It’s been 95 years since Texas experienced a wildfire comparable to
the recent tragedy in Bastrop
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
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.
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
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
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
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
by Mike Cox - Order Here