The buildings of Idaho City were heated by stoves and fireplaces and lit by candles and lanterns. All those open flames were ready to snatch a dry curtain or a splash of grease from a frying pan. Everyone who lived there did their best to keep the smoke contained. Still, fires from heating and cooking were quietly coating the insides of cabins and commercial buildings with creosote, making them even more explosive.
On the 18th of May, 1865, residents of Boise noticed a glow from the northeast one evening. Speculation was that it was either Idaho City or Placerville burning. Early the following day, word started coming from businessmen arriving in Boise that it was Idaho City in ashes.
A few minutes before ten in the evening, the alarm spread that a fire had started on the second floor of a hurdy-gurdy dance hall and leaped to the rear of the City Hotel.
“The flames spread with the most astonishing rapidity,” according to the Idaho Statesman. “The town was composed of buildings made exclusively of pine inch boards, and in some cases shakes, covered with cotton lining and paper, to which was added the usual coating of lamp smoke so that it burned almost like a train of powder.”
The mining town had experienced a rash of small fires preceding the big blaze. This was viewed with suspicion since “As soon as the alarm became general, thousands of men could be seen running in all directions with one or two sacks of flour, a box of candles, a bundle of clothing, or anything that suited them.”
A witness remarked that “it was stealing on the grandest scale ever he dreamed of.”
The thieves were loosely organized. One or two hundred of them would gather store contents in a pile away from the burning town, appearing to help the merchants. Then, on a signal, they grabbed whatever they could and lit out.
Every hotel in the city was destroyed, along with most of the stores. Some merchants had fireproof cellars so they could quickly get back to business. By the next day, vendors were clearing away rubble so that a new town could spring up from the ashes.
The vibrant little city began to bustle again only to see a reprise of the disaster in May 1867, two years to the day from the first Idaho City fire.
The Hook and Ladder Company rolled out at noon on the report of flames in the roof of Cody’s saloon.
Despite the efforts of the firefighters and heroic citizens, every building on both sides of Main Street burned down, as did those for blocks around. The courthouse, Masonic Hall, the Catholic church, and the newspaper office were all gone. In addition, dozens of buildings burned, including Heineman and Issacs Bros bricks, touted for their fireproof properties.
Three days later, the Idaho Statesman reported that “as we go to press, all over the burnt district lumber for new buildings is to be seen, houses are rapidly going up, and the genuine “nil desperandum” determination of the brave-souled people is on every side and in every way admirably manifested.”
Better buildings went up after the second fire in two years. Several other fires broke out in succeeding decades but were contained to a building or two, leaving the bulk of Idaho City a place where one can see and touch the history of mining even today.