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Previous fires in Ybor helped shape building of Tampa area

The vast fire that consumed two blocks in Ybor City on Friday seems sure to have repercussions on Tampa's effort to redevelop the historic district. If so, it would join other fires in Ybor City that had far-reaching effects.

Two long-ago blazes there, for example, shaped the future of the young city of Tampa.

On Nov. 12, 1891, a fire that began in a faulty flue at Aurelio Restaurant on Seventh Avenue destroyed several blocks of Ybor City.

Tampa's small volunteer fire department was overwhelmed, says historian Canter Brown Jr., and thwarted by ill luck.

The watchman trying to sound the city's new electrical alarm system couldn't open the alarm box because his key didn't fit. A police officer climbed the alarm box poll and beat on the bell with a ball peen hammer. A general alarm couldn't rally the city because wires had been disconnected to move a fire bell tower.

Fire crews were crippled when the privately owned water company couldn't meet demand.

As a result of that fire, brick factories and businesses, and tin-roofed houses, began appearing in Ybor City, and Tampa made its fire department full-time professionals in 1894.

Ybor City's greatest horror was the March 1, 1908, fire that was caused by, most likely, a careless cigarette at the Antonio Diaz boardinghouse at 1914 12th Ave., the site of the branch post office that was destroyed in Friday's fire.

Due to confusion, firefighters didn't arrive for 45 minutes.

Then fire companies tried blocking the fire with dynamite blasts. Residents who tried saving possessions by piling them in the street only provided fodder for a fire that destroyed 171 homes and 42 business over 18{ blocks.

Again, water was lacking. The private Tampa Waterworks "cut the water pressure because they felt they couldn't meet the demands of its paying customers," Brown said.

Tampa had learned its lesson. Most new business construction was of brick, the city took over the water system, and the first brick, free-standing station house _ No. 1 at 720 Zack St., soon to become home of the city's fire museum _ was built.

"The growth of Tampa as civic entity is tied with the improvement of its fire department," said Dr. Judi Breuggeman, special assistant to the fire chief who is spearheading the museum.

On Tuesday, an exhibit by Lynn Homan and Tom Reilly called "Florida Burns, 1890-1920" opened at the Tampa Bay History Center.

On July 1, the exhibit moves to the Ybor City State Museum. Friday's fire stopped just across Palm Avenue from the museum.

"We came as close as you can come," said Melinda Chavez, executive director of the Ybor City Museum Society. "If the wind had come from the north, we wouldn't be here."

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