By Bradley G. Courtney
Prescott’s Great Fire of 1900 was the pivotal point in the town’s history. Harry Brisley, a pharmacist who owned two downtown drug stores that would burn to the ground, was an eyewitness to most, if not all, of the Great Fire. He wrote of an incident that transpired during the earliest stages of the fiery nightmare.
There “occurred a scene worthy of a Western movie thriller around the corner of Gurley and Cortez streets, hastening from another duty was the city engineer and his familiar wagon, grievously belaboring his old white horse. Thence sharply turning into the corner of Gurley and South Montezuma, they together continued their fevered race toward the reservoir” Brisley wrote many years after the Great Fire. This heroic figure was John Love, Prescott’s city water engineer.
Absent from accounts of the Great Fire of 1900 is an astounding revelation that may have been kept quiet for years. Water was available early on to fight the fire, but it was not discovered until near the end of the conflagration. According to one eyewitness, after reaching the reservoir, Love started the pumps and sent ample water to the mains and hydrants. However, after initially receiving insufficient water from the hydrants and wells, and in desperation to find other means to fight the fire, the fresh supply went unnoticed until after the majority of the damage had been done. Love stayed at the reservoir for the duration of the fire, awaiting instructions that never came.
Perhaps the most endearing episode during the Great Fire is that of two young boys who became the heroes of east Prescott. While flames were gobbling the buildings facing the plaza on Gurley Street, the fire had been racing eastward toward Cortez Street. The east side of Cortez, however, had been known as “Office Row” for probably longer than that row named after whiskey. In the past, Prescottonians were prouder of Office Row than Whiskey Row, because whiskey had been the source of so many problems and unplanned crimes.
If the fire continued to behave the same as it had for the previous nearly three hours, Office Row looked to be next on its list of victims.
At the junction of Gurley and Cortez streets, a hundred-man bucket brigade formed. It’s likely someone finally discovered the water previously released into the mains by Love. On the northeast corner stood the Bellevue House where two unidentified boys climbed the roof. Because soaring embers were creating so much havoc, the bucket brigade men instructed the lads to douse any embers landing on Office Row roofs with the buckets of water they hoisted up to them. If a bucket wasn’t available, the nimble boys kicked the embers to the street. They energetically did this for at least an hour, perhaps longer, until the fire was finally stopped before crossing Willis Street.
Some people believed the boys’ efforts saved as much as ten blocks of east Prescott, although that’s probably an exaggeration. Nonetheless, the fire didn’t ignite the east side of Cortez Street, and the unnamed hero boys played a big part in preventing that from happening. Both received minor burns.
Harry Brisley noted that after the fire had calmed, “It was reported that Brow, Belcher and Smith of the Palace [and the Cabinet Saloon] had tapped kegs of cold beer nearby the courthouse and was free to all comers. Never had been heard more welcome news after five hours of continuous toil.” Much to their disappointment, the two courageous boys were told they weren’t invited to this party and that they should go on home and rest. The soot-covered heroes sauntered home. Their rites of passage would have to wait.
“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at archives.sharlothallmuseum.org/articles/days-past-articles/1 The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles and inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org Please contact SHM Research Center reference desk at 928-277-2003, or via email at email@example.com for information or assistance with photo requests.