It was Tuesday, May 17, 1910. The weather report predicted a high of 89 degrees with no wind. And the earth was about to pass through the tail of Halley’s Comet on May 18.
Jack Whitney was walking through Downtown Phoenix before 6 a.m. and noticed smoke coming from the basement of the Adams Hotel on the corner of Center (now Central Avenue) and Adams streets. He rushed to the nearest fire box and pulled the alarm. And with that, the greatest fire disaster Phoenix had ever experienced began to unfold.
The Adams Hotel was quite the modern facility when it was originally constructed in 1896. But by 1910, it was showing its age and definitely not fire-proof. It was all wood and highly flammable.
While no one ever determined how the fire started, smoke was first seen coming from underneath the Adams Hotel Pharmacy. That part of the building was used as a storage area for chemicals, drugs and other materials. Spontaneous combustion would’ve probably been the spark, but the means to determine such a cause was not available at the time.
One hundred and fifty guests were in the hotel at the time, but miraculously, no one was killed according to Phoenix Fire Department history. Employees raced to alert everyone so they could make it to safety. Guests recounted that the hallways were filled with dense smoke, but still managed to get out. A couple of enterprising women slid onto a window awning and then into a wagon that was moved into place.
Others managed to get out on ladders, and then walked onto the rooftops of adjoining buildings, generally with just the clothing on their backs. Guests who were more permanent residents took their valuables. Others managed for whatever reason, to grab chairs and then proceed to sit across the street and watch the excitement.
Indeed, the drama of the largest blaze Phoenix had ever seen kept everyone enthralled. The bell announcing the fire pealed out alerting the semi-volunteer Phoenix Fire Department, who rushed to the site. Fire Chief Pete Sullivan led the search to make sure all the rooms were empty. Less than five minutes after the search party cleared the building, it was engulfed in flames and “the whole building became a seething furnace.”
The heat was so extreme that it melted the gold and silver coins in the hotel safe. Of course the paper money had not a chance of survival. Paint blistered on the wood trim of neighboring buildings and some buildings were even singed.
Once the building was engulfed, some embers drifted on the wind that had started to come up, creating the potential of igniting new fires. Fortunately citizens with buckets and hoses stood on the rooftops to prevent such a disaster. If the fire had started that Tuesday afternoon, the entire Phoenix downtown area might have been destroyed, as the winds really picked up.
The destruction of the Adams Hotel exacerbated the hotel accommodation issue, which already was inadequate especially during the busy winter season. Two days after the fire, the mayor and City Council conferred on how to rectify this problem. They agreed that a minimum of 200 more rooms in a fire-proof hotel was essential.
The new fire-proof, five-story Spanish Mission-style hotel reopened Nov. 6, 1911 with 200-rooms — the first day of the Arizona Territorial Fair. It was the talk of the town and the southwest, and absolutely the “splendid realization of a dream,” according to Mr. James C. Adams, the proprietor.
About the author: Donna Reiner loves digging in the old musty files of history, and one of her dreams is to ride in the rear portion of a hook-and-ladder engine while racing to a fire. She is the co-author of three books on Phoenix history.