Harmon’s Histories: Suspicious fires destroy Butte boarding houses; ‘firebug’ never caught
It was described as the “largest and most elegantly appointed boarding house in the Northwest.”
Butte’s Hale House, constructed in 1895, offered nearly 200 rooms “for the busy toilers of the great copper camp.”
The Anaconda Standard newspaper described it as modern in every way, constructed of brick and stone, with “everything to make it complete in drainage, light, heat and ventilation.” It included “spacious halls, a good library well supplied with books, and all the leading magazines and dailies, free for the use of the guests.”
The great kitchen, reported the newspaper, contained “every device for convenience and cleanliness ... and the immense dining room is a model of neatness.”
Opening night at the Hale House was a great social affair. “A special train of 640 people from Anaconda, accompanied by a 27-piece band, arrived in Butte at 9:30 P. M.” on September 18, 1895 for the gala event.
The band led the throng from the railway station to the boarding house on the southwest corner of Broadway and Ohio streets in a lively parade, then provided the dance music until 3:30 in the morning when the hundreds at Anacondans re-boarded their train for the return trip to Anaconda.
Peter Hale, the man behind the project, was described as “big, generous, (and) noble-minded.”
But this story does not have a happy ending.
As happened so often in the 1800s, in the early morning hours of March 21, 1898, a fire broke out in the building.
It spread with “such incredible rapidity” that night clerk Jack “Boxey” Dooley, returning to the main floor after a tour of the building, found “flames had reached the main floor and were climbing up the second story while stifling smoke filled the entire building.”
Dooley yelled to bartender Jack White, “For God’s sake, turn in an alarm; the house is on fire.” By then, the fire could be seen from some distance, with citizens quickly pulling alarm boxes in three locations in the neighborhood.
The majority of lodgers were able to get out quickly, but “only partially clothed” and having left their possessions behind. “Scores found egress cut off by the advancing flames.”
The Daily Missoulian reported, “When the firemen arrived, fully 60 men were still in the upper stories of the doomed building. The scene was frightful! Faces appeared at many of the windows, and now and then someone, despairing of rescue, would jump to the ground.”
Butte Fire Chief Flannery ordered his crews to concentrate on saving lives rather than fighting the fire.
That wasn’t easy, with panicking guests. Chief Flannery was “tackled by a madman while going along the hall on the upper floor. ... It became necessary to throw the man down and hold him until he could be brought to his senses (and taken) to a fire escape.” Amazingly, only four people lost their lives that night.
Within days, another boarding house (the Mullins House) was destroyed by fire. Peter McIsaacs was unlucky enough to have been in both fires, having just relocated from the Hale House to the Mullins House. Awaking to the smoke at the Mullins fire, “terror seized him when he remembered his (earlier) experience.”
Just as in the case of the earlier fire, Mullins House guests “lost their heads and rushed up and down the halls, passed the stairways without seeing them, knocking one another down, pitching trunks out of the windows and only delaying one another’s progress.”
Fire Chief Flannery and many others became convinced both fires were the work of an arsonist. Flannery said, “I cannot see how it is possible that either of these fires could have started otherwise than being set.”
Patrick Mullins, the proprietor of the Mullins House, agreed, saying there were no combustibles within 30 feet of where the fire originated.
The Butte City Council called for a hearing into the fire and the performance of the fire department after some folks criticized Chief Flannery’s decision to hold off fighting the fire until the building had been searched and guests assisted out.
Flannery and others insisted that turning on the hoses immediately would have “created steam and generated gases” which would have harmed both the guests and the rescuers.
Mayor Harrington and Alderman Melcher pelted the chief with questions: Was there an adequate water supply, were firemen experienced in handling the extension ladder, was the fire chief familiar with the building layout, did he know where the bakery was, was his department weak, too small?
The mayor also took on the police department, complaining that Captain Dawson’s officers just stood around in their warm fur coats. That set off a fiery exchange between the two. “If Tom Walsh could have done more with his fur coat off than he did with it on,” said Captain Dawson, “he would have been a hell of a good worker.”
The mayor, in a “reproving tone,” said, “Well, it's fact we want to get at.” Captain Dawson shot back, “Well, the police did good work.”
In the end, no arsonist was ever identified or prosecuted, the insurance company paid out $40,000, and plans were soon announced to rebuild the hotel – even bigger this time, with 233 bedrooms.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.