In 1894 a fire at Denver’s original Union Depot destroyed much of the building within an hour. The burning of the railroad station, which had been completed in 1881 and was regarded as one of the largest and grandest in the West, shocked Denver citizens. Reconstruction efforts began almost immediately and soon restored the building to even greater grandeur. The Union Station that emerged from the ashes provided the basic structure for all subsequent renovations to the building.
Ignited by Electricity
At around 12:30 am on March 18, 1894, several night watchmen at Union Depot discovered a fire in the second story of the west wing, just above the baggage room. The fire was suspected to be electrical in origin. Earlier in the evening, two wires in the ladies’ waiting room had broken, sending arc lights to the floor. Firefighters later determined that electricity from these broken wires had caused a spark that ignited the offices in the west wing.
At first, several Union Depot employees attempted to extinguish the fire themselves. They soon realized that the flames were out of control. An alarm was raised at the Denver Fire Department’s Central Station. Witnesses later told the Colorado Daily Chieftain that by the time firefighters arrived, the flames seemed to have “lit up all the lower part of the city.”
Efforts of Firefighters
Initially, firefighters seemed to be gaining control of the blaze until an explosion caused the fire to spread even more aggressively. A general alarm was raised to the rest of the city’s fire department. At least twenty streams of water were sprayed on the building but did little to squelch the flames.
Firefighters soon decided to focus on saving furniture, records, and other belongings still inside the building rather than saving the structure itself. Nearly every railroad employee as well as several spectators were pressed into service. They removed almost all baggage from the baggage room. They also tried to salvage records from Union Depot offices. Firefighters entered several offices and haphazardly threw books and papers out of the windows; only some of them were later recovered. Other offices were either already burning or had their doors blocked by burning debris, making them impossible to enter.
Rumors of Arson
Although many belongings in the building were saved, police suspected that other property at the station was stolen by spectators—not uncommon at nineteenth-century blazes. Julius Pearse, chief of the Denver Fire Department, worried that the fire may have been arson, especially after another conflagration occurred four days later at the Champa Block, a group of business buildings at the north corner of Fifteenth and Champa Streets. He reported that the fire department had struggled with low water pressure from their hoses at both fires. While Pearse acknowledged that faulty equipment could have played a role, he suspected that the hoses had been cut by thieves hoping to pickpocket bystanders and steal valuables brought out of the buildings. Investigations into the Union Depot fire have never conclusively confirmed that it was the work of arsonists.
Within forty-five minutes after the fire was discovered, much of Union Depot’s interior was destroyed. Newspapers estimated that the original building had cost between $300,000 and $500,000 to build. The New York Times described it as the “handsomest and mostly costly railroad station in the West.” Now only the building’s stone walls and a portion of its interior remained intact.
Not only was the building destroyed, but several telegraph wires were burned in the fire as well. Two-thirds of all telegraph wires coming into Denver went through Union Depot, and nearly all of these were incinerated, severely hampering railroad communications in the region. Western Union had telegraph wires outside of Union Depot and was able to maintain communications between railroad companies so that the railroads could continue to function despite the damage.
Railroads continued to use Denver’s burnt shell as a station after the fire. Debris was cleared from the main entrance, and the building’s few undamaged rooms were used as waiting rooms. The Pullman Car Company parked a railroad car on Wynkoop Street to serve as a ticket booth.
Plans to rebuild Union Depot took shape immediately. The original Italian Romanesque walls remained and were incorporated into the new construction to help streamline the building process, which city officials correctly estimated would take only two months. Thanks to cheaper labor and materials, officials also successfully projected that they would be able to erect a new, improved station (with a taller clock tower) for under $225,000, less than the cost of the original. Denver citizens managed not only to recover from the fire but to emerge stronger, improving upon the original structure of the building and creating the basis for the Union Station that residents and travelers know today.