Houston's Lost History: Great Fifth Ward Fire of 1912
By H.G. Welch
When you think of disasters and Houston the first thing that comes to mind is of course hurricanes. We don't earthquakes, and being as flat as we are mudslides are impossible. It's the storms we remember, names like Alicia, Allison, and Carla bring back memories of utter destruction and death. But in times past Houston had serious issues dealing with fire. Strong winds and dry seasons can lead to tragedy, and on February 21, 1912 the Fifth Ward burned to ash in just three hours.
Houston in 1912 was a much different city than the sprawling metropolis of concrete and construction today. It's hard to image the city without cars or the enormous freeway system, in the early 20th century the train was king in the Bayou City. The city was just beginning to grow, with a population of over a hundred thousand. Railroad lines from all over the country terminated in Houston, ready to take advantage of the Ship Channel that was being built. Between the port and Houston's already large cotton and rice market, Houston was becoming the shipping hub it is today.
Because of the rapidly increasing population Houston was in the middle of a building boom. Row upon row of new buildings were going up as fast as possible, almost all of them made entirely out of wood. It wasn't as sprawled out as it is now, having only the original six wards. The Fifth Ward was a rough and tumble area, known for its crime and industries. Locals at the time called the the Bucket of Blood, or the Bloody Fifth. Much of the Fifth Ward was devoted to supporting the half dozen railroads that ran through it. Located between the train yards, warehouses and rail stations were numerous bars, hotels and other businesses dedicated to supporting the railroad industry. It was at an abandoned bar called the “Old Mad House” at the corner of Hardy and Opelonsas does this bit of history get started.
February 21st was an especially cold day, coupled with a windstorm bringing gale force winds the city had hunkered down for warmth. In the Old Mad House several transients were doing what they could to stay warm, huddling around an open stove and drinking cheap whiskey. In the middle of the night two of the hobos got into a fight over the bottle of whiskey and in their skirmish they knocked over the stove, spilling the coals onto the wooden floor. The wooden building went up like kindling. Then the winds caught the embers from the burning building and at 2am in the morning Fifth Ward became an inferno.
With the winds from the north measured at 38mph, the fire spread extremely fast. With almost all the buildings made of wood at this time, the ward was soon engulfed. Allie Anderson was the assistant fire chief at the time, he scrambled to get the city mobilized to stop the rapidly moving blaze. He sent men to get the fire chief Reginald “Kid” Ollie back from a fishing trip. Houston had ten fire stations to cover sixteen square miles at the time, but this was not nearly enough. By the time the horses and wagons made it to the fire it was out of control. The firemen would set up their wagons to try and put out a building, only to have the wind carry the embers to the building behind them and start a new fire on the other side of them. With all the roofs made of wood, it didn't take much for the fire to expand.
The fire began to reach critical buildings. The original Saint Patrick's Catholic Church, one of the few brick buildings in the Fifth Ward burned down to the bricks. Ed Weil's Wholesale Liquor House, a warehouse for spirits and wine went up dramatically as the fire reached the alcohol stored within. The fire reached the Southern Pacific rail yard, destroying 125 rail cars. The Star and Crescent Hotel was burned to the ground, followed by the Cleveland Compress Cotton Warehouse. 40,000 bale of cotton went up in flames, a total loss. Thirteen factories were destroyed, as well as eight stores and almost 120 homes. The building would burn to ash, then the high winds would pick up the ashes and embers and blow them to the next building. Quite literally nothing was left where buildings once stood.
The first department did their best, but the blaze was too well fueled and moving so fast nothing seemed to stop it. Anderson suggested using dynamite to create a firebreak, which was a normal tactic in the day. When a flaming roof was torn from a house and blown across the street to set other buildings on fire he realized what a bad idea that was. Men raced from house to house banging on doors to get their neighbors to safety, saving countless lives. The Houston Fire Department finally made its stand at the banks of the Buffalo Bayou. The distance between the banks was thankfully too large for the fire to cross, and Anderson let the fire burn out there. The rest of the city was saved, at the cost of the Fifth Ward. The entire blaze took just three hours to destroyed 1/6 of the city.
Mayor Rice and Kid Ollie surveyed the damage the next day. By some miracle no one was killed, or even seriously injured. Families raced to bring their possessions out of their burning houses, but the high winds blew embers onto the fleeing residents, setting their furniture and possessions ablaze in their front yards. Many sought shelter in the banks of Buffalo Bayou, trying to save what they could. The damage to the Fifth Ward was catastrophic, a blackened swath seven blocks wide and a mile and a half long was gone. Houston came together to help the dispossessed, Rice offered to put up the homeless in the brand new Houston Auditorium. Churches turned their chapels into temporary shelters, while HISD sheltered others in schools.
The Fifth Ward was eventually rebuilt, with help from the private sector and the government. The damages done was equivalent to $160 million in today's dollar, but the city bounced back. Buildings were rebuilt, people moved back and the trains kept rolling. The current Fifth Ward is built literally on the ashes of the old one. Nothing was going to stop Houston's growth, not even in the worst fire in its history.