Summary: Rose McNair gives Dan De Quille an interview after Virginia City’s great fire. A “What Happened Elsewhere” for The Night Virginia City Died, written for Cheaux’s “Mother of all Challenges,” April 2015.
Rated: K WC:2500
The Longest Night
The night of the fire, I wasn’t at my hotel. I was halfway across town at a meeting of the Merchants’ Association.
Well, Mr. De Quille, I’m sorry all those people are willing to swear they saw me at McNair’s. I wasn’t there. I haven’t missed a meeting of the Merchant’s Association since Sam from the Silver Dollar wrangled me a membership by promising the others I would keep their minutes for them. The Association’s secretary isn’t allowed to miss a meeting. And once we heard the alarms sound…well, after that there was no going anywhere except where the firemen said we were needed.
That’s right, we were over at the International House when the bells started ringing. It didn’t take the firemen to tell us the west side of B Street wasn’t going to be saved, but for a while we still thought we might keep the fire from crossing over, even with the wind behind it. B Street’s so wide you’d expect that’d be enough of a gap. I remember thinking that at least with the new city water supply the firemen would have all the water they needed. Of course, that was right at the beginning, before we found out what we were up against.
Yes, I know there were problems hooking up the pumping-engines, but honestly, even if they’d been working at full pressure, I don’t know that they ever had much chance of stopping that fire. There was just so much of it, and the wind always pressing it east. If only that wind had ever eased up, so the fire could have been pushed back on itself, maybe that would have done the trick. But it just went on blowing, and blowing….
We gave up on B Street, and made a stand at C Street for a while, and after that on D Street. The firemen had us hanging wet blankets everywhere to try and catch the blowing sparks–there was plenty of water for that, at least–but between the wind and the heat they kept drying out again as fast as we got things wet. The best we could do was slow the fire down enough that people had time to escape it…only of course no one ever would just go. They kept trying to pull their furniture out into the streets…even things like pianos, or heavy baskets full of china and whatnot. They’d pile it all up some place that seemed safe, and go back to get more–but they never did find a safe place. Nowhere was safe…and then there were the ones who got trapped inside, upstairs. I think the firemen managed to get them all out; everyone I knew of, anyway. And at least there were mattresses enough for them to jump onto, or blankets we could stretch out to catch them. There was that.
No, I didn’t hear about the man at Ash’s bookstore who was throwing toys out of the window right up till the roof fell in on him. We were way far north of Taylor Street, being pushed downhill towards the Opera House and the railway depots, and what was right around us was all we had attention for. Same reason I didn’t know anything about poor Miss Lund, Clem Foster’s pretty fiancée–at least, I didn’t know at the time. Why people would stay inside a burning building makes no sense to me, unless maybe they thought brick buildings wouldn’t really burn…I do know that back when Black’s and Marte’s buildings were being constructed, everyone said they were going to be fireproof. Don’t think we didn’t enjoy guessing how much extra rent they charged because of that, Mr. De Quille!
Yes, well, in the end it turned out the brick buildings burned just as well as the wooden ones…I guess there was too much wood inside, the floors and the window frames and that. And of course they were also the tallest buildings, so whenever fire got up into one of those high roofs, it was like kindling a brand-new giant torch to start another wave of burning. By the time the Opera House caught the firemen knew they’d better blow it up before the flames got into the rafters, but even so that place burned like…well, like everything else was burning. Only more so. Or maybe it just seemed that way at the time. That was still before the fire got to the railway depots, you see. We’d forgotten how much timber was over by the tracks, ready to be taken to the mines. And stores of coal and oil for the train engines, I suppose. And of course by then we were also getting awfully close to the mines themselves–the Ophir’s and Consolidated’s hoisting works, and the big stamping-mills, and even more stacks of timber. No one had thought the fire would get that far…no one. And it still didn’t seem like there was any way to stop it.
Whoever was in charge at those hoisting works really ought to be given medals, or a parade, or something. They hadn’t just brought everyone safely out of the mines; at the Consolidated they blocked off the mineshaft with a bulkhead and were filling it over with dirt, and at the Ophir the cages were sent down into the mine after all the men were up, and they were piling in waste rock and rubble on top. Anything to keep the flames from getting down the shafts to all that square-set timbering inside. How many years did it take for the fire at the Yellow Jacket to finish burning itself out? No one wanted that again.
There wasn’t much to do for anything above ground, of course, or all the stockpiled timber…I mean, we tried; the good Lord knows how hard we tried. But it all burned, every stick of it, and what didn’t burn got melted. And bad as losing the hoisting works was, there was worse…worst of all, I think, was watching that brand new stamping-mill burn. Even more than the mines, I always thought the mills seemed to be…well, what Virginia City was all about, I suppose. The place our wealth took shape. There’d been so much fuss when that last one had been finished, with people coming from all over to see the grand building and its fine new machinery. Better than the Ophir’s mill, or the Gould and Curry’s, they said it would be…well, it’s gone now, and the Ophir’s mill with it, for that matter. And even though the mines stayed safe, without the hoisting works no one’s going to be getting into them again very soon.
I can’t stop wondering how the miners and the mill workers are going to manage now they won’t be earning wages, or how many of them lost their homes as well as their work. I suppose the ones without families will just pick up and go somewhere else, but what about the rest of them? What are we all going to do?
I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to be so…thank you, just let me blow my nose. I know we’re just going to have to build it over again. I know we’ll find a way. It’s just that right now it’s so hard to see anything but what’s been lost. You know what I mean, I’m sure; I know the Territorial’s offices were in the Black building, right by Ash’s Books and Toys.
Anyway, that was how the night ended for us, watching helpless while the heart of the Big Bonanza crumbled into dust and ashes.
It took us a time to realize that for all the blaze around us, and the noise and the wind that it made, nothing new was catching fire. It took a longer time to recognize that we weren’t looking up at clouds of smoke lit from the fire, but clouds of…well, cloud, and the first hints of daylight behind them. It took longest of all to notice that it was snowing, but with everything else that was settling down from the sky onto us, flakes of soot and scraps of paper and all sorts of feathery charred debris, that wasn’t so remarkable. I don’t know when the snow had begun; I suppose for a time the heat of the fire had been melting it, or even turning it into steam. I do remember how, as we made our weary way back up Carson Street, carefully skirting around what had burned, the falling snowflakes hissed as they landed on the hot embers.
In the growing light and the relative calm we began to notice things we hadn’t during the night. Several of the livery-stables had burned so quickly that horses had been trapped inside to die. That was horrible to think about, but I’m ashamed to say that their smell only made me feel hungry. I was still with poor Sam–he’d been trying to look out for me, but I’d been looking out for him even more, because he really was in no condition to be fighting fires at all. Walking up the mountain we had to keep stopping so he could catch his breath, and one of those times a cat came up to me, its tail burned bare as a rat’s. It let me pick it up and stroke it for a moment, but once I began walking again it pushed itself out of my arms and ran off.
We got to C Street just at dawn, and I’ll never forget what I saw on Sam’s face when we did. His saloon wasn’t as fancy as places like the Sazerac Club, but it was one of the oldest businesses in town and he’d always been proud of it…and now you couldn’t even guess where it had been. Honestly, it would have been hard to guess where C Street was without the people still running up and down it. Fortunately one of those people turned out to be Cosmo, the Silver Dollar’s second bartender, so I could leave Sam with him and see to my own worries. I’d lost my wrap somewhere during the night and broken the heel off one of my boots, and the higher the sun got the colder I felt–not the way it usually is. Finally I just took the boots off and walked on in my stocking feet, trying to avoid the worst of the slush. I probably looked just as befuddled as Sam had, to tell the truth. No courthouse left, none of the grand assembly-halls, and off to the south only shells of what had been the city’s finest churches and newest commercial buildings. Straight ahead you couldn’t see anything but the ruins of the Black and Marte buildings; nothing anywhere except wreckage and rubble.
And then at last I limped past those half-collapsed walls of brick and discovered what lay beyond; found my hotel, scorched and smudged with soot but all in one piece, with Pinkie, my head cook, offering hot food and coffee to anyone that asked….
I don’t think I’ll ever see anything that looks so beautiful again.
No, it was none of my doing, and I certainly wouldn’t call it a miracle–that would be like saying we should all turn Presbyterian right now because the Presbyterian church was the biggest one that didn’t burn. There was plenty of luck and a lot of hard work behind McNair’s surviving–and I’m sure being so close to the Marte building helped; it may not have been fireproof but it did keep plenty of sparks from blowing any farther down the street. But mostly it was Pinkie’s determination, and the rest of my staff, and especially Mrs. Hawkins–yes, Mrs. Clementine Hawkins. She’d taken up residence at McNair’s after her boarding-house burned along with the Odd Fellows’ Hall back last summer. When I asked why she’d fought so hard to save my hotel she just laughed and said she wasn’t going to lose two homes in one year, thank you kindly.
Of course I’m very proud of them, and grateful, and…and humbled that my hotel meant so much to them all. And horrified at the risk they ran for it. If I’d been there I think I would have shooed us all out once the Marte building was burning, so maybe it’s just as well I wasn’t–as things turned out. Because right then, before anywhere else knew about the fire or could be sending us food and blankets and clothes like we’ve gotten from Carson City and Reno and San Francisco…right then our coffee and scrambled eggs were just what everyone needed. Seemed like most of the town wound up outside McNair’s, exchanging stories and asking after friends, and finding out who had someplace to go for the night. Sam and Cosmo came along in a little while, Sam looking almost himself again. Seems Cosmo had remembered the Silver Dollar’s cellars connected up to the workings of Sam’s original stake, so he took a few things down there and dug a big hole for them, and…no, of course he didn’t hit a new bonanza lode, Mr. De Quille! This is real life, not one of your Mark Twain’s tall tales…but he’d saved the cash box, and Sam’s precious music box, and the best whiskey–even a cask of French brandy Sam had stored up for “the right moment,” which he seems to be reckoning has come. All they’ll have to do is dig it out again, once they know where to dig, that is. Meantime they were both happy enough drinking Pinkie’s coffee.
And the Cartwrights were all there–well, Ben and Joe, anyway. They made Ben get up and give a speech, and he started by reminding us how it had been back in ’59, when things were just getting started and Annie O’Toole had the only proper stove on the Washoe. There’d been nothing here but a handful of tents, and everyone complaining about all the sticky blue clay that made it so hard to dig for gold. That got the crowd laughing and cheerful again…yes, well, that blue clay was our silver, you see, and once people found out how much of it there was Virginia City never looked back. And there was still half a mountain’s worth of sticky blue clay underneath us, Ben said, and what we’d built in the first place we could build even better a second time, because we still had each other. You could hear the change in how people were talking after that, louder and more hopeful-sounding, and a lot of them scraped their plates clean and got up to see how they could get started on our new city.
So that’s my story, Mr. De Quille. I hope it helps you write up your account–or at least that it’s not too disappointing after all the rumors! And while it’s very kind of you to call me a second Julia Bulette, I do beg you won’t put that in your newspaper. I have to think of my hotel’s reputation, after all, you understand.