Washoe Zephyr fanned Renos fiery destruction
Historically, fire was always enemy number-one and a constant danger to many early western communities. Wooden buildings, wind-prone locations, and the lack of spark arresters on crude potbelly stoves often combined to generate catastrophic fires. Truckee looks the way it does today because fire has swept through its downtown district on several occasions, each time destroying buildings from an earlier era and forcing new construction. Major fires swept through Truckees residential and commercials districts in 1868, 1871, 1875, 1881, and again in 1883, each time changing the face and architecture of this pioneer mountain community. Truckee may have had its share of damaging fires, but compared to the Great Reno Fire of March 2, 1879, the town can consider itself fortunate. Like Truckee, Reno is located in a wind-prone area. The phrase Washoe Zephyr that Mark Twain made famous in his book Roughing It, was coined for the strong local wind that blows down the east canyons of the Sierra Nevada. Not only did the Washoe Zephyr wreak havoc with miners tents and cabins on the Comstock, as soon as the first Catholic Church was built in Virginia City, it was torn from its foundation and smashed to kindling by this devilish wind.
Early on the morning of March 2, 1879, the Zephyr was blowing harder in Reno than any resident ever remembered. It was difficult to even stand up against it the gale force wind. At 5:55 a.m. that Sunday morning, the citys fire alarms erupted in warning. Immediately, a dread came over the citizens of Reno. It was everyones worst nightmare to fight a fire in such a wind. Sparks flying from a poorly constructed stovepipe had set some stacked wood on fire behind the Railroad Hotel near Sierra Street and Commercial Row. Mrs. Ann Hogan was the first to see the fire. She ran to her back yard where a barrel of wash water stood near the burning wood. But either through excitement or weakness, the elderly woman was unable to lift it. She yelled, fire! fire! until her sons arrived, but realizing they couldnt stop the rapidly spreading flames, they ran to the firehouse and rang the emergency bell to wake the sleeping community and call them to action. Minutes later hundreds of bleary-eyed citizens were rushing to the scene, but by then the wind had fueled the small blaze into an inferno. Soon another hotel on Commercial Row had flames licking at the roof. Women as well as children helped with bucket brigades and even the ostracized Chinese and American Indians manned the hand-pumped engines. Unfortunately, before even one bucket of water was thrown on the blaze, the Reno Lumber Yard on the other side of town was catching fire from wind-blown sparks. Pushed by the powerful wind, the wall of fire raced across the city. Firemen on the scene brought their hoses so close to the flames that their hair was burned. But the gale force winds blew the water into a worthless spray before it reached the buildings. Renos fire chief was knocked unconscious by a falling board, but his men needed no order to fight this blaze. It was a battle of desperation.
The howling wind fed the flames and scattered burning cinders throughout the city. It quickly became clear that the town was doomed, so residents ran to save what few personal things could grab from their homes and businesses. The firemen remained at their posts and could only pray that their own houses might be saved. Blowing out of the southwest, the fierce wind spread destruction to the northeast of Reno. Burning embers were blown out to James Sullivans ranch, nearly three miles away. Haystacks, outbuildings and barns caught fire; it was all the ranch hands could do to keep the main residence from burning down. During the peak of the firestorm, burning shingles and other fragments were blown onto the sides of buildings. The sheer force of the wind held the glowing embers there until a hole was burned through the side of a structure and it was set on fire. Passengers arriving on Central Pacific Railroads morning express stared out the windows at the huge clouds of smoke and flames from miles away. As the trains got closer to Reno, the fires roar and loud shouting among the fleeing citizens brought to mind scenes from Dantes Inferno. The firestorm burned through wood, brick and iron at will. So-called fireproof buildings withered under the fiery assault. The thick walls and iron doors absorbed so much heat that the merchandise inside burst into flames. Most businesses were a total loss. Banks, pharmacies, law offices, saloons and hotels were gutted. The railroad yards were also lost in the conflagration. The flames spread so quickly many homeowners escaped with only the clothes on their back.
The heroic exertions by the battalions of firefighters managed to save a few of the citys landmarks. The Baptist Church, Masonic Temple and the Odd Fellows building were only slightly damaged. It wasnt long before help arrived from Renos neighbors. Men and equipment from Truckee, Boca, Virginia City, and Carson City came by train, wagon or horseback and joined in the epic battle. Women brought cooked food, blankets, clothing and condolences. By sunset the fire in Reno was out. There was little left to burn.The devastation was very swift and nearly total. Five lives were lost. Ten square blocks were smoking ruins. Hundreds of homes and scores of businesses were in ashes. Total damages exceeded $1 million, but only about 25 percent of the property was insured. Despite the tremendous losses, the rebuilding of Reno began the very next day. The ashes had barely cooled before they were shoveled away and new foundations built. The Nevada Legislature introduced a bill appropriating $10,000 to aid the homeless. It was on the governors desk and signed into law in 20 minutes. Over the next few months, Nevadas Biggest Little City rose like a Phoenix from the ashes. The town has never looked back. Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears monthly in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” and “Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2” are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.