Cigar Industry & Fires
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..One of the biggest threats to the cigar industry are the fires and many of them during the early years of the new industry created millions of dollars in damages in Tampa and in many others cities, so as the loss of lives. Also force the creation and modernization of the fire control systems in the buildings, the creation of buffer zones between structures and better organized fire departments in both sides of the Hillsborough River, in Tampa. The following are some of the most destructive fires…

Typical fire department in 1880's

The Great Key West fires…

Fire was no stranger in Key West and Key Westers were always vigilant for fire in their mostly wooded city. Recorded in 1843 was the burning of a waterfront warehouse. The simple fire fighting equipment proved almost useless and was thrown into the water in disgust. Again in 1859 the city was tested by flames which took out a small section. One person intentionally blew up his house to make a fire gap.

Then in 1886 a fire destroyed the entire downtown section in the early morning hours of April 1. This was not April fools. The fire started at 2 a.m. in the San Carlos Hall on Duval Street between Fleming and Southard Streets. High winds fanned the flames while an inadequate fire fighting system fought almost

in vain - the primary steam operated fire engine was in New York for repairs. The first two factories to get involved by the flames were Seidenberg Cigar, Co. and “El Principe de Gales” own by V.M. Ybor & Co. Again, blowing up buildings was done, but three people died in the process. Twelve hours later over 50 buildings, one the cigar box manufacturer, and six wharves were destroyed. Four lost their lives. The fire destroy twenty blocks of cigar buildings and homes in the Key West proud cigar district. It left thousands without homes and a place of work. It prompted the exodus of many cigar manufacturers, including Vicente Martinez Ybor, to relocated to Tampa and others to New York and Atlanta .

From this disaster Tampa gain reputation for the best place to relocate, and eleven manufacturers call then Ybor City home, so as hundreds of cigar makers that follow. This was the beginning of Tampa 's competition with Key West as a cigar manufacturing center.

The Great West Tampa Fires…

On April 4, 1904 at 1:15 pm, Robert Mugge's Bowling Alley caught on fire. The building, located on Pine Street near Howard Avenue, was quickly devoured by the hungry flames, and before volunteer firemen arrived with their hoses reels, the blaze had spread to nearby homes and businesses. Across Howard Avenue and west down to Armina Avenue , the racing flames consumed everything in their path, including four factories.

Ybor City under construction, circa 1886


West Tampa fire of 1904

Firemen fought a difficult battle to contain the fire and barely managed to bring it under control. In its wake, two city blocks of cottages, businesses and, factories were reduced to nothing more than smoldering ashes. One hundred and thirty buildings in an area of twenty-five acres had ceased to exist.

Here and there, blackened brick columns rose mark where a porch or door had been. Around the perimeter of the disaster scene, over a thousand WestTampans viewed what had been their homes, and another 800 wondered what they would do without a factory to report to. It was the, West Tampa Fire of 1904”.


The Ybor City Fire…

On the Sunday morning of March 1 st 1908, everything was last usual except that a fire was discovered in a room in a boarding house conducted by Antonio Diaz at 12th Avenue and 20 th Street in Ybor City . When first seen, the flames were breaking from the windows in the second story and spread so rapidly through the frame structure that long before the fire department arrived the entire building was one mass of flames.

From 12 th Avenue and 20 th Street the fire spread to 16 th Street and then to Michigan Avenue (Columbus Drive), where it finally exhausted itself.

“Tampa has suffered the severed blow in all its history. The conflagration which on Sunday morning swept over Ybor City , a hurricane of flame, left desolation in its path – a desolate waste of territory, desolate families in want of bread and, worst of all, desolate hearts that ache in the intensity of their anguish,” (Tampa Tribune, March 3, 1908).

Firefighters arriving at the 1908 fire in Ybor

Over one million dollar's worth of property was destroyed, two thousand people were made homeless, a thousand expert cigar makers were thrown out of employment and the commercial life of Tampa received a serious blow, when the fire swept eighteen blocks of the most thickly populated district of Ybor City.

“An investigation yesterday afternoon failed to confirm the report of a loss of Human life… The disastrous conflagration which visited a densely populated section of Ybor City Sunday morning… raged for four hours, destroying five cigar factories, fifteen restaurants, six saloons, fifteen boarding houses, twenty stores and 240 homes.” (Tampa Morning Tribune, March 3, 1908).

“While Fire Chief Tucker Savage attributes the spread of the Ybor City fire directly to the scarcity of water and the lack of pressure, he also assert that the construction of buildings, and their arrangements without regard for fire protection, had much to do with the disaster”. (Tampa Tribune, March 15, 1908)


The destruction left by the 1908 fire in Ybor City

Years earlier the Davis Brothers fire…in West Tampa...

In 1906, Samuel Davis was joined in the business by his brother Fred, who became a full partner. Renamed the Davis Brothers Cigar, Company, and acquired the old Carlos Fernandez factory at Howard Avenue and State Street in 1909. With two factories in full production, Davis Brothers employed over 600 workers. During the construction completion of a third building in May 10, 1910, it burned to the ground and only the 75 foot tower remained. Five homes near by were burned to the ground also. Damages estimates ranged from $40,000 to $55,000, and insurance coverage was only for $25,000. The cause of this disaster was eventually traced to a careless workman who left a small furnace burning on the wooden roof. Winds scattered the flames and spread the fire over the entire roof and other properties.

Damage building in West Tampa, 1906

Balbin Brothers Cigar Co. fire…

On October 2, 1910, during the cigar makers general strike, the company's factory burned. A policeman saw a figure running from the building just as the fire started.

The damages were estimated at around $35,000 due to damages to the tobacco stock, equipment and part of the building. Investigators blamed the blaze on arsonist, most likely on behalf of the striking workers. This was consider the last big cigar factory fire of the first decade of 1900's.

First National Bank of Tampa destroyed by the fire


Desperation in Ybor City fire...

The 1918 West Tampa Fire...

On April 8, 1918, a fire broke out in an abandoned West Tampa cigar factory. The fire spread along Union, Green, Laurel, and La Salle streets, consuming 102 buildings east of Armina Avenue. Crowds gathered to watch the devastating fire. The damages were estimated in over half million dollars. The photos below are some of the few ones of this West Tampa disaster...

Crowds gathered to see the fire...

West Tampa Fire 1918's


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Reference Source: USF Special Collections -"Tampa Cigar Workers" by Robert. P. Ingalls & Louis A. Perez, Jr.-"Ciudad de Cigars West Tampa" by Armando Mendez - 1994 - Tampa Tribune Achives - "Once Upon a Time in Tampa" - W. Reyes, Ph.D. - 2015


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