Paris, TX -- Fire of 1916

Taken from Backward Glances by Alexander White Neville, Volume One, edited by Skipper Steely - Column dated Sunday, March 23, 1930


The fire of March 21, 1916, was so tremendous that it overshadowed many other things in people's minds. I doubt many folks remember that there were two other fires in Paris that day, both of which came in the early morning, before daylight.

The city council met on Monday night preceding the fire and at that meeting approved an agreement reached between the city represented by Mayor McCuistion and the owners of property around the square, providing for additional paving in the square and making of a park of flower and shrubbery garden in the center.

Soon after midnight, while I was yet at work at The News office on North Main street, there was a fire alarm, for a fire in the old Anheuser-Busch beer vault at North Twentieth and Cherry. This had been built for the storage of beer and ice when saloons were in vogue in Paris and later was used for storage of other things, including several saloon outfits of bar, mirrors, etc. This had been set fire and the house and contents were badly damaged.

While the department was still at work at this fire another alarm cam in and was found to be a blaze in the second story of the block on the north side of Clarsville stree, just behind and so. of the News' present building. A sort of hotel was conducted there and there was a scattering of the guest when the blaze was discovered and the alarm given. One man, I remember came out with a blanket wrapped about him and was lamenting bitterly that his only pair of trousers was burned in his room. He did not have time, he said, to get into them.

Neither of these fires caused much damage and both were forgotten that afternoon when the real thing made its appearance.

The odor of burning coal oil was so strong at the beer house fire that some of the firement were nauseated when they first entered the place. The wreck of the building was left and stood several years until the property was bought by an individual from the brewery people and he cleared it away.

The fire department had much of its hose laid at this fire and when the fire started on Clarksville street had to take up some of it use at the latter place, finally using every foot they had.


Taken from The History of Lamar County by A. W. Neville, published by The North Texas Publishing Company, 1937

The Second Great Fire

Origin of the fire that destroyed a large part of Paris, March 21, 1916, was never determined. Several theories were advanced, none of which were proved.

The fire was first seen in a small frame building used for a storage warehouse near the spur tracks of the railroads. from west of the city to the compress. One theory was that sparks from a switch engine on one of these tracks had fired dry grass. Another was that burning, trash in the yard of a Negro home nearby had blown outside and reached the warehouse. Another was that a truck driver who had left the warehouse shortly before the fire was discovered had lighted a cigarette and thrown the match down in the grass which ignited and burned into the house after the man drove away. The switch engine theory was tested in suits brought against the railroads but nothing was proven and no damages were paid.

No fire department could have saved the city unless it had been immediately at hand when the fire was first seen. The southwest wind that had been blowing several days had dried everything and grass and shingle roofs were like tinder. The warehouse was nearly consumed and fires had started on roofs and in grass in yards before the firemen were notified and could reach the place which was nearly a mile from the fire station. Insurance experts investigating the fire said that the strong wind held the superheated air close to the ground and created a wave of "radiant heat" that fired buildings before the real flames reached them. It scattered brands far in advance and these fired yards and roofs so rapidly that no fire fighting organization could stop it.

Progress Of The Fire

As the fire came north it spread fanwise, principally to the east, the west line starting almost due north but veering with the wind and in some cases held in check by the work of firemen or volunteers. It soon reached the more closely built part of the city and each building that blazed added to the heat and fired others. On the west side of South Main street a little north of Sherman street, was the Episcopal church, a wooden building with a tall shingle covered spire and gothic roof. Flying embers fired this building before the main fire was within several blocks of it and after this the fire was soon at the southern edge of the business district.

When the Plaza was reached the fire was spreading to the east in the residence district, and the block on the east side of the square began to burn from the rear. Far in advance on North Twenty-second street, some houses occupied by Negroes caught from flying embers and this added to the area of destruction. Shortly before midnight the wind veered to the west and this caused greater destruction to residences in the eastern part of the city, especially on Pine Bluff street, but saved several blocks of business houses on Bonham street. Everything on the block facing the west side of the square burned except the Masonic temple (then the Elks building) on the southwest corner, and it was spared because it had a small alley separating it from the other houses in the block.

Reinforced Concrete Stood Up

The Gibraltar hotel on South Main street, the Belford apartments opposite it and the First National bank on the northwest corner of the Plaza, reinforced concrete buildings completed in the year before the fire, were badly burned as to woodwork and contents but were undamaged in their framework and were repaired soon after the fire.

On Bonham street the fire went west on the south side of the first block but did not reach the Rodgers-Wade Furniture company building on the west side of Nineteenth street, and left one building, the House Hardware company, at the west end of the block on the north side of Bonham street. Centenary Methodist church on the block west of the court house, blazed several times on door and window frames but these were extinguished with water thrown from buckets.

The fire reached South Main street at Washington street and went no further south by favor of the wind and work of residents in that section. At Twenty-second street it had angled as far north as Sherman street, and crossed Twenty-third street a little north of Austin street.

Burning the court house the fire went down North Main to Cherry street on the west side and to Booth street on the east side, going then northeast into the Negro quarter and working east rather than north with the result that a small "island" of cheap houses in this section was not burned.

Other Cities Sent Apparatus

When it was seen that the fire was out of control Mayor Ed H. McCuistion asked for aid of firemen from other towns and cities. A hose wagon from Hugo Okla., came by rail and went to work about 8:30 o'clock; an auto driven hose wagon came from Bonham, making the 38 miles in little over an hour and was at work at 9 o'clock; and at 10 o'clock a pumper and hose combination came from Cooper. Seven firemen came from Honey Grove about the time the Bonham crew reached Paris and at 1 o'clock a big pumper and hose and a crew of firemen reached Paris by the Santa Fe railroad from Dallas and went to work on the eastern edge of the fire, being very efficient in checking the spread of the blaze there.

The water supply, front Lake Gibbons, was sufficient, but after the business houses burned, leaving so many large open pipes, the pressure was not good and this hampered the work except that of the pumping engines.

The fire started about 5:15 in the afternoon of March 21, and was finally extinguished, as far as involving new territory, about 4 o'clock the morning of March 22, The corporation had an area of about 2,500 acres and the burned area was estimated by insurance adjusters as 270 aeres, being fan-shaped and almost a mile wide at its northern edge. The assessed valuation of the city was in round figures $11,200,000 and the business section, at least, was on the rolls at very near actual value. Guesses at the loss ranged from seven to fifteen millions of dollars, but were guesses pure and simple. A member of the city council finance committee estimated the loss at eight millions and insurance payments were about four and a half millions. There was no destruction of any railroad property, nor of any of the manufacturing plants and large parts of the residence area were untouched, so the latter loss figure was probably about correct.

Citizens Subscribe Belief

The afternoon of March 22 a public meeting was held in Centenary Methodist church when a relief committee was named and subscriptions taken from citizens. These totaled about $20,000, and money and supplies sent from other towns and individuals made a total of about $40,000. Of this about half was spent in meeting immediate necessities of people who had lost everything, and during later years the remainder was used for various relief purposes, such as floods, tornadoes and similar disasters in various parts of the country, including $1,000 for relief of the Halifax explosion disaster.

The Red Cross had a representative on the ground within twenty-four hours and an army captain experienced in relief work, especially in floods on the Mississippi, was detailed, and both met with the relief committee. Their estimates of the amount of money needed for relief ranged from $90,000 to $120,000, and it was thought that it would be necessary to ask for government aid or a Red Cross subscription, but before this was decided it was found no such amounts would be needed, because Mayor Ed H. McCuistion had put hundreds of men to work clearing the streets, pulling down remains of brick walls and other similar labor. Private employers had other hundreds clearing spaces for temporary business buildings which were under limited permits, and there was no want or suffering. The relief committee went at its work systematically and gave orders for food, clothing and furniture in reasonable amounts. No one was allowed to feel that charity was being given, and practically all who were given relief required it not over one week, because they had then begun to earn enough to care for their own needs.

Before the fire the city had ordered an election on issuance of $10,000 bonds for a sewage disposal plant and $40,000 for a school house to replace the old Graham building which was in danger of collapsing, the brick walls having insufficient foundation. The election was held April 4 and the bonds were authorized by- about seven to one. The school money was used to build a house on Pine Bluff street, to replace a frame building there which burned, and the Graham building was rebuilt some years later. The city also lost the city hall and central fire station and the W. B Aikin High school, and the east Paris suburban fire station on Pine Bluff street. Some of these were replaced with the insurance money and a part of the state taxes which were remitted to the county for five years by the legislature which met the next year, the others by bond issues.


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