History in Focus: The Great Fire of 1896
Legend has it the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 started with Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern. While not nearly as famous or poetic, the source of Craig’s Great Fire of 1896 can be traced back to a sopping wet mopped floor and an overstuffed wood stove, and it was a devastating event for the young town.
On the cold winter night of February 13, all of Craig was readying itself for a Valentine’s Day masquerade ball at the town hall, then located in the middle of the 500 block of Yampa Street. In the late afternoon, janitor Clyde Eastman and some volunteers thoroughly mopped the floor and built up a roaring fire in the woodstove to insure the floor was dry for the big dance (Craig Empire 2/15/22).
Due to a faulty flue, the overheated stove caught some nearby woodwork on fire that quickly spread through the building. By the time the fire was discovered around 6:30 p.m. it had already gutted the upper story of the town hall. Soon, it hungrily spread down the block engulfing nearby buildings as flames rose over a hundred feet into the air.
The alarm was sounded around town and costumed citizens rushed to help. With no fire department, fire hydrants, or running water, the unchecked fire broadened its path of destruction. Townspeople frantically started pulling valuables and goods out of threatened buildings. The heat was so intense bucket brigades threw water on buildings on the east side of Yampa and escaped the blaze with only cracked and shattered windows (Craig Courier 2/15/1896).
In the morning, the odor of smouldering ashes revealed nearly the whole west side of the 500 block of Yampa was destroyed: the town hall, the Masonic and Odd Fellows Lodges, the post office, Farnum’s saloon, Layman’s Billiard Hall, a barber shop, and the three story Haubrich Hotel. Worst of all the roughly $7,160 in damages was mostly uninsured! (Craig Courier 2/15/1896 and Craig Empire, 2/15/22).
It was a financial and psychological punch in the gut to the young town of roughly 133 citizens, only founded in 1889. It was a pivotal moment in the early days of Craig. There was murmuring and grumbling of possibly abandoning the whole townsite. Somehow hope and forward momentum had to be restored.
A group was formed, stock sold to raise money, and less than a year later on January 1, 1897, Craig celebrated the grand opening of the Opera House. Built on the site of the destroyed town hall at a cost of $2,300 and with a seating capacity of 300, it represented a fresh start for the downtown. William Rose, president of the town hall company optimistically dedicated the edifice, “to literature, fantastic arts, and to all entertainments that tend to develop a higher state of society and disseminate happiness and intelligence among our citizens” (Craig Courier, 1/2/1897). It’s safe to say, Craig was moving forward!
The opera house was the site of plays, graduations, and social gatherings. In 1911, it hosted the famous cattle rustling trial of Ann Basset brought by the accusations of cattle baron Ora Haley. No other building in the county could hold the throng of interested citizens.
Today, the downtown is very different from those early and original wood buildings, and it’s hard to imagine a whole city block going up in flames. A sign of renewal for the young town in 1897, the old opera house is now part of the shuttered Spicy Basil Chinese restaurant.
Today the old opera house is a reminder that uncertainty and challenges are always part of the present, and they must be boldly addressed for the benefit of the future.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to Dan Davidson and the Museum of Northwest Colorado for photo and research.
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