by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education
When Shadow the Arson Dog visited us last month, it got me thinking about times in Fort Collins history when we really could have used an arson dog. Several fires in a single building in Old Town come to mind immediately – the 100 block of W. Mountain Avenue, the Welch Block is Austin’s American Grill today. It is the scene of three suspicious fires in its 130+ year history.
In 1880, L.W. Welch owned and operated a mercantile on the first floor of the building, while the second floor housed apartments where Welch’s family, two employees, and a handful of other people lived, 12 in all (including Dr. Timothy Smith, the physician from Camp Collins who was responsible for inviting Auntie Stone and her husband to come live at the army post). The fire on February 3 was discovered by a passer-by (who later became the victim of Fort Collin’s only documented lynching, but that’s a story for another blog) at about 11 pm. Most people living in the building escaped. Six climbed through the second floor windows while 2 jumped from the store’s front awning All of them survived a 12-foot drop, including Mrs. Jacob Welch, who was cradling her toddler grandchild at the time!
Sadly, two people died: Mr. Welch’s store clerk, 24 year-old A.F. Hopkins, and 20 year-old bookkeeper Tillie Irving. Miss Irving was sleeping in her apartment that night when others warned her to evacuate. She likely died trapped in her room, attempting to put on her corset before leaving. Some people think she must have been vain; some people laugh when they hear the story. I find it a sad testament to the strict etiquette required in Victorian society. Miss Irving, as an unmarried woman, would have been ruined socially had she left her apartment in her nightgown only.
Newspaper accounts from the time reported that the police suspected arson. One of the victims, Mr. Hopkins, was found, partially burned, in the store. A common theory of town residents held that Hopkins may have heard a burglar in the store and went from his upstairs apartment to the first floor to investigate. There, the burglar killed him and then set the store on fire to cover his tracks. Miss Irving’s remains were also discovered on the first floor, although it is believed that she fell through the floor from her upstairs apartment during the fire.
Just imagine, if the volunteer fire department at the time had a Shadow! They could have determined if the fire was set intentionally. Maybe they could have found justice for A. F. Hopkins and Tillie Irving.
As a side note, the Welch block had two other fires in its history, both suspicious and both considered to have been likely caused by arson.
You can learn more about the Welch Block fire at the Fort Collins Local History Archive.