Jerome burned. And burned and burned. Three years in a row, the town burned, and merchants rebuilt the tents and shacks that sheltered saloons and cathouses. It was a mining town, where men dug furiously by day and drank away the night. Jerome ran on whiskey, dreams and laissez faire capitalism, a shining lie that has a certain appeal if you didn’t ask too many questions, but its limitations became clear each time the town burned.
One fire came on Christmas Eve, 1897, as kids opened presents at the Baptist church and patients at the hospital settled in for the night, according to a local newspaper. The tranquility was shattered by pistol shots, a volley fired as a warning, and people came out to watch, the sky orange with flame. A witness told a local paper he was in a cathouse when the fire broke out. He and a companion saw that one of the whores had passed out as the fire burned, so they carried her outside and laid her in the snow. One bartender offered up free whiskey so it would not go to waste. In other saloons, men helped themselves. A local madam, Jennie Bauters, lost everything.
Two stories have been passed around about how the fire started. In one, a kerosene lamp hanging at a local sporting house broke and fell to the floor. A woman picked it up to pitch it out a window, but missed, and the lamp shattered, spraying the wall with kerosene. The other story is about a lover’s quarrel between a man and his mistress. One of them picked up a lamp and threw it at the other, though the Jerome Mining News discounted that story.
The town rebuilt, then burned again the next year. And the next.
Jerome went through the phases that all Arizona mining towns went through, changing from camp to town to city as women and children arrived, as churches and schools and jails were built, councils were elected and fire districts created, as the reality of laissez faire was found lacking. The councils passed laws and building codes. Merchants built their homes and businesses with stouter stuff, and some of those the buildings still stand, long after the mines have been shuttered.
History is frequently sterilized for mass consumption, and Arizona’s mining towns are no exception. The truth was gritty and messy. Labor was exploited, neighborhoods segregated, women abused. Causes of death included tuberculosis, falling rock, dynamite blasts, gunshot. The town’s charm came after the mines were closed, the buildings abandoned and reclaimed by gentler souls, artists and poets who needed a cheap place to live. Today it’s a nice place to take a stroll, drink wine, and relax.