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Deadwood Fire


A fire broke out in the frontier town of Deadwood on this date in 1879, destroying much of the town and sending many of its inhabitants elsewhere. Located in Dakota Territory, Deadwood had gained notoriety for both its lawlessness and lawless inhabitants.

Although a frequent victim of fires, Deadwood’s fire of 1879 is often considered the worst to befall the gold-rush town. The early town was largely built from wood taken from the forests covering the nearby Black Hills, and, without electricity, candles and oil lamps were the order of the day. This deadly mix resulted in occasional small fires, but never like that of 1879, which destroyed over 300 buildings and left nearly 2,000 people homeless.

The fire began in Mrs. Ellsner’s Empire Bakery around 2:30 in the morning. The first loaves of the day were just being removed from the oven when a baker knocked an oil lamp to the floor. Flames raced across the floor to the flammable canvas sheeting covering the walls. The wooden structure didn’t stand a chance, and was soon engulfed.

By the time the alarm could be raised, the entire street was burning. The Black Hills Pioneer Office, the Overland Hotel, and the County Recorder’s office all went up in flames. The city’s volunteer hose team soon arrived, but found their hoses too short to reach the nearby Whitewood Creek. Without any type of water system, the town was at the mercy of the flames, which soon jumped across the street to the Jensen and Bliss Hardware store. The fire ignited eight kegs of black gunpowder stocked in the back of the store, and an enormous explosion rocked the town. The blast sent flaming planks across Deadwood to ignite wooden roofs in nearly every area of town.

Fearing the worst and lacking any type of fire department, most residents grabbed what they could and fled. In the aftermath, with most of the city leveled, many never returned. Those that did began rebuilding the following day, opting for costlier brick and stone construction. In fact, one historian has claimed that the fire “…marked the true beginnings of the city’s prosperity,” since the rebuilding incorporated modern city planning and construction, enhancing the city’s sanitation and appeal.

Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job

Floyd, Dustin D. “Inferno” Deadwood Magazine September 2006.