September 1, 2019

Congress Hotel Fire Changed Prescott

The Congress Hotel was located on Gurley St.
on the western lot of today's Hassayampa Inn.

It was just before 3 am, July 12, 1923. EA Chase, a guest at the Congress Hotel was awakened by a woman screaming “fire!” As soon as he raised up, he noticed his room was quickly filling with smoke. When he placed his feet on the floor his heart filled with trepidation as it had already grown sizzling hot...

A nursemaid caring for the grandson of US Senator Henry Ashurst, panicked when she saw the flames and left the building without the 1 year-old child...

Unfortunately, the city’s fire siren was out-of-order. Someone fired three pistol shots into the air to try to attract attention, but it would be 10 minutes before the fire department finally arrived at the scene...

The building was owned by the Prescott Realities and Security Company, which was organized by Prescott and Arizona railroad magnate, Frank Murphy. At the time of the fire, it was Murphy’s estate that suffered the loss.

Originally the hotel was built by Fred Williams in 1878 and the newspaper was impressed. The 64 x 35 foot, two-story building “rose above all others and (was) an institution more needed than any other in Prescott.” Besides a parlor, sitting room, and all the other infrastructure of a fine hotel, The “Williams House” boasted 30 sleeping rooms and had “sprung into existence,” the paper said, “as if by magic.” By December 1878, all 30 rooms were “well patronized, there not being a single vacant bed.”

In its 45 year life, the hotel went through three renovations and refurbishments. First in 1882, then again in 1896 when the name was changed to the “Congress Hotel.”

Congress Hotel ad, 1904
In 1902 the hotel was transformed “from its present antiquated appearance into a fine modern up-to-date hostelry,” the paper reported, “not only in external appearance, but in all the conveniences which go to make for the comfort of the traveling public.” This included “a steam heating apparatus…in the bathrooms (with) washbasins, supplied with hot and cold water…and connections made with the sewer.”

The building itself was greatly enlarged. The front was extended to the sidewalk and “an addition (was built) on the rear extending it clear back to the end of the lot.” On its west side a large addition would house the office and dining room. On the alley a “neat cottage” was constructed with a driveway leading to it from Gurley St. There were now 50 available rooms. “It will have a modern appearance externally as well as internally,” the paper reported, “and while it will not be the largest, it will be the handsomest hotel in this prosperous city.” Still, it had now become the largest frame building in Prescott.

By 1923 Mrs. FM Burgess was the proprietor, renting the business from Murphy and on that fateful early morning she would have to remain much cooler than the flames that were beginning to destroy her livelihood.

Mrs. Lyder Dreyfus, a guest from Los Angeles was the first to see the fire “through the double doors leading from the dining room. Her screams were the first alarm of the blaze. “It had a wonderful start when discovered,” the paper described, “and for a time it looked as though several adjoining homes would be burned." 

Guests immediately scurried out of the building “in their nightclothes, many of them losing all of their property. During the progress of the fire several guests returned to the hotel in an attempt to salvage treasured belongings. Some were successful, but in many other cases the flames had won the race,” the paper reported.

Proprietor Burgess’ “first thought was for a guest who (had) paralysis and when I reached his room, the room was on fire but he had dressed and was just leaving.” She quickly checked the other rooms and found the 1 year-old alone and rushed him out to safety. Fortunately, no one was injured.

The history and future of the historic Palace Station stage stop located 17 miles south of Prescott, AZ.

Although it took some 10 minutes for the general public to realize what was happening, once help arrived, it sprung into action. “Considerable property was carried from the burning building into the police station, directly across the street, while some guests deposited their valuables in the sheriffs office. The hotel safe was a wheeled out on the front porch,” the paper said.

“Most of the furniture on the first floor of the hotel was removed before it had been materially damaged. This included the hotel lobby furniture. Three other businesses that occupied the building had their furnishings piled high on the pavement in front of the Elks Club.”

“The fire already had gained considerable headway when the fireman reached the hotel. The entire north end of the third story was enveloped in flames.” Despite their late start, 10 streams of water were directed at the flames and the surrounding buildings. However, an hour later, the redwood-planked roof collapsed. “Flames shot high the air and provided a spectacular sight for the hundreds of spectators who were attracted to the fire.”

“A garage in the rear, in which were kept the Red Cross car and an automobile…caught fire several times but little damage was done,” the paper reported. “The cars were removed soon after the fire was discovered.”

It took until 5 in the morning before the fire was extinguished. The upper story was totally destroyed and although the first floor did not receive any fire damage, it “was drenched and filled with charged timbres falling from the upper floor.”

The hotel guests who were able to save their personal belongings found available rooms in other hotels, while those who lost everything were given “temporary shelter in the Yavapai Club.”

The building and its contents were under-insured. Although the loss amounted to around $40,000, only $11,700 was paid by insurance. For a short time, people speculated on whether or not the hostelry would be rebuilt. City fathers quickly gave their input as they passed an ordinance prohibiting any new wood-frame structures being built in the downtown area the very next day!

“The hotel (that) was the scene of many pioneer functions and numerous political gatherings in Arizona's territorial and early statehood days” would not be replaced.

The comprehensive story of how Prescott, AZ got the Buckey O'Neill / Roughrider Monument on the downtown Plaza.


An index of all the Prescott, AZ History articles involving historic buildings, infrastructure and other structures in Yavapai County, Arizona.

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Prescott Evening Courier, 7/12/1923; Pg. 1, Cols. 7-8.
Arizona Republic, 7/13/1923; Pg. 1, Col. 1.
Weekly Arizona Miner, 9/13/1878; Pg. 2, Col. 1.
Weekly Arizona Miner, 12/6/1878; Pg. 4, Col. 1.
Weekly Arizona Miner, 2/10/1882; Pg. 3, Col. 8.
Weekly Arizona Miner, 1/8/1896; Pg. 3, Col. 2.
Weekly Journal-Miner, 4/30/1902; Pg. 2, Col. 5.

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