On August 19, 1895, a steam boiler exploded in Denver’s Gumry Hotel, killing twenty-two people and injuring dozens. Hotel fires were not uncommon in nineteenth-century Colorado, but the Gumry explosion was the worst hotel disaster in Colorado history and prompted a complete rewrite of boiler regulations in the city. The explosion and aftermath also serve as an example of how emergency services responded to disasters in the early days of municipal regulations.
Before its destruction, the Gumry Hotel, at 1725–33 Lawrence Street, was one of Denver’s most substantial buildings. Just past midnight on Monday, August 19, 1895, the brick-and-stone hotel exploded with a fearsome roar that could be heard throughout the city and beyond. The blast was so violent that all five floors collapsed into the alley, killing twenty-two hotel patrons. Perhaps forty-two survived, as accounts differed in the following days.
The shocked city initially blamed the man tending the hotel’s steam boiler that night, who had a reputation of being drunk almost all of the time. But scrutiny of the conditions leading up to the Gumry explosion and the subsequent hearings showed that other circumstances contributed greatly to the catastrophe. When the Gumry blew up, Nat Burgess, out for a late-night stroll, was knocked unconscious and awoke sprawled in the middle of Lawrence Street, his face and clothing saturated by blood flowing from a terrible gash on his face. For two blocks around, windows blew out and littered Lawrence and Larimer Streets with shards. Awnings blew off of buildings and doors were knocked askew in their frames. Burgess got up and staggered toward Seventeenth Street. Around the corner at Ford’s Restaurant, the cashier thought someone had dynamited his place as part of a robbery.
Two pull-box alarms alerted the fire department. Fire Chief Julius Pearse left home so hurriedly that he arrived at the scene partially dressed. Thirty minutes later he issued a general alarm, summoning every fireman in the city. In the initial excitement, somebody forgot to remain aboard the fire wagon of South Denver Hose Company No. 2; its horses bolted and the wagon hurtled driverless up Seventeenth Street to Tremont Place, where it nearly crashed into the Brown Palace Hotel. The wagon then charged down Tremont before striking a telegraph pole at Fifteenth Street. One of the horses was so badly injured that the firemen put it down. The fire department drew further attention to itself the next day, when a controlled fire set to ease the recovery of dead bodies got out of control and spread to the remaining portions of the Gumry’s roof.
The front of the Gumry—constructed and owned by Peter Gumry, whose current project was supervising construction of the state capitol building—was intact, but its windows were blown out and its tattered lace curtains fluttered eerily in the breeze. Hotel residents crowded at the windows, pleading to be saved. Some stumbled and tumbled down the shattered staircases and into the streets in their nightclothes, describing how the walls of their rooms shook and plaster cascaded down as they slept. The full horror of the explosion became apparent when rescuers went to the rear of the Gumry. The entire backside of the hotel—tons of brick, mortar, wood, and furniture—had collapsed into the basement and alleyway. The hotel’s remains would reveal a dreadful cache of mangled bodies, including Peter Gumry himself.
In those early hours of August 19, moans and cries filtered up from the twenty-foot-deep rubble pile, where some of the hotel’s patrons had tumbled almost five stories into the basement in an avalanche of furniture, wood, plaster, bricks, and mortar. The Denver Republican described the scene as the “pit of horror.” Other guests were trapped in their rooms. Fire and police units arrived within minutes and began tearing into the rubble. Teams of men burrowed into the debris, but the work was so dangerous and difficult that the teams could not work for more than fifteen minutes before being relieved. James Murphy, a contractor who supervised the installation of the Gumry’s plumbing, was one of the first victims reached in the rubble pile. Murphy was alive but pinned in the wreckage by a large beam across his legs. As rescuers frantically worked to reach him, smoke began rising from deep within the smoldering debris pile.
The Gumry was now on fire. Rescuers sprayed Murphy with water to ward off the encroaching flames, to no avail. Desperate, Murphy offered $1,000 to his rescuers to pull him to safety, but they were forced to stand helpless as he then begged them to cut off his leg so he could be saved from certain death. A sword of flame then darted from the debris, driving the firemen back and collapsing a wall, heaping rubble onto Murphy and silencing him forever. Nearby, two unseen women pleaded faintly with rescuers to free them from their debris tomb, but they soon fell silent, as enormous clouds of smoke billowed from the rubble pile.
As day broke, the smoldering ruins attracted large crowds that filled the alley between Lawrence and Larimer. Rescuers worked around the clock. Some residents took up perches on surrounding buildings to watch the efforts. There was no shortage of what the Denver Evening Post called “ghouls”—people picking up coins, knives and forks, jewelry, bits of clothing, and other items from the wreckage. Numerous sad tales emerged from the carnage. The body of thirty-nine-year-old traveling salesman W. D. Dodds was found with a letter from his wife in his vest pocket. Also in the envelope was a small note written in the hand of a five-year-old named Clara. His wife had labeled it “Baby’s first letter to papa.”
In the days following the tragedy, the town began searching for explanations. The hotel’s steam boiler was generally regarded as the culprit in the explosion, but former governor John L. Routt, a longtime friend of Gumry’s, theorized (without the benefit of any sort of investigation) that it was all the result of labor unrest. Calmer heads believed that it was a gas leak, while others said the hotel’s boiler was at fault, as it had been operating during the summer to supply energy to the hotel’s steam-operated elevators. Some thought that the boiler simply ran up too much pressure and exploded. The city’s head of boiler inspections, William Ensminger, who by the end of the investigation was being referred to in newspaper stories as “ex-city boiler inspector Ensminger,” came up with the unscientific explanation that “when a boiler is ready to explode, it will explode.”
The most popular theory was that Elmer Loescher, the young engineer in charge of the boiler, got drunk during his watch and neglected to keep sufficient water in the boiler before flooding it with cold water and causing the explosion. Loescher repeatedly denied this accusation during interviews and at the coroner’s inquest. Some evidence suggested that Peter Gumry himself touched off the explosion. Several employees reported that Gumry frequently trudged down the basement stairs late at night to make sure his engineer, the young and inexperienced Loescher, had adequately banked the fires for the night.
The police wanted to talk to Loescher immediately after the explosion, but they and the newspaper believed that he had perished in the explosion or collapse. The Denver Republican printed a rumor that Loescher had been seen in town the day after the explosion. The paper’s hunch was correct; Loescher, afraid that he would be blamed for the explosion and might be lynched by the crowd, fled for Southern California. He made it as far as Antonito, in southern Colorado, before being arrested on charges of manslaughter and criminal carelessness. Loescher was returned to Denver by Deputy Sheriff Tom Clark. Upon arrival, Loescher told the Denver Times that
Mr. Gumry took great interest in the boiler, even going so far as to help me with repairs after the elevator was stopped. The tubes frequently leaked and we would repair them. I believe that someone turned the cock connecting the mains of the water system direct with the boiler, and that flood of cold water in the tube caused the boiler to blow up.
There is another indication that Gumry was near the explosion when it occurred. He and his friends, the Greiners, lived in adjoining rooms on the third floor, but the Greiners’ bodies were found on the first day after the blast and were not badly disfigured. Gumry’s remains were not found until three days later, buried beneath tons of debris, with his head and hands so mutilated that he was identified through a nearby cufflink marked “G” and because all other occupants had been accounted for.
Through numerous police and newspaper interviews, as well as the coroner’s inquest, Loescher maintained that he was innocent of being drunk on the job and did not cause the explosion. Shortly after his return to Denver, Loescher told police that he had been sober on Sunday night and only got drunk when he was off-duty. Albert Kopper, owner of the saloon that Loescher frequented, said that he had never seen Loescher drunk, and Loescher’s fellow employees said he was a dedicated worker who had never been drunk on the job.
The string of hearings revealed that the Gumry’s boiler had a history of breakdowns, repairs, and leaks. Machinist Bud Burns, a guest at the hotel who survived the explosion, told the Denver Times that he had been out of town. When he returned, the desk clerk wanted to place him in a rear room. “Over that boiler of yours?” Burns said to the clerk. “Not a bit of it. I’ll sleep in the front of the house or not in it at all.” The coroner’s jury decided that no one was accountable for the explosion. The city ordered that the remainder of the Gumry be demolished, and the lot stood vacant for a time. Eventually, another structure replaced it, and the memory faded about the Gumry Hotel explosion and the many lives lost there on a summer’s night in 1895.
Adapted from Richard A. Kreck, “The Pit of Horror: Colorado’s Gumry Hotel Catastrophe,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 14, no. 3 (1994).