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Tombstone: Fighting frontier fires

The Tombstone Volunteer Fire Department stands in formation in 1883.

The Tombstone Volunteer Fire Department stands in formation in 1883.

Fires were a common occurrence in frontier towns. With limited water supplies and volunteer firefighters, Tombstone almost completely burned to the ground twice.

On June 22, 1881, a cigar ignited a barrel of whiskey at the Arcade Saloon. The subsequent fire destroyed more than 60 businesses in the downtown area – comprising the eastern half of Tombstone’s business district.

The second big fire started on May 25, 1882, in a Chinese laundry on Fifth Street between Toughnut and Allen streets. It destroyed the Grand Hotel and the Tivoli Saloon before it crossed over to Fremont Street, where it destroyed everything in its path. The post office was lost, but County Recorder Albert Jones managed to save most of the office’s records.

Once it became apparent there was not enough water to extinguish the inferno, buildings in its path were razed with dynamite. This last- resort method stopped the fires from spreading to other buildings including Schieffelin Hall and the Tombstone Epitaph.

The aftermath of the fire revealed more than 100 businesses destroyed.

It was costly, as the monetary damage was estimated at $700,000, but the buildings were believed to have been insured for a mere $250,000.

Nevertheless, as soon as the insurance payouts were approved, the rebuilding began.

Some residents, such as 18-year-old David Calisher, took advantage of the town’s spotty fire protection. Calisher managed the family’s general merchandise mercantile, which had been suffering from financial problems. On March 3, 1882, a night when Calisher knew the water would be turned off, a fire conveniently started in the store.

Calisher was charged with arson after a kerosene-soaked piece of paper was discovered in the rubble. He was tried and acquitted, but there was so much hostility against the young man that he left Tombstone.
Fortunately for Western towns including Tombstone, the men were anxious to fight fires and they formed several independent fire- protection groups. In general, these groups would not allow a volunteer firefighter to participate unless he paid his dues.

Frank “Fatty” Ryan, born in Ireland, held several positions in Tombstone in the late 1800s, including serving as a member of the Tombstone Volunteer Fire Department during both of the large fires. He served as a town constable, chief of police, tax collector, assessor, health officer, street commissioner and dog pound master.

After losing a bid for re-election for chief of police in 1894, Ryan moved to Bisbee and became part owner in the Exchange Saloon. He died four years later on Dec. 11, 1898. There was no minister at his funeral, so County Attorney Allen English, allegedly a very experienced and very drunk attorney, delivered a brief eulogy.

He spoke eloquently and ended with: “Fatty, old boy, rest in peace. In these days the King is high and the Ace is low.”

- Jane Eppinga. Photo courtesy of the author.


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