At 4am, gunshots rang through the dark night, as local townsfolk awoke to a most terrifying sight. A large fire had erupted at the top of Main Street, and the American Hotel was engulfed in uncontrollable flames. Park City’s Sheriff, Thomas Walden, had sounded the alarm with three successive shots, and the whistle at the Marsac Mill quickly notified the nearby mining campsite and homesteaders.
The date was Sunday, June 19, 1898, and with strong winds blowing from the east, the fire quickly spread from building to building and house to house. Since its population surge a decade earlier, Park City had been bustling with men, women, children, and families. The silver, lead, and zinc discovered in the nearby mountains had driven hundreds of prospectors, miners, and camp followers to the small Utah settlement. This influx had raised the city’s population to over 10,000 residents—equivalent to 2020 census numbers. The boom town included boarding houses, saloons, theaters, and stables.
Most of the hastily built structures were made of easily combustible pine. The flames quickly descended upon the crowded buildings and danced easily through the streets. As Parkites scrambled to save what they could, nine-year-old Edna Sutton wrote in her diary, “When we looked out of the window, we saw it was a big fire and not very far off … It kept coming nearer … and folks kept running by and saying one building after another was going.”
The volunteer fire department tried desperately to squash the inferno but their attempts were futile. Within seven hours, three quarters of the town had burned to ashes, causing over one million dollars in damages. The fire, which was the worst in Utah history, burned for several days and left the mining camp demolished. Main Street, where 200 businesses and dwellings had once stood, was nothing but a few lonely walls and stones.
While thankfully, no human lives were lost, numerous animals perished and at least 500 residents were left homeless. One of the most heartbreaking of the losses was the three-month-old Opera House that had been constructed after the local community collected $30,000 in donations for its establishment. Additionally, The Park Record — the city’s weekly newspaper — had burned completely to the ground, destroying all of its editions, archives, and equipment.
The spark had started at the American Hotel but the cause was never quite determined. Newspapers at the time suggested coal oil from the hotel’s kitchen stove triggered the blaze. However, the hotel proprietor thought it was more likely that a drunken guest may have kicked over a lamp.
After the devastation, some of the residents, including the town’s small Chinese community, packed up and left Utah forever. However, most of the miners, townsfolk, and families stayed in the community and vowed to keep going. With grit and gumption, they began the difficult process of cleanup and rebuilding.
Despite, or maybe due to many naysayers and skeptics, Park City was rebuilt and fully functioning within a year and half! City Hall and the popular George Wanning Saloon were among the first to be reconstructed. A theater replaced the Opera House and The Park Record continued to print its pages.
Although smaller fires plagued the rugged mountain settlement every few decades, none were as catastrophic as “The great fire of 1898.” With the mines continually producing silver and other precious ores, the town continued to grow. It stayed busy and thriving through the Great Depression and WWII. Then in the late 1950s, mineral prices dropped drastically low. Miners and their families began to move away and businesses began to close. It looked like Park City may become another forgotten ghost town.
Fortunately though, the strength and tenacity from the prior century had been passed onto a new generation of Parkites. The remaining residents bonded together with the United Park City Mines Company (UPCMC) and came up with an ingenious plan. Through pure will and determination, the townsfolk and the UPMC turned the struggling mining mountain into a functioning ski resort.
On December 21, 1963, Treasure Mountains — known today as Park City Mountain Resort — opened for skiers. Park City officially went from mining town to tourist town. Slowly, the population began to creep back up, businesses returned, and life came back to the area.
Then in 1973, déjà vu struck. Flames were spotted shooting high on Main Street! Fortunately though, and largely due to the newly formed Park City Fire Protection District, the blaze was quickly distinguished and only half a city block was burned. As in 1898, the townsfolk came together to start the restoration process. Although this time, plans for rebuilding sparked a conversation regarding the town’s legacy and preserving the historic character of Park City.
What should the town look like moving forward? Most of the residents hoped to maintain the culture and lifestyle of the area’s mining activity and early ski industry. This would mean that all rehabilitations, restorations and reconstructions must preserve the unique character of the town. Consequently, codes and regulations were implemented to preserve the city for future generations. In 1979, Park City’s Old Town district was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which ensured its architectural and historical integrity.
It’s impossible to say whether another disastrous inferno or economic recession will befall the town. But it can be argued that if a catastrophe does strike, Parkites will once again persevere because the grit and gumption displayed during “the great fire” still burns strong in Park City’s veins.
Images are property of Park City Museum. Used with permission.
Feature Image is of the fire burning Park City’s Main Street in 1898, destroying most of the hastily built structures.