June 27, 2021

1888: Prescott's Great Fire Before the Great Fire

Many familiar with Prescott history are aware of the Great Fire, which occurred July 14, 1900 and destroyed Whiskey Row. However, twelve years earlier, there was another great fire which wiped out Cortez Street.

It all started with an ill-fated plan to blow the safe at TW Otis’ store. The burglars entered the establishment, under the cover of darkness, shortly after midnight July 1st and planted some dynamite around the store’s safe. Concerned that the noise from the blast would sound an alarm, the would-be thieves covered the safe with burlap gunny-sacks. They then lit the fuse and scurried out of the building to avoid injury.

But when the blast occurred, it produced an explosion so loud, that the thieves ran away before reentering the building. “Several parties heard an explosion between 12 and 1AM,” the Weekly Journal-Miner reported, but no one investigated. 

Had the thieves returned, they would have found “the door of [the] safe was blown from its hinges, and was lying a short distance in front of it.” They would have also noticed that the explosion caused the gunny sacks to begin to smolder. They also would have found an expensive gold watch inside the safe; ready for the taking. Instead, it would later be found melted from the shear heat of the impending conflagration.

It was over two hours later before anyone noticed the start of the disaster. “The fire was first discovered about 3AM, in the rear of TW Otis’ store, and it had already made great headway, although it had not yet broken out on the outside,” the paper reported. “An immense volume of smoke was pouring forth from every crack and crevice of the building, as well as from the one adjoining it.”

The blaze already had a large head start, and it would grow worse. “The fire department responded promptly to the alarm, and the Toughs [hose team] soon had a stream on it,” the paper described, “but owing to a section of their hose bursting, it caused considerable delay, and by the time the two companies were ready for action again, the fire had gained such headway that it was beyond their control.” 

A messenger was sent to Whipple Barracks to call on every able-bodied man to come help fight the blaze. “It was evident from the first that the entire block was doomed, unless desperate means were resorted to,” the paper said. One of those desperate measures included blowing-up buildings to try to create a fire line. “A small building in the rear of Otis’ store was first blown up…but it did not prevent the flames from spreading to the two residences adjoining it, which were both destroyed.”

“While the fire was licking up everything inflammable east of where it started on Union Street,” the paper related, “it was making rapid headway to the north along Cortez St., and the bank building seemed to be doomed.” A whopping 25 pounds of giant powder was placed in a building owned by Nathan Ellis “and when exploded, the building seemed to rise for a second and then collapsed.” Houses four miles away on Willow Creek suffered shattered glass due to this blast. Another structure behind the bank was also leveled.

ALSO ENJOY: 1889: Three Arsons in One Evening

Story of how Prescott's "Great Fire" nearly happened a decade earlier, in November, 1889.

At this point, the heat from the conflagration had grown extraordinarily. The bank’s iron doors had become red-hot, and the application of water caused them to warp and twist allowing the flames to reach inside. “At one time it seemed as though nothing could prevent [the fire] from crossing Gurley St. to the buildings opposite,” the paper related. The bank did suffer damage, but ultimately it was saved.

However, while the bank was being concentrated on, the “fire demon” had been busy elsewhere. It had climbed up the hill on Union Street destroying three buildings as well as a residence facing Marina Street. With the extra man-power from Whipple, the fire chief was able to send a group to that area that was successful in saving the office/residence of Dr. Pentland.

The conflagration managed to hop past Union Street and destroyed all the buildings on Cortez as it headed toward Goodwyn Street. There, a heroic stand was taken by firefighters. The heat was so intense, that blankets were saturated with water and wrapped over the firefighters to offer a slight degree of protection. Despite the broad fire line of the street itself, the wood siding on the Goldwater’s store caught fire several times and had to be addressed immediately. The building survived, but suffered charring on its exterior.

Finally the fire was contained. In all fifteen buildings were turned into ashes, but the disaster was stopped at Gurley and Goodwin. Only two business owners carried fire insurance. The bank received $500 toward their loss of $2000 ($56K today). George Porter was foresighted enough to hold $700 in fire insurance, but his losses were ten times that amount. TC Bray lost his store, residence, his faithful dog, and suffered the most damage at $12,000 ($336K today.) TW Otis lost $8000 ($224K today). The total of all the damage reached $40,000-$50,000 ($1.1-$1.4 MIL today.)

Despite the disaster and loss, Cortez Street would bounce back quickly. The next morning workers were already clearing the debris. Before a week had passed, George Porter reopened his establishment “under the Prescott Opera House.” Seven weeks after the fire, he was moving into his new residence. 

Also within a week, TW Otis had reopened on Cortez “two doors north of the postoffice.” The following week he was “burning bricks” to reconstruct his two-story establishment on the former site which would contain a new basement, an elevator, and a time capsule in the foundation. The new, grand mercantile was opened in early spring, 1889.

Ellis ended up selling his lot to a law firm for $600. TC Bray was back open in time for Christmas, but died a year later.

The people of Prescott were greatly appreciative of the work of the firefighters that fateful night. Many of them were injured during the battle. However, in just twelve short years, Prescott would suffer a worse fire that destroyed Whiskey Row and more, July 1, 1900.

For more information about the 1900 Great Fire, the author suggests the brand new book by Brad Courtney: “The Whiskey Row Fire of 1900.”



Drew's book is now available with coauthor Brad Courtney!

Available in paperback and Kindle!


Paperback: $21.99

Kindle ebook $12.99 

CLICK HERE for Amazon (PB or Kindle)


Also available at:

Western Heritage Center, 156.5 Montezuma (Whiskey Row)


And everywhere Prescott history books are sold!


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Weekly Journal-Miner, 7/4/1888; Pg. 3, Col. 5-6.

Weekly Journal-Miner, 7/11/1888; Pg. 3, Col. 2.

Weekly Journal-Miner, 8/22/1888; Pg. 3, Col. 1.

Weekly Journal-Miner, 12/19/1888; Pg. 3, Col. 2.

Weekly Journal-Miner, 7/11/1888; Pg. 3, Col. 1.

Weekly Journal-Miner, 10/10/1888; Pg. 3, Col. 3.

Weekly Journal-Miner, 1/16/1889; Pg. 4, Col. 1.

Weekly Journal-Miner, 12/25/1889; Pg. 4, Col. 5.

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