This fire started on the afternoon of June 22, 1881, in Tombstone and “in less than three minutes, the flames had communicated with adjoining buildings and spread with a velocity equaled only by a burning prairie in a gale,” according to the Tombstone Epitaph. By 6 p.m., only “the charred and ghastly skeletons of the adobe buildings [remained standing].”
That afternoon, proprietors of the Arcade Saloon on Allen Street—men named Alexander and Thompson—had rolled a barrel of bail whiskey onto the wooden sidewalk fronting their establishment. They intended to send the whiskey back to its distributor and while measuring the barrel’s contents, Alexander dropped his gauge rod into the pungent liquid. A bartender fetched a wire and bent over the barrel to retrieve the rod.
Accounts vary. Either the bartender lit a match or a lighted cigar was fixed between his teeth. But no matter. The barrel exploded in flames, giving birth to Tombstone’s first great fire.
The town was handicapped by a lack of water and firefighting equipment. Just two months earlier, the Sycamore Springs Water Company had approach the Tombstone City Council with an offer to provide water at no cost for fire fighting. In exchange, the town would levy no taxes against the company. Water tanks were installed—but the water supply was woefully inadequate. And to make matters worse, the volunteer fire department lacked an engine for fighting the fire. Epitaph editor and Tombstone Mayor John P. Clum was, at that moment, returning by train from a trip East where he had ordered one.
Nearing Benson, Clum saw “great column of smoke rising over the hills to the south.” Having no idea what was burning, he jokingly told passengers that “we had a live volcano over there.” Not until his arrival at Benson did he learn that Tombstone was aflame. There were no more jokes.
Tombstone diarist George W. Parsons recorded that ”the flames were lapping the Oriental (Saloon) when we reached the corner of 5th and Allen and I immediately ran into the (Safford, Hudson & Company) bank to help (banker) Milton (Clapp). Everything was hurry and confusion and the flames were making fearful headway . . . I took place in line and passed flour and provisions out of Fitzhenry’s store.”
While attempting to pry loose a burning balcony, Parsons was seriously injured when the building’s roof collapsed on him. His was the worst injury sustained.
Sixty-six businesses—stores, saloons, hotels, restaurants, boarding houses—were destroyed. Tombstone’s center of commerce was devastated with losses estimated at between $175,000 and $185,000.
At the end of the day, the town was a smoldering ruin, “while here and there,” in the words of the Epitaph, “thirsty tongues of flame would break forth as if the greedy element, not satisfied with having consumed everything in its course, still craved for more.”
Still, like so many other frontier towns that had suffered the same fate, Tombstone quickly rebuilt—only to wait for the next conflagration.
— Photo courtesy Arizona Historical Society; research by W. Lane Rogers.