Nineteenth-century prairie fires were awesome and awful. They were one of Mother Nature’s events that completely mesmerized me during my research for The Deadliest Woman in the West. Before settlers broke the prairie, there was an immense carpet of grass from Canada to the Rio Grande and bordered on the east by the Mississippi River and on the west by the Rocky Mountains.
When the frost killed this grass every fall, prairie fires flared to life from a lightening strike, a mismanaged campfire, or a careless smoker. Once started they could destroy frontier towns, settlers’ cabins, buffalo herds, and any luckless animals or humans who were caught in its path. Driven by a strong wind they could travel faster than the fastest horse, jump creeks and rivers, and burn for weeks.
The cemetery at Fort Riley, Kansas, experienced a prairie fire that destroyed all the wooden grave markers and today there is a section of the post’s cemetery where the remains of unknown persons rest. The XIT ranch, as well as others, had thousands of wooden fence posts destroyed by prairie fires every season.
There is one item that fell victim to prairie fires that I didn’t encounter in my initial research: telegraph poles. Because of prairie fires, iron telegraph poles were put in use near Fort Reno, I.T.
References: Stan Hoig, Fort Reno, 125; Rod Beemer, The Deadliest Woman in the West, Chapter 4.