On March 23, 1895, a blaze at the St. James Hotel in Denver killed four firefighters, three of whom were black. Despite ongoing racial tensions that had intensified during the depths of an economic depression, the city mourned all four men together, without regard to race. The public response was a brief instance of racial equality in Denver that would be unmatched until the civil rights movement in the twentieth century.
History of the St. James Hotel
In the late nineteenth century, the St. James Hotel at 1528 Curtis Street was regarded as one of Denver’s most luxurious hotels. Opened in 1872, it was originally called the Everett House before being renamed after an 1881 expansion. A traveler who came to Colorado in 1883 reported that the St. James had “more guests than any of the rest” of Denver’s hotels.
In 1894 a fire in the Champa Building directly behind the St. James incinerated several buildings between Champa and Curtis Streets. Many people thought it was a miracle that the St. James survived the Champa Building fire with almost no damage. At the time, hotels were often targets of arsonists because they could use fire as a diversion to rob hotel guests.
A Deadly Blaze
When fire broke out at the St. James itself a year later, faulty wiring was probably to blame. The fire started in the hotel baggage room around 10:30 pm on March 23, 1895. Flames were discovered by a hotel manager and night engineer, who tried to extinguish them. But the fire grew rapidly, spreading thick smoke. An alarm was raised, and roughly 150 guests and employees escaped through the lobby. All of the hotel’s guests and workers survived. Hearing the alarm, residents in nearby buildings began removing furniture and documents from their residences in case the fire spread.
One witness told The Denver Times the fire was so thick that a “lantern could not be seen half a dozen feet away.” It was what firefighters called a “blind” fire, one in which the thickness of the smoke made the flames seem almost invisible.
At around 10:50 pm, with the fire growing out of control, fire chief William E. Roberts sounded a general alarm. Fire companies from all over the city sped to the scene. One of the first to arrive was Hose Company 3, made up of Captain Harold Hartwell, Lieutenant Fred Brawley, Richard Dandridge, and Stephen Martin. Only Captain Hartwell was white; the rest of the men were African American. They charged into the fire and immediately aimed their hoses toward the basement, where the flames seemed worst. As the men worked their way through the lobby, the tile beneath them suddenly collapsed. The fire below had completely burned away the floor’s two-by-eight-foot wooden support beams, and the men fell to their deaths.
The fire blazed on for roughly another hour before the flames were extinguished. When Chief Roberts learned that Hose Company 3 was missing, he called for volunteers to dig through the charred hotel remains. The first body found was Captain Hartwell, who was thought to have suffocated from smoke inhalation because he was not badly burned. The next found was Richard Dandridge, his body almost thirty feet away from where he fell and his scalp almost entirely ripped from his skull. Martin’s body was found soon after, his scalp almost completely missing and his arms “burned to stumps,” according to the Rocky Mountain News. Lieutenant Brawley was found later than his comrades, as his body was deeply buried in charred rubble. Because of the depth at which his body was discovered and the extent of his burns, rescuers assumed that he was the first to fall into the basement.
The Aftermath of the Fire
The St. James Hotel was rebuilt after the fire, but it never returned to its former glory. It became run-down and eventually went out of business.
More important for the city, public response to the deaths of Hose Company 3 involved a display of racial egalitarianism that was uncharacteristic of the era. Relations between blacks and whites in Denver had been tense since the 1860s, when a proposed constitution for an unsuccessful statehood bid would have denied African Americans voting rights. In addition, African Americans living in Denver in the late nineteenth century were relatively prosperous and well educated, and many whites were afraid blacks would take their jobs—a fear that had gained strength during the economic turmoil of the 1890s.
Despite these tensions, Denver had started to hire black firefighters earlier than some other cities; New York City, for example, did not have any until 1898. Nevertheless, Denver kept its black firefighters segregated in all-black companies whose only white members were captains (such as Harold Hartwell) and other leaders. The city’s all-black companies were considered inferior to all-white companies and were given lower pay and lower-quality equipment. They were also assigned to menial tasks that white firefighters did not want to do, such as painting buildings, delivering supplies, and cleaning laundry for the white firefighters. They were often not allowed inside the fire stations of white companies.
Yet in the wake of the St. James Hotel fire, newspapers and politicians told only of the bravery of the four men who died, praising their efforts and honoring their memory without mentioning their race. In addition, rather than holding a separate ceremony for Captain Hartwell, the city staged a single, elaborate funeral for all four firefighters, with the fire and police departments marching in the streets. Notably, each of the four caskets in the funeral was made to look exactly alike so that no one in the crowd could distinguish which man was white and which were black.
Denverites may have honored the fallen black and white firefighters equally because fires posed such a threat to the city during the late 1800s. Had the St. James fire spread to other buildings, as plenty of fires did in Denver’s early decades, it could have been disastrous. Usually seen as inferior to their white counterparts, even black firefighters were deemed heroes for their efforts in saving lives and livelihoods during an economic depression. The fact that the men died alongside their white captain, in similar circumstances, may also have elevated the public perception of their heroism.
The public response to the deaths marked a moment of unity in Denver’s race relations, but the tragedy was not enough to erase the color line that had existed since the city was founded. Black firefighters worked hard for recognition of their efforts and sacrifices, but they remained—then as now—a small part of the city’s firefighting force, smaller than in many other large cities. Racial tensions in Denver continued to grow until their peak in the 1920s, when Ku Klux Klan members held government office and marched through the streets. The city did not see its first black fire captain until 1925, and its fire companies were not integrated until 1957.
As of 2016, about 4.7 percent of Denver’s firefighters were black, 2 percentage points behind the national average.