Major Historical Fires in the U.S.—Save Your Genealogy!

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this blog post, Scott searches old newspapers to learn more about some of the major fires in our country’s history—including one he and his family lived through—and reminds genealogists how important it is to make copies of your family history research so that a natural disaster doesn’t destroy years of work.

Fire, fire, fire raging all about. Who’ll call the fireman to put the fire out?
—first line of a children’s song

If you grew up in the 1950s you may well recall this song. Details of the author, full lyrics, etc., seem to be lost to time, but after reading about a fire recently in the newspaper I began to research fires and their possible effect on our genealogy and family history work.

Iillustration of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, by John R. Chapin, originally printed in Harper’s Weekly, showing people running for their lives over the Randolph Street Bridge

Illustration: the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, by John R. Chapin, originally printed in Harper’s Weekly, showing people running for their lives over the Randolph Street Bridge. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Personally, I remember all too well the fire that ravaged my in-laws’ home. Although the house was saved the damage was extensive, and many heirlooms, pictures, etc., were lost forever as a result. It was a good lesson that taught me: genealogists should back up all their family history work and keep a copy of that backup somewhere other than in their home, unless they have a fireproof vault!

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Great Chicago Fire of 1871

It is hard to look at famous fires throughout U.S. history and not begin with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. One of the more detailed articles I discovered in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives was from this 1871 Massachusetts newspaper. This detailed news story covers almost a full page and reports: “…over 10,000 buildings are in ruins. The fire is still raging…” The article also reports that no one was spared, from “the dwellings of the mass of the German population of the city” to “some of the oldest and best residences of the city.” More than 100,000 people were left homeless by the two-day inferno. Finally on the second night a heavy rain did what the fire fighters—whose water supply had been cut off by the blaze—could not. The rain put the Great Chicago Fire out, but not before more than 17,000 buildings were destroyed at an estimated loss of over $200 million in property—in 1871 dollars!

article about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, National Aegis newspaper article 14 October 1871

National Aegis (Worcester, Massachusetts), 14 October 1871, page 1

San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906

It was in the early morning hours of 18 April 1906 when the earth rumbled, heaved, and shook terribly beneath the city of San Francisco. I found details in this 1906 Arkansas newspaper. As I read this article, I was struck by the fact that while I certainly recalled learning about the San Francisco earthquake in history class, I was not aware that fire raged across the city for three days afterward and actually caused most of the damage. Broken water mains prevented firemen from dousing the flames, and allowed the fire to move unhindered—eventually consuming over four square miles of the city. The earthquake and fire resulted in more than 3,000 deaths, left some 225,000 people homeless, and destroyed 28,000 buildings.

article about the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, Jonesboro Evening Sun newspaper article 18 April 1906

Jonesboro Evening Sun (Jonesboro, Arkansas), 18 April 1906, page 1

As I researched the news about this famous fire more, I found a very interesting article published in a 1907 Michigan newspaper. While the headline writers make it seem as though the San Francisco earthquake and fire was the year’s worst disaster, this extensive article admits this may be only “in the interest of the people of the United States” since “Hongkong” (sic) was ravaged by a three-day typhoon that devastated the city and cost an estimated 5,000 lives; a major earthquake destroyed Valparaiso, Chile, and damaged nearby Santiago causing the loss of between 1,500 and 2,000 lives; and in Italy, Mount Vesuvius erupted killing more than 2,000 and obliterating four towns and several villages. Natural disasters know no boundaries and can reach us in huge cities or tiny towns—and all this was just in the one year of 1906.

article about natural disasters, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 1 February 1907

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 1 February 1907, page 8

Cerro Grande Fire of 2000

Not many years ago, my family and I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. During our time there we witnessed the “Cerro Grande” fire. I found a good article about this fire in a 2000 Illinois newspaper. Not only did this major fire force the closure of the famed Los Alamos National Laboratory, but it resulted in the evacuation of every one of the town’s 11,000 residents. While the nuclear materials at the Laboratory were all safe within fireproof facilities, many homeowners were not so lucky.

Fire Forces Evacuation of Los Alamos, N.M., Register Star newspaper article 11 May 2000

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 11 May 2000, page 3

A year later, there was a follow-up article in this 2001 Connecticut newspaper. This old news article begins poignantly with this:

The tears come for Lucy Thomas when she thinks about the family Bible and other precious possessions that burned in the Los Alamos fires a year ago.

Ms. Thomas was not alone either. The article reports that more than 220 structures were destroyed by the fire leaving more than 400 families homeless; the fire destroyed or damaged a further 115 buildings at the Laboratory; and burned over 43,000 acres of timberlands.

A Year after Fire, Los Alamos Residents Rebuild Their Lives, Daily Advocate newspaper article 6 May 2001

Daily Advocate (Stamford, Connecticut), 6 May 2001, page 20

Each morning during that fire, I well remember waking up to smoke throughout our yard, ash over an inch deep covering everything in sight, and the air quality monitor the EPA put at the end of our driveway. Shortly after the fire I had a meeting in Los Alamos and, while driving through the town, I was stunned at the complete and total destruction of so many houses. This brought the threat closer to home than we would have liked, but it also acted as a warning that fire can happen anywhere—and we had better be prepared for the possibility of the worst happening.

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Capitan Fire of 1950

My newspaper research then brought me to an article regarding fires that could finally make me smile. It was in a 1954 newspaper from Washington, D.C. This story was about the famous Smokey Bear, who was rescued by firefighters during the Capitan fire in New Mexico in May of 1950.

article about Smokey the Bear, Evening Star newspaper article 13 June 1954

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 13 June 1954, page 153

An early news report of this fire in a 1950 Nebraska newspaper was headlined: “Central New Mexico Forest Fire Unchecked.” That news reporter couldn’t have known that a national treasure would be found, with singed paws and legs, clinging to a burned pine tree!

Central New Mexico Forest Fire Unchecked, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 9 May 1950

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 9 May 1950, page 8

As the examples in this article have shown, old newspapers are a great way to learn about the major events that impacted our ancestors’ lives, and the news that affected them. And these reports of the devastating power of fire and the overwhelming destruction it can cause serve as a powerful reminder that no home—and no collection of family records, documents and photos—is ever completely safe. Be sure to digitize your material and store it safely online, preferably on at least two different websites!

Related Articles about Records Preservation:

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Researching the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 in the News

It was early on a Wednesday morning, with most of the residents of San Francisco peacefully sleeping, when disaster suddenly struck the City by the Bay. At 5:13 a.m. on 18 April 1906 an earthquake tremor for about 20 seconds was followed by a major 7.9 magnitude earthquake that shook the city for over 40 seconds, jolting terrified residents awake as buildings collapsed around them.

photo of the massive flames that engulfed San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake

Photo: massive flames engulf San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake. Credit: Harry Sterling Hooper; Wikipedia.

Earthquake Leaves 80% of San Francisco Destroyed

Worse still, the powerful quake twisted and broke gas and water lines across San Francisco. Huge fires erupted and burned continuously for three days. Without water, firefighters were helpless to stop the blazing inferno. In their desperation they resorted to dynamiting buildings to create firebreaks, but these explosions caused additional fires, causing more harm than good.

photo of the fires raging after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Register Star newspaper article 18 April 2005

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 18 April 2005, page 3

At the time of the disaster San Francisco was the greatest city on the West Coast America’s ninth largest with a population of 410,000, a bustling center of commerce and art. Three days after the earthquake of 1906 struck, 500 city blocks—over 25,000 buildings—had been smashed or burned; the earthquake and fire combined to destroy over 80 percent of the city.

Because so many bodies burned in the fierce, towering flames that leapt from building to building, the actual death toll will never be known, but it is estimated that more than 3,000 people died in the tragedy. Around 300,000 people, or nearly three out of every four residents, were left homeless after the smoke cleared. San Francisco would of course rebuild, but many beautiful buildings and civic treasures, and thousands of residents, were gone forever.

photo of San Francisco burning after the 1906 earthquake; view from the St. Francis Hotel

Photo: San Francisco burning after the 1906 earthquake, view from the St. Francis Hotel. Credit: Library of Congress.

News of the S.F. Earthquake Hits the Headlines

News of the earthquake flashed over the telegraph wires before the city’s telegraph buildings were destroyed, and made the front pages of newspapers everywhere.

article about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Cincinnati Post newspaper article 19 April 1906

Cincinnati Post (Cincinnati, Ohio), 19 April 1906, page 1

This news report was published by a Rhode Island newspaper.

Earthquake Levels San Francisco, Evening Times newspaper article 18 April 1906

Evening Times (Pawtucket, Rhode Island), 18 April 1906, page 1

As this historical newspaper article reports:

Shortly after daylight, while the residence portion of the city was slumbering and the streets were practically deserted save for those whose duties required their presence at the break of day, there came a rumbling that startled the sleepers from their beds and in a moment more the buildings were crumbling about their heads.

Pandemonium ensued. Half-clad men and women rushed from their houses, many of the latter dragging shrieking children by the arms. In many cases the refugees met death in the streets.

Earthquake Survivors Tell Their Personal Stories

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After some of the refugees had gotten safely out of San Francisco their stories started to appear in the press, providing many grim details of the death, destruction and panic caused by the massive earthquake and fire. This personal account of the earthquake was published by a North Carolina newspaper.

article about a survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Charlotte Observer newspaper article 20 April 1906

Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), 20 April 1906, page 1

This first-person account provides the following details:

I returned to my room and got my clothing; then walked to the offices of the Western Union in my pajamas and bare feet to telegraph to my wife in Los Angeles. I found the telegraphers on duty, but all the wires were down. I sat down on the sidewalk, picked the broken glass out of the soles of my feet and put on my clothes. All this I suppose took 20 minutes. Within that time, below the Palace Hotel, buildings for more than three blocks were a mass of flames, which spread to other buildings.

People by the thousands were crowded around the ferry station. They clawed at the iron gates like so many maniacs. They sought to break the bars, and failing in that turned on each other. After a maddening delay, we got aboard the boat and crossed the bay.

Looters Pillage the City

This old news article reports that, sadly, some unscrupulous people took advantage of the earthquake victims, looting in the aftermath:

article about looters pillaging San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake, Charlotte Observer newspaper article 20 April 1906

Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), 20 April 1906, page 3

This newspaper article provides these details:

The scene at the Mechanics Pavilion during the early hours and until noon, when the injured and dead were removed because of the threatened destruction of the building by fire, was one of indescribable sadness. Sisters, brothers, wives and sweethearts searched eagerly for some missing dear one. Thousands of persons hurriedly went through the building inspecting the cots on which the sufferers lay, in the hope that they would find some loved one that was missing.

The dead were placed in one portion of the building and the remainder was devoted to hospital purposes. After the fire forced the nurses and physicians to desert the building the eager crowds followed them to the Presidio and the children’s hospital, where they renewed their search for missing relatives.

Were your ancestors impacted by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires? Along with news reports of the disaster, another way newspapers can help you research  your ancestors is the steady stream of casualty reports and lists that were published for weeks after the earthquake struck.

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Earthquake Casualties

This report, published in a Texas newspaper, tells of the fate of locomotive engineer William Burnip, 55, whose “remains were dug from the ruins of the house by his son.”

article about the casualties from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Beaumont Journal newspaper article 22 May 1906

Beaumont Journal (Beaumont, Texas), 22 May 1906, page 1

Earthquake Survivor Stories Continue to Run

Long after the disaster, newspapers published stories about the survivors. San Francisco long marked the earthquake’s anniversary with a dawn ceremony, to which all of the earthquake survivors were invited.

As the following newspaper article reports:

…the annual observance that culminates with a dawn wreath-laying at Lotta’s Fountain, a landmark that served as a meeting point for those trying to find families and friends after the disaster.

This article shows a picture of Herbert Hamrol, a survivor of the 1906 earthquake who was 102 years old in 2005.

article about the survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Register Star newspaper article 18 April 2005

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 18 April 2005, page 3

If your ancestors were alive during a great historical event, tragedy, or natural disaster, old newspapers such as GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives are a great way to learn more about the times your ancestors lived in—and possibly learn details about their actual personal experiences.

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Colonial Fire Tally: Genealogy Records Saved, Wines & Liquors Lost

On 13 December 1747 a “most terrible Fire” broke out in Boston, MA.

It was just after six o’clock in the morning when the “Watch” spotted the flames at the Court House. The building was a total loss: the “spacious and beautiful Building, except the bare Walls, was entirely destroyed.”

It was an intense fire that lit up the skies of Beantown that cold winter night. “The Vehemence of the Flames occasioned such a great Heat, as to set the Roofs of some of the opposite Houses on Fire, notwithstanding they had been covered with Snow, and were extinguished with much Difficulty.”

All was not a total loss, however.

newspaper article about a fire at the Boston Court House, New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy 04 January 1748

New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy (New York City, New York), 4 January 1748, page 2

“But thro’ the Mercy of GOD, the County Records…and part of the Province Records…as also Copies of the Minutes of Council from the Beginning to 1737…were happily saved.”

The survival of these important genealogy records is good news to genealogists today who are researching their Colonial ancestry, and no doubt was a relief to government officials at the time.

There was one loss from the historical Boston fire, however, that likely was particularly painful to more than a few:

“In the Cellars which were hired by several Persons, a great Quantity of Wines and other Liquors were lost, to the amount of several Thousand Pounds.”