Durango Fire Etched in Girl’s Memory

Durango Fire Etched in Girl’s Memory
By Robert McDaniel

 

Helen M. Boston never forgot the fire. The frightening image of smoke and flames billowing above downtown Durango became permanently etched in her mind. On July 1, 1939, 50 years later to the day, she penned her recollections . . .

Early in the afternoon of July 1, 1889, I was playing with my school chum, Stella Russell; we were playing croquet on the Judge Russell lawn, North Durango. When we heard the fire bell ring, Stella and I left our game and ran to the cut in the steep hill at the north end of the Animas River bridge to get a better view. By that time the smoke clouds were increasing fast, but we couldn’t see much, so we ventured farther, tho’ we knew our mothers would not approve. We paused at the railroad track, wanting to go on, but afraid to in the face of the smoke-filled wind and smoke-covered sky.

While we hesitated, hurrying down the railroad track from her home in the 1500 block on the Boulevard [today’s Third Avenue] came Mrs. Ilse Kruschke. She was a very beautiful young woman and dressed that day in a lovely tea-gown, as negligees were called at that time. She was frightened and excited and almost in tears, and asked Stella and me if the Kruschke store was burning; of course we did not know. Then Stella asked Mrs. Kruschke if she thought the fire would reach North Durango. She reassured us by saying she felt certain the fire would not extend that far.

The wind was blowing a gale; billowing smoke from flames shooting high in the air from the burning frame buildings obscured the sun like a dark day.

In North Durango our mothers and other housewives were gathering clothing, bedding, utensils, and valuables in huge bundles on the lawn ready to flee to the hills if the flames came any closer to the bridge – but late in the afternoon the wind changed, then died down, and the fire stopped at 12th Street.

The fire had consumed more than six blocks of businesses, homes and churches. Helen’s father, Jacob A. Boston, was one of the losers. His photographic gallery on Main Avenue just north of I (11th) Street burned to the ground, with no insurance to cover the loss.

For many, the fire was a tragedy. Hardware merchant Harry Jackson offered a different view, however. The fire, he said, “was the best thing that could have happened to this town, as most of it was built in a shacky and unsightly manner.”

The Durango Herald agreed, predicting that “like the fabled Phoenix, Durango will rise from the dust and assume her rightful position as the Queen city of the southwest.”

Photo Caption (Catalog #91.33.019): Early Durango photographer Frank Gonner recorded this image of the area destroyed by the big fire of July 1, 1889. The view is east across the Animas River and shows the destruction between what’s now 10th and 11th Streets, reaching from the railroad tracks to the Boulevard (now Third Avenue).
Courtesy Animas Museum photo archives

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07 May 2018


By Robert McDaniel