The Fire Walk Script, 2nd Stop: 900 Block of Ryan Street
And back to the day, that fateful day, the 23rd of April. It was a Saturday, a working day for most people. Men worked at the mills or for the railroad, or toiled in shops and forges, warehouses, in the fields, or rarely, in offices. Women maintained households, doing laundry, cleaning, sewing, or perhaps shopping for the Sunday dinner. A few women operated their own shops and stores. Children would help their families by harvesting vegetables, greens, and strawberries from family gardens, or they would perform other necessary chores both inside and outside. For working children, and there were many, the day meant running errands and delivering messages, helping in a shop, or working for a blacksmith or a livery stable, or most dangerously at a sawmill or woodworking shop.
For the few who worked a half-day or indeed, had the entire day off, they might have taken one of the trolleys to Barbe's Pleasure Pier or to Walnut Grove to enjoy the day. An electric railway ran right down Ryan Street and onto South Ryan, to end at Lake Street where one could fish or swim, or just hold hands at the water's edge. They might have chosen to visit friends or family, or perhaps to pack a picnic to enjoy at Orange Grove Cemetery. A lucky few might have chosen to take a short train excursion to Welsh or Jennings, or to Orange, Texas and marvel at trains that raced at up to 50 miles per hour.
And the story goes, about 3:40 in the afternoon, a sunny, windy and hot April 23rd in 1910, Horton Porter, owner of Blaske's Soft Drink Stand or as it was more commonly known The Old Opera House Saloon, and a young boy named Chaffin who ran errands for Gunn's Bookstore next door noticed a small trash fire behind the Williams Opera House. The young boy immediately began to throw water to quench the flame and Horton Porter ran to the fire department. According to the American Press of the day, Luther Sudduth, the fire chief, himself led the first fire wagon to the scene.
Within 15 minutes the fire was fanned by the gale force winds off the lake and the Opera House was engulfed by burning embers. Wooden outbuildings, fences and scrub trees were ignited as well. The Opera House had been built of heart pine which is rich in pitch and tar and the floors of the Opera House, like most wooden floors of the era, were regularly oiled and waxed to keep them clean. Buildings were densely connected and had common walls. Some buildings were linked by wooden banquettes and awnings. Most had shingled roofs. All this dry wood, along with the strong winds made fighting the fire a dangerous and difficult task.
The Opera House was soon a furnace. The American Press reported that the firefighters and volunteers directed four streams of water on the blaze which came down as steam from the intense heat. A black billowing cloud of smoke rose from the flames and blowing embers crackled down on adjacent buildings on both sides of the 900 block of Ryan Street. The fire ignited the Catholic Church then a wooden structure. Soon the rectory, convent and school on the east side of Ryan blazed as well.
Additional fire hoses and pumps were brought in from the sawmills and more men volunteered to try to fight off the flames. The Opera House had nearly exploded in a torrent of embers. The shower of embers leapt North Court Street to land on the window casings of the courthouse. Fire fighters scrambled to both fight the expanding fire, to evacuate the buildings. Parish employees tried to save the records and furniture, however most records both criminal and civil were destroyed by flame.
Within hours the wind had spread the inferno from its start in the 900 block of Ryan to as far north as Division Street, as far south as Clarence and as far east as Kirkman. One hundred and nine buildings were destroyed by the flames. Over one hundred families were displaced. The New York Times reported that the fire made 5,000 people homeless and destroyed some four million dollars worth of real estate. To give you some idea of the value in today's money: a well-appointed three bedroom house cost under two thousand dollars, and a gallon of gasoline cost 7 (seven) cents.
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