An era lit by fire |

An era lit by fire

Fires at area businesses illuminate Craig's past

Fire roars from the back of Craig theatre, then located in the 100 block of Victory Way.
Courtesy Photo

Notable Craig fires

• 1896: Valentine's fire destroys Town Hall, post office, other buildings

• 1901: Christian church fire

• 1947: Fire destroys Craig Theatre, Cloy building

• 1978: Fire on Yampa Avenue; arson suspected

• 2007: Fire destroys Country Mall

Notable Craig fires

• 1896: Valentine’s fire destroys Town Hall, post office, other buildings

• 1901: Christian church fire

• 1947: Fire destroys Craig Theatre, Cloy building

• 1978: Fire on Yampa Avenue; arson suspected

• 2007: Fire destroys Country Mall

— On the evening of Feb. 13, 1896, costumed Craig residents strolled to Town Hall, expecting to find the building decorated for a masquerade.

Instead, they found the building in flames.

The Valentine’s fire of 1896 was the first of Craig’s more notable conflagrations. But it was not the last.

Craig has sustained several significant fires, occasionally in the same area and on the same day in different years.

The Valentine’s fire left several main buildings in ruins and nearly ended the town’s then-short history.

Preparations for a masquerade ball began the blaze in the Town Hall building, then located on Yampa Avenue. A large fire built in the fireplace, stoked to dry a newly scrubbed floor, was left unattended while partygoers went home to prepare for the dance, the Craig Daily Press reported in a 1998.

When they returned at 6:30 p.m., flames had gutted the hall’s upper floor.

The alarm was raised and shortly afterward, the town’s entire population arrived on the scene. By then, the Town Hall was beyond the town’s limited firefighting abilities, so they focused on evacuating the surrounding buildings.

“Willing hands went to work with all the vigor possible, rescuing the contents of the billiard hall, saloon, hotel, post office and drug store, for from the start, it was evident that it was only a matter of a very short time until those structures would be enveloped in flames,” the Craig Courier reported.

Residents – some still costumed for the masquerade – attacked the fire with borrowed buckets and axes and a garden hose. In the end, the fire demolished the Town Hall, post office, saloon, billiard hall and barbershop.

Taking nearly all the stores’ capital and stock, the fire was a blow to the new town.

“In fact, so great was the loss of business property that there was talk for a time of abandoning the town site,” the Craig Empire reported in 1922.

It took three years for the property owners to recollect their resources and rebuild.

Five years later to the date, another fire took the Christian Church, then the first church building in northwest Colorado.

For residents who remembered both fires, the day took on ominous connotations.

“February 13 is remembered as a hoodoo day by the pioneers of Craig, because of the conflagrations which have taken place on this date,” the Craig Courier reported.

In May 1947, another fire broke out, causing significant damage.

The fire was kindled by an unknown cause in the Craig Theatre, located in the 100 block of West Victory Way. It “roared in fiendish glory” as it gutted the theater and spread to the nearby Clow building at the corner of Victory Way and Breeze Street, the Craig Empire-Courier reported.

The Cloy building, the county’s first courthouse, was destroyed in the fire. Several businesses, including the Kellogg coffee shop and Brinkley Supply, also were damaged in the blaze.

The fire consumed four apartments located above Brinkley Supply. The residents escaped but lost much of their personal property.

“Estimated loss in the fire, the most disastrous in Craig’s history, is placed at approximately $90,000,” the Craig Empire-Courier reported.

Downtown Craig again proved to be fire hot-spot when, 31 years later, another fire began in the business district of Yampa Avenue. This time, authorities suspected arson.

A fire began in Betty’s Carrousel, a children’s clothing store, at about 6 p.m. Jan. 23, 1978, and continued throughout the night, the Daily Press reported. As it spread, it destroyed the neighboring business, Fashion Shoes and Boots, and caused an explosion in Samuelson’s Hardware.

Merchants of nearby stores feared the fire would spread throughout the block, and some began moving their wares out of their stores.

“I haven’t a prayer for the whole block,” said resident Loren Gearhart as he helped remove stock from Kester Jewelry.

A newly acquired telesquirt truck was attributed with saving the rest of the block from the flames. The truck with its extendable water line pumped water atop the flames while firefighters worked in the cold, the water freezing in sheets on the ground.

After a 14-month investigation, the Moffat County Sheriff’s Department, aided by an arson specialist from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, named Elizabeth Keller, owner of Betty’s Carrousel, as an arson suspect in the case, the Empire-Courier reported.

Prosecutors dropped the charges when the evidence, a piece of carpet reportedly doused in gasoline, was deemed inadmissible.

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