late. Women brought cooked food, blankets, clothing and condolences. By sunset the fire in Reno was out. There was little left to burn. The devastation was swift and nearly total. Ten square blocks were smoking ruins and five lives were lost. Hundreds of homes and scores of businesses were in ashes. Total damages exceeded $1 million, but only about 25 percent of the property was insured.

Despite the tremendous losses, the rebuilding of Reno began the next day. The ashes had barely cooled before they were shoveled away and new foundations were built.

The Nevada Legislature introduced a bill appropriating $10,000 to aid the homeless. It was on the governor’s desk and signed into law in 20 minutes. Over the next few months, Nevada’s “Biggest Little City” rose like a Phoenix from the ashes.


 

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Mark McLaughlin

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.