By Tim Leeds
In 1904, Havre was young and growing, having begun 13 years earlier when James J. Hill brought his railroad through. The frontier town was a collection of wood-framed buildings far below modern fire codes housing businesses and people who had settled near the new Great Northern Railway train station.
Then fire - a common problem in frontier towns - struck. And struck again. And again, and again. The string of fires, at least three of which appeared to be arson-caused, changed the form of Havre, some of which can still be seen from First Street.
Historian Gary Wilson, who has researched the fires using Havre Plaindealer and other newspaper accounts, said it was commonly accepted that arson was the cause.
"There was evidence," he said, adding that the firefighting equipment was sabotaged before one fire started, and another, which had evidence of being fueled by flammable liquids, started while most of the town's volunteer fire department was in Lewistown at a convention.
The first fire, which burned during a strong chinook wind in the early morning of Jan. 14, 1904, was apparently started by some disgruntled former patrons of the Bank Saloon, located on First Street between Second and Third avenues.
Havre police officer George Bickle saw the suspects standing at the rear of Gross and Lebert's Store, adjacent to the Bank Saloon, watching the fire in its early stages, the Plaindealer reported.
Meanwhile, E.C. Carruth, manager of the Havre Hotel, and Florial Carnal, who owned an insurance agency, had met Havre Hotel owner Eric Hauser when he arrived on the Great Northern Railway about 1 a.m., and the three smelled smoke at the intersection of First Street and Third Avenue as they walked toward the hotel, located where the Town Square now is.
When the trio heard the cry of "fire!" Carruth ran to Charley Carroll's Saloon, on the block where U.S. Bank now stands, and telephoned the town power plant to blow its whistle and alert the town, Wilson said.
Most of the town responded to fight the fire, but the people were ill-equipped for the fight. The firefighters got out Havre's hand-drawn portable pump and 500 feet of hose, and attached hoses to the town well, where U.S. Bank now is, the power house, where the Elks Club now is, Havre Laundry, behind the Havre Hotel, and the railroad's water tanks.
But the town well was filled with garbage and its pump soon ran dry. The blaze spread to the entire north half of the block, south of First Street. Other businesses on the block included the Broadwater-Pepin Co., the Mint Saloon, a grocery store and a jewelry store.
The strong, warm southwest winds fanned the fire and carrying burning wood and shingles from building to building.
Finally, with bucket brigades and people using wet blankets joining the firefighters, the tide turned. After three hours of firefighting, and dousing the block north of First Street with water from the railroad to keep it safe from fire, the flames appeared to be stopped.
People continued to patrol the area, while the chinook wind had been replaced with a bitterly cold northwest wind, and continued to stir the ashes and blow hot embers into the air. Some volunteer firefighters continued to spray water into the buildings across First Street.
With the fire apparently over, most of the firefighters headed to bed, many in the Havre Hotel, with some celebration in the saloon first, Wilson said.
Henry Stringfellow, concerned that the fire would jump across Third Avenue, had taken all of the merchandise out of his drugstore, located in the southeast corner at First Street and Third Avenue, where Town Square is now. When the flames appeared to be out, Stringfellow took his merchandise back into his store.
Later, a clerk at Stringfellow's store went into the basement to check on some items, only to find a thick cloud of smoke - the smoldering fire had started again, on the east side of Third Avenue.
The fire quickly spread to consume the entire north half of the block, including the Havre Hotel, a $30,000 building with 60 rooms built in 1901, the Gussenhoven Building, which held the Montana Supply Co. and a steam laundry in the back, Hub Clothing, and a bowling alley.
The fire then crossed to the north side of the street, consuming businesses between Third and Fourth avenues, including Frank A. Buttrey's The Fair, Lucke and Mund's Store, Thackeray's Bakery, the Buffalo Saloon and the Metropolitan Hotel.
The fire also crossed east, burning part of the block where Creative Leisure now sits between Fourth and Fifth avenues. That block was mostly residential, Wilson said.
Again, Great Northern's water tanks saved part of the town, wetting down the north half of the block between Third and Fourth avenues, next to Main Street. Businesses on that block included the Plaindealer, Judd's Cafe and Newman's Lunch Counter.
The only structures still standing in the fire-stricken areas of First Street between Second and Fourth avenues were a business vault, the chimney of the Havre Hotel, and Security State Bank, which now houses KXEI Christian Broadcasting System - the only building constructed with thick fire walls, Wilson said.
Havre police attempted to stop looting that began in the aftermath of the fire, but the looting died down once reinforcements arrived. Fort Assinniboine, located 6 miles south of the fledgling town, sent 40 soldiers to help patrol the area.
The Plaindealer and "Grits, Guts and Gusto" report that business owners didn't take the destruction lying down. Businesses moved into temporary locations - every available building housed two and sometimes more businesses - and the business owners planned their reopening in new locations.
"They had all stated an intention to start on new buildings," said a 1938 newspaper article commemorating the fire, which was reprinted in "Grits, Guts and Gusto."
Buttrey moved The Fair to a livery stable on the west side of Third Avenue between Second and Third streets. He liked the location enough to later build his new store there - the building now known as the Atrium.
Other businesses relocated to the building that now houses the Elks Club, and Havre Laundry relocated to the corner of Second Avenue and First Street, where it still is today. Wilson said companies reopened in any structure that could hold them.
But fire soon returned, wiping out most of the businesses that withstood the first fire.
On Sept. 3, 1905, a fire started on the south side of Main Street between Second and Third avenues, where U.S. Bank now stands. The Plaindealer reports the fire was started in or near Judd's Cafe using flammable liquids. Most of the volunteer fire department was in Lewistown at a convention.
That fire burned down the northern half of the block, and was followed by a fire on Sept. 20, 1905, that burned down the southern half next to First Street. That fire was apparently started using kindling made from a shack in the alley. The fire hose in the alley was cut before the fire was started.
Later, another fire - cause unknown - started on the southern half of the block that was the first to burn in the 1904 fire, now the site of Bear Paw Credit Union.
By then, the city was taking action. Insurance companies had threatened to decline issuing policies in the town, and the City Council required new buildings be built according to fire codes. On Dec. 13, 1905, the council created a full-time fire department.
The buildings started going up quickly - the new Pepin-Broadwater building, which now houses the Havre Eagles Club, was dedicated in 1906.
Wilson said he believes much of the material for the buildings - some may have been imported from Great Falls or Lewistown - came from the brick factory owned by Joseph Gussenhoven Sr., whose building burned down in the first fire. Gussenhoven operated the brick factory until 1910.