by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO — Fire may be one of man’s best friends, but it is also an age-old enemy.
The first major fire reported in Huerfano County was a July 1887 newspaper article from the Denver area noting “La Veta suffered from a $10,000 fire last week.” While a $10,000 fire seems dubious for the little frontier village, there must have been an incident to cause the story.
Walsenburg’s first recorded disastrous fire occurred in 1903. By this time the town had been built up and offered many stores and services.
The town may have escaped earlier blazes because people sensibly built with adobe, but in September fire started in the back of the Walsenburg Yucca newspaper office (a predecessor to the Huerfano World Journal), at Sixth and Main, and continued into Lidle’s meat market, Mr. Newlove’s tin shop, Alp Chatin’s paint shop, Martin’s barber shop and a dwelling.
Damage was slight at the meat market, which had a water well in the back, and to the Klein Hotel just to the east, but Victor Jackson, editor and publisher of the Yucca, reportedly lost “everything.” Damages were estimated to have been between $5,000 and $6,000, which was a great deal of money back in 1903.
No sooner had some of the buildings at the site been rebuilt and outfitted for new owners when a second fire started at Sixth and Main streets in March 1908. Two saloons, both frame, were destroyed along with their contents and fixtures. The fire was retarded on the north by the big brick Klein building, but the sparks flew all around and when the threat reached Houser’s livery stable, the horses were turned loose. Within a week bids were being advertised to rebuild, but this time with brick.
Walsenburg had an active fire department organized in 1899 when Dr. T.D. Baird was mayor. Baird “got a fire alarm whistle to replace the old bell. It is a sure screamer and could wake the dead,” according to the Walsenburg World. So, while the fire department was alerted and ready, the town was not. Walsenburg did not have a municipal water system until 1904, and this fire may have been the impetus to get that system completed and in use.
Through the ensuing years the city has had a number of devastating fires, not the least of which was the burning of the Walsenburg High School gym in the summer of 1974 by arsonists. Add that to the conflagrations that destroyed the popular Little Pig Inn aka The Villa restaurant on Walsen Avenue in December 1969, the Pritchard Lumberyard (part of which was brick) on Fifth Street opposite the courthouse in May 1981 (considered to be a $750,000 loss), the Candlelight Inn at the corner of Seventh and Main in 1987 (a $½ million loss), the Black and White Grocery at 601 Main in 1988, and the Victoria Hotel, 717 Main, in 1997, it is easy to see that fire remains a very real concern in downtown Walsenburg.
Whether or not La Veta endured a $10,000 fire in 1887, she has had a history of losing structures from the earliest days. The 100 block of West Ryus was especially hard hit, with a 1908 blaze destroying the Edmisten Livery and the Olympia Saloon next door (the saloon was rebuilt with stone, the livery was not), which also damaged the Stranger building, the 1942 incident that burned down the town’s only theater, the Rialto (which was not insured), the 1944 disaster that burned the historic Spanish Peaks or La Veta Hotel, and the 1970 blaze that destroyed the large Park Lane Hotel.
La Veta’s volunteer fire department dated back to the 1880s at least. The volunteers and town ordered the fire bell, now on display at Francisco Fort Museum, in 1905, and it sounded a certain number of bongs depending on which part of town the fire was in. It was also used to mark curfew times. In 1931 the bell was replaced with a siren and the local editor noted it was “not the same” and that the old days were passing.
La Veta, too, was hampered in the early days by a lack of water. The town also installed its water system in 1904, by which time the fire department had some 400 feet of hose, though the hose cart was called a “man killer.” The cart was still in use as late as 1917 when the La Veta Town Board spent money to buy coats, helmets and another 600 feet of hose instead of a truck.
Main Street was less fire prone than Ryus Avenue because in 1907 the town board passed an ordinance banning frame structures and calling for modern, safer chimneys in the “downtown” blocks. Older buildings, however, were exempt from this ruling and many of the structures on Ryus were older than those on Main, many of which were built between 1908 and 1912.
Other notable fires occurred, such as the complete destruction of the excelsior mill on the hill west of town. Excelsior was made from aspen trees, and in addition to the factory, the company also operated a box factory and sawmill. Fires in this material were common, we could assume, since the factory burned in May 1942, September 1943, April 1948 and, finally, in July 1955.
Not so flammable was the big stone store on the corner of Francisco and Main streets. In 1937, E.C. Stream was operating the general store when it caught fire and demolished the interior. It took six weeks to clean and restock the store.
Nor has Cuchara escaped from these disasters. Many of the early cabins fell victim to fires caused by overheated woodstoves and chimneys, but most of those were the old cottages built of wood and lined with pine slabs.
The popular gathering place, the Chuck Wagon, part eatery and part community hall that was built in 1949, burned to the ground in September 1974. In July 1994, the Cuchara Lodge Chalet, which predated the Chuck Wagon by 15 years, was leveled by fire. The grocery store just feet away was saved.
If Colorado residents learned nothing from this past summer’s destruction in Colorado Springs, shame on them.