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  • Writer's pictureDerryl Dumermuth

Fires in Tulare

Tulare was founded by the railroad when Southern Pacific reached this point in the Valley on July 25, 1872. During the next 14 years, the infant town was ravaged by fire three times – in 1875, 1883, and again in 1886.

On July 6, 1875, the little town had an estimated population of 145 and was about to enter its third year of existence when disaster struck. Since there was no newspaper to record the events of that day, details are sketchy at best. We know that most of the town's 43 buildings, all of the wood-frame construction, were consumed by the flames. Rebuilding commenced immediately, but once again in readily available wood.

Tulare had just passed its 11th birthday (on Sunday evening, July 29, 1883) when fire returned to the business district. They never established flames' cause - only that it started in the rear of Isaac Levinger's store on Front Street (J Street) just north of Tulare Avenue. A slight breeze from the North soon pushed the fire across Tulare Avenue and then south and east, destroying everything in its path. The primitive fire-fighting equipment available was no match for the conflagration. When the fire finally burned itself out, only one building remained in the central business block, a two-story rooming house operated by Mrs. J. Beach.

Altogether the fire destroyed 25 buildings, including the most extensive mercantile store, J. Goldman & Co., and both hotels, the Lake House and the French. There were many heroes that day, but others who were less than honorable. In a scathing editorial the next week, A.J. Pillsbury, the irascible editor of the weekly "Tulare Register," chastised those who stood idly by while others risked their lives, or even worse, looted stores of anything valuable.

The 3rd fire, on August 16, 1886, was the most devastating, with 77 downtown buildings burned to the ground. The news reported that the fire began in the Mazeppa Stables, in the 100 block of North K Street, when a horse, or possibly a cow, kicked over a kerosene lantern. No one suggested that the animal belonged to a Mrs. O’Leary, although it was almost exactly 15 years after the much more massive Chicago fire. The only good water source to fight the fire was contained in D.W. Madden's water tower on the grounds of his Pacific Hotel on J Street directly west of the fire's origin. When the building collapsed, little water was available to fight the fire. Dozens of men risked their lives to save the town. Some of the town's women worked alongside the men in what proved to be a losing battle. When J.T. Adams collapsed, several women took his place, while several men did nothing but watch. The youngest hero of the day was eight-year-old Ralph Helm, who carried buckets of water to pour on dropping cinders, and when he ran out of the water, stamped out fire with his bare feet.

Some merchants set up tents to carry on their business while they rebuilt the town. Within ten days, reconstruction was begun for the third time, this time in fireproof brick.

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