In the early morning hours of April 19, 1863, a fire raged through Denver, reducing much of the town’s business district to ash. As in most frontier towns of the American West, fire had been a concern for Denver citizens since the town’s founding in 1858, because flammable structures and almost nonexistent building codes put the whole town at risk of burning. The so-called Great Fire of 1863 prompted citywide ordinances for building construction that would prevent fires in the future, and it helped to formalize volunteer companies into the Denver Fire Department.
Denver faced the threat of fire from the beginning. Nearly all its first buildings were constructed of logs and highly flammable native pine, crammed together with only a few feet between them. Unsafe building construction combined with the arid, windy climate of the plains ensured that any fire that started in town was likely to spread.
In the early 1860s, William N. Byers and the Rocky Mountain News were among the first to advocate for greater efforts to fireproof the city and increase the amount of firefighting equipment available. After such conflagrations as the River House fire in November 1862 and the Elephant Corral fire in February 1863, the Rocky Mountain News warned readers of the danger that fires posed to the city, especially since Denver had only small volunteer hook-and-ladder companies and very little equipment for fighting fires.
In 1862 the city council made efforts to heed such warnings by banning the construction of wooden buildings and requiring inspections of stoves and fireplaces. On July 15, 1862, the city council first attempted to establish citywide firefighting facilities when it approved the purchase of a hook and ladder and created two volunteer bucket brigades. In November 1862, however, the ordinance banning construction of flammable wooden buildings was repealed, largely in response to complaints from businessmen. More wood-frame buildings went up, providing more fuel for when the disastrous fire eventually broke out.
The Fire Spreads
That disastrous fire occurred around two or 3 am Sunday, April 19, 1863. Flames were first seen coming from or near the back of Cherokee House, a saloon and hostelry on the southwest corner of Fifteenth and Blake Streets. Cherokee House was at the epicenter of the town’s business district near Market and Larimer Streets. The exact origin of the fire was not known, though newspapers later suggested an arsonist was to blame. Another possible cause could have been sparks from a stovepipe, which ignited refuse or hay in the area behind Cherokee House.
The fire made slow progress at first, and probably would have come under control had an adequate hook-and-ladder company been called to the scene in a timely manner. However, a delay in raising the alarm, combined with warm winds blowing in from the south, resulted in the fire’s rapid spread. An April 23, 1863, an article in the Weekly Commonwealth described how the flames “leaped across the street either way and Brendlinger’s, Ullman’s, and Cheesman’s corners were soon enveloped.” The Rocky Mountain News then described how the fire was temporarily “checked at Insley’s on the south side of Blake” but soon “leaped over that and enveloped the frame buildings beyond it.”
Firefighters and citizen volunteers struggled to stop the blaze. Given the threat that fires posed to emerging towns, it was accepted custom in the American West that any citizens present when a fire broke out should do what they could to combat the flames. Moreover, a Denver city ordinance dictated that any citizens present at a fire were subject to the orders of fire wardens and police officers, with failure to comply resulting in a five-dollar fine. But because the Great Fire of Denver broke out in the early morning, many citizens remained asleep in their homes. Given the fire’s intensity and the lack of resources to combat it, firefighting efforts shifted from saving many of the buildings to salvaging the goods and supplies stored within them.
The fire was eventually stopped around 4 or 5 am at Tilton’s store on Blake Street, about four blocks from the fire’s origin. Roughly seventy buildings were burned by the flames, including large stores of food and supplies in storage facilities such as the Cook’s and Kiskadden’s buildings. The city lost 115 businesses, or about 40 percent of the business district, and suffered $200,000 in damages (around $4.1 million today). Had there been a larger fire department and more equipment available to the volunteer companies that did arrive to fight the Great Fire, damage to the city could have been minimized.
While only one death was reported as a result of the Great Fire, the economic consequences proved disastrous for several Denver citizens, leaving them homeless and impoverished. The effects of the fire on the city as a whole, however, proved less dire. Indeed, despite the significant losses, some residents thought the fire was beneficial to Denver’s long-term development because it led to new fire regulations and better construction practices, helping transform a frontier shantytown into a city with the appearance of stability. The day after the fire, the city council passed an ordinance reinstating its 1862 prohibition on anything but brick buildings in an area designated as the “fire limits.” The new ordinance required that a building’s outside walls and walls between adjoining buildings be no less than eight inches thick. The fire also instigated a stronger push for a fire department, though an official fire department would not emerge until four years later.
With the city council’s new fire-prevention regulations in place, reconstruction of the burned district began with a fury in the weeks following the blaze. New brick buildings replaced old wooden shanties, bringing a higher-class appearance to the city. As the new structures went up, several intact buildings were moved from the other side of Cherry Creek to the burned district so that business could continue. Meanwhile, reconstruction of the city resulted in the rise of brick manufacturing as a new, thriving business in town, providing jobs for those who had lost their income sources to the fire. By Christmas 1863, the burnt district had been almost completely rebuilt. The reconstruction of Denver after the Great Fire created a more substantial and commercially successful city, much of which is still standing today.