By Brad Courtney

“Hot.

No water.

Getting Hotter.

Cisterns all dry.

Bad time to have a fire.”

The above quote was published in the June 6, 1879, edition of the Miner, but it could have been describing any number of the late spring/early summers of Prescott, especially the summer of 1900.

Like the modern day “Big One,” when the San Andreas Fault makes that promised big slip and wreaks its destruction, a big fire of frightening dimension wasn’t a question of “If?” but “When?” for early Prescottonians.

In April 1888, just how easy it was to predict an out-of-control conflagration was expressed in a Courier editorial: “The people of Prescott can look back and thank the gods that fire has not ‘devoured’ a great deal of their property. We now tell our people that the hot, dry season which may last until next July is upon us; that there will be windy days and nights when, should a fire get a good start, it would be hard to check.”

Such was the Great Whiskey Row Fire of July 14, 1900. It arguably trumps all other stories of early Prescott.

Anyone who has lived in Arizona knows that, eventually, one topic is bound to surface: drought. When the spring of 1900 rolled into the Central Highlands, an unusually dry spell came with it. A multitude of tinderboxes were being created, especially in a town still mostly comprised of wood.

So desperate was the concern about the drought that the mayor pro tem, Fred Brecht—Mayor John Dougherty was out of town—issued a “notice to [the] water consumers” of Prescott on May 21, 1900, that continued to be published right up until July 14. A ban was enacted regarding the use of water for irrigation purposes, i.e., the watering of lawns and gardens. An exception was made between seven and eight p.m. Chief of Police Steve Prince was instructed not only to inform every household of this measure, but to report those ignoring it. The penalty would be the loss of water privileges altogether.

Time marched on and spring flowed into summer. Still no rain. The middle of June found Mayor Dougherty back in town. Early on he visited his brother, Joe, who operated a grocery store on West Gurley Street. During this visit, an argument between the brothers was overheard by an OK Store employee, Bert Lee.

A decision had been made by the local government to spend available funds to grade the streets rather than finding a way to improve Prescott’s water availability. Joe argued, “Why the hell do you have to grade the streets right now? If you’re short of money, what you got ought to do is deepen those wells or dig new ones. What if we have a fire—how’d you stop it?”

The mayor retorted that there was enough stored water to handle whatever problems may arise. The incredulous grocery store owner, however, fired back that “there wasn’t enough water to put out a chicken coop if it was on fire.”

On July 3, the mayor’s decision to pave Prescott’s streets provided the locals a dash of hope for nature to deliver some relief from the drought: “There was a slight sprinkle that occurred up and down Montezuma street yesterday afternoon, but it came from Arizona Paving Co.’s water cart,” reported the Miner.

The ironies of cause had reached a crescendo. The factors for a fire-borne catastrophe were in place.

On Saturday evening, July 14, the people of Prescott were in a mood to let loose some steam. The saloons were packed. Sheriff George Ruffner patrolled the scene and said that to “jail all the drunks in Prescott tonight you’d have to put a roof over the whole town.”

Today, it is commonly accepted that a miner’s misuse of a miner’s candlestick holder was the cause of the Great Fire. However, Tony Johns—an undersheriff at the time and later a Prescott fire chief—testified that the Great Fire’s spark was a mystery, asserting the candlestick story is nothing but legend. In fact, within days after the catastrophe, the narrative of its cause began changing.

Yet, the miner’s candlestick holder account has endured, but in several versions. What is true?

The public is invited to hear the rest of the story when Brad Courtney presents “The Great Whiskey Row Fire of 1900” at the Sharlot Hall Museum as part of the Museum Lecture Series in the West Gallery of the Lawler Building at 2 p.m. Admission is FREE.

“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 www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.