Major Fires

The 1859 Fire

On May 16, 1859, at half-past one in the morning, Key West suffered its first major fire. It began in L.M. Shafer’s  dry goods store on Front Street near Duval. The fire quickly spread next door to William Wall’s cigar factory, the first on the island, established in the early 1830’s, then to a nearby commission house and a ship chandlery, which were only 8 or 10 feet apart.


The early volunteer fire department had disbanded in 1848, leaving no organized city fire department and no fire engine. Firefighting was left to the military.


The fire spread from one building to another with such rapidity that water buckets could not control the raging flames, which invaded rear sheds stored with cotton and lumber, fueling the flame on their destructive path to the saloons of Papy, Almeda, Molina, and Mulrenan, whose alcohol added more fuel to the fire.


Packer and Clark’s warehouses  Front Street  were reduced heaps of burnt timber in no time. Further down Front Street, fire consumed  the stone building occupied by the U.S. District Court; offices of the U.S. Marshal, of an agent of Underwriters, and of Judge Bethel; a warehouse and stables; the office of James Filor; City Hall;, and Market House. The fire crossed Duval Street to the warehouses and offices of O’Hara & Wells along and to R.P. Campbell’s Book Store.


Crossing Front Street, fire devastated Bowne and Curry’s building and all the stores on the block, with the exception of Mr. Boyle’s alley and dwelling. The fire recrossed Duval Street to the Exchange, totally destroying the Russell House, the Post Office, and Alhambra’s eating house.


Flames leaped to Mr. Randolph’s dwelling and other houses on both sides of Front Street. The fire was finally controlled by using gunpowder to blow up Judge Douglas’s dwelling and by pulling down a series of structures: Mr. Mulrenan’s dwelling, small houses opposite; and, northward and eastward, the old Key West House. Pulling down houses was a method used in those days to create a fire break.  Attaching large hooks and chains to the windows of the structure, they could pull down the house using a horse-drawn wagon or manpower if there were enough people around.


Captain Brannan and his men blew up Clark’s Bakery and four large wooden buildings. The Customs House and a large amount of property was saved by the well-directed efforts of the Collector and his boat hands, assisted by the crew of the Relief with Commander Perry. Despite concerted efforts by the military and civilians, the fire consumed the whole front of the city of Key West, except A.F. Tift’s warehouses and office.


Approximately 18 acres were reduced to ashes, which included 71 stores and dwellings and 40 outbuildings, valued at  $260,000. The fire was said to be incendiary, but that was never proved. Fortunately, no lives were lost or injuries sustained as a result of the fire.   

The Great Fire of 1886

In 1886, the cigar industry made Key West one of the most prosperous seaport cities in America. Thousands of Cuban immigrants lived in Key West and worked in its cigar factories.


The San Carlos Institute on Duval Street was the center for revolutionary activities against Spain. The Spanish government often protested to the US government about the Cuban workers’ donating a portion of their monthly salary to support the Cuban insurgents. Spain’s protests were generally ignored.


It was theorized that the Spanish devised a plan to disrupt the support of the revolution by the Key West cigar workers  without incriminating Spain. The perfect opportunity arose, when the city’s only steam fire engine was sent to New York for repairs, leaving the city with no backup engine. Just a day later, on March 30, 1886, while the steam engine was still on a ship headed for New York, fire broke out.


It started, suspiciously, in a café next to the San Carlos. With only hand pumpers and limited sources of water from wells and cisterns, the all-volunteer fire department led by Chief B.F.H. Bowers was helpless to prevent a  conflagration.  Fire leaped to adjacent buildings, destroying the San Carlos and other buildings in less than an hour.


Consuming every building from Fleming Street to Smith Lane (now Appleroth Lane) to Whitehead Street, the fire also crossed over to Bahama Street and headed down the east sides of Fleming and Duval Streets towards St. Paul’s Church. The church, constructed of wood frame with high ceilings and open porticos, succumbed rapidlyto the fire. The inferno’s heat was so intense that after the fire the large cast bronze bell was discovered in the rubble with a large crack down the middle.


Destroying everthing in its  northeasterly path towards Simonton and Eaton Streets, the fire threatened the Methodist Church and the home of United States Marshal Peter Williams at 613 Eaton Street (now the Donkey Milk House). A trail of gunpowder to the neighbor’s house was laid and lit; the neighbor’s house exploded, sending plumes of smoke in all directions and almost instantly snuffing the flames. Unfortunately, the fire continued to devour almost every structure on both sides of the 300 block of Simonton Street, including the homes of John J Delaney and Joseph Brown, and the newly opened shop of Cuban photographer Andres Estevez , who was known as Jose Marti’s favorite photographer.


The holocaust reached the Richard Kemp House (the present day Cypress Hous) was now at the corner of Caroline and Simonton Streets. At the same time, the fire swept west on Caroline and east towards Elizabeth Street, engulfing the Patterson House and the Arapian residence across the street. On this same block of Caroline Street, Alice Curry and her husband John Owen Boyle were burned to death in their home.


The fire hurled down Elizabeth Street to the water’s edge, where it ran out of buildings to burn. Heading north on Simonton Street the fire  reached the Samuel Seidenberg cigar factory, which comprised four two-story buildings, each approximately 150 feet long, consuming them like match sticks. Across the street, the U.S. Bonded Tobacco warehouse on Greene Street (presently Key West Hand Print Fabrics), containing over a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of tobacco stock, would soon be burned.


Along Greene Street the fire leveled Cayetano Soria’s and Samuel Filer’s cigar factories, two sponge warehouses, and a lumber yard. Behind the Seidenberg factory, a large cigar factory and tobacco warehouse owned by Samuel Wolf, and two sponge warehouses and two cigar factories owned by John Lowe, Jr. were  destroyed. Along Simonton to Front Street  every building burned.


The fire then headed west on Front Street to Ann Street, then turned south down Ann, destroying the Pino, Navarro, Canal, Angulo and Perez cigar factories. It reached City Hall, Fire House No. 1, another of William Curry’s cigar factories, and the residence of John Lowe, Sr., destroying them all. The fire veered west down Front Street, razing Don Martinez Ybor’s “fireproof” cigar factory and all his tobacco stock. It stopped only at the harbor’s water.


By noon, the fire reverted to Duval Street. Heading South, it demolished everything on both sides of the street: the Russell House, two factories of William B. Kerr, the auction houses of A.E. Curry, the post office, the express office, Maslin’s Bakery, Otto’s Drug Store, A.J. Brooks’s dwelling, L.W. Pierce’s store, A. Soriol’s store, W.S. Cash’s store, and many others.


After sweeping down both side’s of Front Street up to the Naval Depot and Clinton Square, the wind-blown fire burned Reynold’s cigar factory on the North side and the Barrancos’ cigar factory on the South side. The Naval Depot at Clinton Square contained a stationary pump, which saved that part of the island.


The great fire had raged out of control for 12 hours and destroyed more than 200 buildings over two thirds of the business district, approximately 50 acres. The fire temporarily crippled the island’s cigar industry, destroying 16 large cigar factories and many smaller cigar operations, putting thousands of cigar workers out of work.


Immediately the Spanish were blamed because they gained the most by the fire. It was reported that a body was discovered in the rubble after the fire next to the San Carlos and that it was the work of Spanish agents. Another report stated that the fire was reported in the Havana newspaper days before its occurrence. The next morning Spanish gunboats arrived in the Key West harbor, ready to pick up any cigar workers who wished to return to Cuba.  All these events made the Spanish look guilty.


A second theory was that the U.S. tobacco industry had envied Key West’s success for years and so had hired professional arsonists to carry out their plan. With the Key West cigar industry out of the way, American tobacco could gain control of the multi-million dollar market, and, besides, Spanish agents would be blamed for the fire anyway.


A third and far-fetched theory was that Cuban anarchists started the blaze to gain International support for their cause against Spain, and that, again, Spain would probably be blamed.


None of these accusations was ever proved.


Seven fatalities and 15 injuries were attributed to the fire. Many of the injuries were blistering burns, caused byflashing gunpowder. The great fire caused damages of $1,500,000. It affected everyone on the island.

The White Street Fire of 1923

After the distribution of free cigarettes to American soldiers during World War 1, the new popularity of cigarettes and cheaper machine-made cigars started the steady decline of the cigar industry. Three once prosperous cigar companies -- Ruy Lopez, Nichols, and  Cortez – had shut down and abandoned the structure on the corner of Newton and White Streets. In 1922 the Cortez factory became the last to close its doors.


The large two-story wooden structure now had become an enormous fire hazard and it was just a matter of time before it met its demise. On March 20, 1923 at 3:20 a.m., the once thriving factory turned into a massive wall of flames. When the fire was discovered flames were already shooting out of the second story windows. Upon the arrival of the fire apparatus from Stations 1 & 3 the entire rear portion of the old factory was afire and the front was engulfed in flame.


Both engines first fire turned their water streams on the rear end of the building. The winds were so strong that sparks and flying embers had ignited the wood-shingled roof of a two story building occupied by a grocery store on the other side of Newton Street, and that soon was burning. Despite valiant efforts to restrict the fire to the cigar factory, it was now turning into a conflagration, and a general alarm was ordered by Chief Pinder. The water supply gave out temporarily and the fire spread to the bungalows facing the factory on the southeastern side. The blaze then spread to White Street, jumping from one cottage to another by way of wood-shingled roofs. The fire stream in this area was very weak. The fire department was experiencing water pressure problems early in the fire because three powerful engines were pumping from hydrants connected to the same six-inch main. The engines had to be moved around one hooked up as far as North Beach (now Eisenhower Drive). By now a dozen cottages were ablaze and the fire was burning out of control.    


Ten bells calling on the Army and Navy for assistance was ordered at 4 a.m. but wire trouble with the telegraph alarm system kept message from being received. So Chief Pinder made a speedy run to the naval station. Apparatus from both the Army and Navy responded and set up their perimeters on Georgia and Newton Street. At 4:15 a.m. sparks ignited the two-story structure belonging to Charley Maloney on the corner of Petronia and White Streets. The fire department feared that the fire would reach Olivia Street. The engine pumping at the corner of White and Southard Street next to the Armory was moved to a large well on Packer and Olivia Streets. Thus 1,600 feet of hose was laid to White Street from Packer Street, and the stream of water was directed on a small cottage owned by the Hyman estate. The flames were checked at this point on White Street, preventing the fire from advancing to Olivia Street. The fire was now headed down Petronia Street towards Ashe Street. There at the corner of Ashe Street 12-year-old L.T. Curry, whose father was secretary of the fire department, manned one of the hoses with the firemen. They succeeded in stopping the fire from crossing Ashe Street. Mr. Curry said that people were taking furniture out of their houses and stacking it in the middle of the street; even a piano was taken out of the house across the street from his on Ashe Street. Many of the neighbors carried their belongings to the city cemetery, hoping that the fire would not reach that area.


The flames from the two-story building occupied by Diaz Grocery on Newton and White Street also ignited the large three-story residence at 719 White Street owned by the Romaguera family and was heading towards Petronia Street. The fire finally reached the 1200 block of Petronia Street on the north side, destroying all the homes except for Police Chief Whitmore Gardner’s house located at 1221 Petronia Street. That house still stands today. On Newton Street, the military’s apparatus checked the fire at Georgia Street but not until all the cottages and a vacant three-story building at 1218 Newton Street once occupied by the A. Arnao cigar factory, were destroyed. All of these structures were located on the South side of the 1200 block of Newton Street. The Army and Navy apparatus prevented the fire from crossing beyond Georgia Street and further into the Meadows.        


The fire burned out of control for 5 to 6 hours, when suddenly the wind died down and the firemen could control the blaze. Fours grocery stores, a dry good store, a meat market, and a cigar factory were included in the 43 to 50 structures destroyed by the fire. Eight more homes were damaged by the blaze that ravaged the area bounded by Petronia, Newton, Georgia, and Ashe Streets. The fire had  destroyed both sides of the 700 block of White Street, leaving 160 people homeless, and caused $125,000 dollars in damages The fire affected people of various heritages and levels of income. No human fatalities were reported, but there was a horse killed in its stable belonging to merchant Harry Tausher at 720 White Street. A few injuries were sustained during the fire: Fire Chief Ralph Pinder and one of his men J. Quinn suffered burns to the face, arms and hands trying to save 700 feet of hose. Two other firemen, M. Archer and R. Lewin,  were overcome with extreme heat.