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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

America's Third Largest Fire
The Paris Fire of 1916

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Author’s note: It’s been 95 years since Texas experienced a wildfire comparable to the recent tragedy in Bastrop County.

John Cross had the day off that afternoon, March 21, 1916.

Tall and heavy-set, the 20-year-old straddled his Indian motorcycle and rode to his girlfriend’s house, about a mile from downtown Paris, a thriving North Texas city of 12,000-plus. As the couple discussed plans for the evening, Cross heard the Central Station fire bell.

Looking out the door, the young fireman saw black smoke rolling into the sky from the city’s warehouse district. Realizing it must be a bad fire, Cross figured he had better get back to the fire station.

By the time he did, all the equipment had already rolled. Grabbing his coat and helmet, he waved down a passing motorist to hitch a ride toward the smoke.

The Paris Fire Department had been in transition for several years, as were most departments. For decades, horse-drawn fire wagons had been the firefighter’s mainstay. The old, reliable equipment still had its place, but Paris also had a few motorized pumpers. Stout enough to easily crank a motor to life, Cross had been named driver of the one of the new gasoline-powered engines.

When Cross reached the source of the smoke, a one-story frame warehouse at Frisco Avenue and 4th Street Southwest near the railroad tracks, he knew he would not be getting back to his girlfriend’s house any time soon. Energized by a stiff southwest wind, the fire absorbed the streams of water shooting toward it with no noticeable effect. Cross realized that if he and his colleagues did not get the blaze knocked down quick, the wind-driven flames would spread.

Finding his truck, Cross took charge of the pumper and crew. Just as he had feared, wind gusting at more than 40 miles an hour blew embers toward a residential area north of Frisco Avenue. Homeowners desperately tried to protect their property with garden hoses and water buckets, but fires soon began popping up on the shingled roofs of houses. Putting any more water on the warehouse would be useless. Now the firemen had residence to save.

Cross had his men pull up their line and drove the truck around between the flaming warehouse and the residential area. Hooking their hose to another hydrant, the firemen soon had several hundred feet out. As Cross checked the pumper’s pressure, the smoke thickened until he could no longer see the other firefighters. About that same time, he felt the temperature rising. Seconds later, wind-driven flames licked around the truck.

Trapped, Cross took an ax and swung it down on the charged line. Water exploded from the severed hose, dousing Cross and the truck in a cooling spray that saved his life and the pumper.

By 7 p.m., the situation had become catastrophic. Fanned by the seemingly incessant wind, the fire continued to spread, heading through the city’s residential neighborhoods straight for downtown. The mayor requested help from any fire departments in the area that could get equipment to town.

When the fire finally moved past him, Cross again drove toward the smoke. By now, the sun had set, but a wide fire front lit up the sky. For 25 miles, a flickering orange glow could be seen in the direction of Paris.

Hoping they could stop the fire by starving it to death, firefighters and volunteers began using dynamite to destroy homes in its path. But that only produced piles of kindling.

The fire continued to move northeast, spreading like a lady’s folding fan. As local and out-of-town firemen battled to stop the firestorm, windblown embers landed on the wood-shingled gothic roof of the Episcopal church on South Main near Sherman Street. Two blocks beyond the fire line, the frame church exploded into flames. Now the fire raged on the southern edge of the business district, and the merciless wind continued.

Shortly before 11 p.m., the fire reached the courthouse square, stopping the courthouse clock one hour before midnight. For 60 minutes, the fire raged in the heart of the city, gutting stores, banks and other businesses. Finally, the wind died and the fire burned itself out.

The rising sun revealed a nearly incredible scene. A reporter for a Dallas newspaper evoked the conflict then raging in Europe: “The scenes in Paris, the once beautiful North Texas city, rival in their piles of wreckage and debris anything that has been seen in war-ridden Europe.”

Of the 2,500 acres within the city limits, 270 acres had been blackened. At its northern edge, the area of destruction stretched a mile across. More than 1,400 structures had been destroyed. Homes, schools, churches, businesses, and government buildings, including the Lamar County Courthouse, City Hall, the federal building, and the Post Office had been leveled or gutted in the conflagration.

Insurance companies paid $5 million in property loss. Owners without coverage lost at least another $5 million, though some estimates went higher. Whatever the figure, the property loss had been staggering.

Some believed sparks from a railroad switch engine had ignited dry grass along the right of way. Others said a trash fire threw off a burning ember that landed near the warehouse. Yet another theory laid the fire to a burning match tossed by a truck driver lighting a cigarette.

Miraculously, the death toll in Paris came to only four, though hundreds lost all their material possessions. But few lost their spirit.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" September 15, 2011 column

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