Fire alarm draws crowds

Nothing like a fire to draw crowds!

Just when you think people would be staying far away, and just when the men fighting the fire need room to work, that’s when the crowds show up.

That’s something I saw was a universal problem as I was putting together Bisbee Burns: The City’s Most Destructive Fires and the Creation of a Fire Department.

Back in 1908, the Bisbee Fire Department discovered that it wasn’t wise to use the fire bell to summon firemen, because a crowd would gather around the station so quickly that the engine would have to move slowly or risk running own bystanders. Instead, it used the whistle, which was also used for other purposes, such as requesting more hose, so it was more generally ignored by the public.

Fires and fire engines draw crowds

Whenever they come out, fire engines and the fires they attend will draw crowds. This photo if from New Orleans (Canal Street) in 1900 and shows an early steam-powered fire engine. The crowd just naturally congregated.

During the fire on Chihuahua Hill in 1907, there was so much excitement among the residents, the newspaper reported, that several time officers had to draw their sidearms and order people back to give the firemen the opportunity to work.

Three decades later, during the fire which destroyed the Phelps Dodge Mercantile store, it was the fire itself that encouraged the hordes of onlookers to move back. Walls crumbled, plate glass windows shattered and ammunition started to crackle, enough clues, perhaps, for even the densest gawkers.

The story of Bisbee’s major fires provides a fascinating look at the community in its heyday, at a time when it was still booming and just learning how to take care of itself.

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