Back When … The Downtown Conroe Fire of 1911
Many of the buildings in downtown Conroe are just over 100 years old due to a devastating fire on Feb. 21, 1911 that destroyed most of the buildings downtown. They were comprised of wood, a readily available commodity, but unfortunately a fire hazard. The city’s leaders were determined to quickly began rebuilding structures out of brick that still stand today.
Previously, a fire in 1901 destroyed numerous wooden structures in the original town of Conroe, which had begun in the northeast quadrant where two railroad tracks intersected. The downtown area relocated after the 1901 fire to the northwest quadrant. Montgomery County built its courthouse and jail out of brick there. The Conroe Hotel Avenue Z (today Pacific Street) and the Banks Griffith & Son bank building were also constructed of brick.
Businesses were constructed out of wood, including The Corner Drug Store, Capitol Drug Store, the Post Office, Madeley Meat Market, Exchange Saloon, various attorney offices and residences above the businesses. These wood structures crowded against each other along Chambers (today North Main) and Simonton streets.
Aware that the buildings were too crowded, the City Council began discussions on establishing “Fire Limits” in December 1910. Concern became a reality around 1:30 a.m, Feb. 21, 1911, when a fire began in the Capitol Drug Store, a wooden structure located on Chambers Street across the street from the brick Courthouse.
When the fire was discovered, an immediate alarm — the boiler-fueled whistle at the Santa Fe roundhouse — went out to citizens and the volunteer fire department, which had a two-wheeled hose cart that was pulled by hand. The fire hose was immediately set up, but a lack of water pressure caused the firefight to be abandoned.
A sense of panic spread through the town as desperate business owners worked to empty their wooden buildings. Northerly winds swept the majority of the fire southward along Chambers Street to Simonton Street where the fire migrated eastward toward the I&GN railroad tracks. Fire embers blown across Simonton Street spread the fire southward to the Santa Fe Railroad tracks, sparing most of the Conroe Hotel constructed of brick with a flat wood roof. Men were on top of the roof of the hotel putting out the fire with
The fire did not impact the nearby Conroe Depot, which ironically burned in 1981. Businesses to the north of the Capitol Drug Store building also caught fire, basically causing the demise of that entire block of wood structures. Estimated total loss from the fire in 1911 costs was $150,000. Losses included 65 buildings, mercantile inventories and personal belongings. Much of the loss was covered by insurance except for five buildings owned by G. F. Crooke.
The “Fire Limits” ordinance was adopted on February 23, 1911. It required wood buildings to have fire-proof materials cladding within one year. The ordinance was amended in March 1912 for buildings to be constructed of brick or stone.
The day after the fire, salvaged inventories were for sale on the County Courthouse square and along the railroad tracks. Nick and Kate Carnochan lost their restaurant and home, but were back in business within a few days using tents erected on wood floors. Their restaurant was aptly called “The Phoenix;” it was the first business to rise from the ashes.
By February 1912, 20 businesses had reopened in brick buildings. More businesses were to come. The little town of Conroe was beginning to flourish with new brick business buildings and industry.
The 1911 fire in downtown Conroe and the prompt response to its destruction by Conroe residents shows the resilience of Texans as they settled, struggled and prospered in southeast Texas. Despite the tragedy, the resurrection of stately brick business buildings provides current visitors with a picture of a bygone era. These buildings have been preserved to reflect a period in the 1910s of Texas architecture in a concentrated four-block area of downtown Conroe.
The Montgomery County Historical Commission provides the content for this page.
For information on the commission and its efforts, visit montgomerycountyhistoricalcommission.com.